Thinking Ahead and Tackling the College Activities Lists

Student hand holding a pen while looking at papers on a desk

When a college application is ready to submit, it’s the result of months of work creating and shaping puzzle pieces that perfectly fit together. The piece I consider critical to the resulting picture is the activities list. This part of the application offers students the opportunity to showcase how the activities chosen in high school developed skills, passion, commitment, and leadership. Many students discount the importance of this section and dive headfirst into essays. I insist that the students I work with complete both lists first because their potential essays evolve from the activities, not vice versa. In this blog post, we explore tips for creating a strong activities list that will help you stand out from the crowd.

Understand the Purpose of the Activities List

The activities list is where you tell the colleges and universities you’re applying to how you spent your time during high school outside of your classes and homework requirements. That’s it. And yes, whether you’re admitted will depend on the strength of your activities and what they say about you (both explicitly and implied)! In my opinion, the strength of your extracurricular activities depends on two factors: time management and motivation (to play a sport, attend long rehearsals, and show up for meetings). There may be other factors, such as having a parent who insists you get a part-time job or who signs you up for volunteering events. But ultimately, the collection of activities listed on your applications will be a reflection of who you are. For college admissions teams, it tells them about who you will be – and how you’ll stay involved – on a college campus. 

The majority of students I work with complete two lists – one for the Common Application and one for the UC Application. Most non-California public schools use the Common App. Last year, one of my students received admission into the University of Alabama, which required its own version of an activities list in the supplemental section. She took the items from her Common App and re-edited them for the Alabama supplemental response. 

Differences Between the University of California and Common Application Activities Lists

For the UC App, you get 20 items. On the Common App, you get only ten spots plus an additional five for academic honors and awards. An academic honor is listed by level: school, regional/state, national, and international. Most students have school-level awards but there are also art awards at the regional level, robotics wins at the state level, and AP Scholar Awards which are national, to give a few examples. Sports-related awards are described under Club or JV/Varsity of the Common App. 

On both applications, you’ll have a drop-down menu to categorize each extracurricular activity you choose to list. Looking through these menus is also a great way to get younger high school students thinking about how they want to represent themselves on a future college application. The UC menu option is straightforward, with six broad categories to select from:

  • Educational preparation programs
  • Extracurricular activities
  • Other coursework
  • Volunteering / Community service
  • Work experience

Awards or honors may include exceptional athletic awards. The “other coursework” category is for classes that don’t fall under the A-G academic requirements (history, English, mathematics, science, language other than English, visual and performing arts, and college-preparatory electives). Educational preparation programs could be a summer camp in computer programming, a school-based program like AVID, or anything organized that you’ve participated in to prepare for college or a future career. An hour at a career fair doesn’t count, but a full weekend program would. Some students join Toastmasters in high school (a public speaking club) and I would put that under educational preparation. 

The Common Application asks you to assign an “Activity Type” from a more extensive drop-down menu. The categories include:

  • Academic
  • Art
  • Athletics: Club
  • Athletics: JV/Varsity
  • Career-Oriented
  • Community Service (Volunteer)
  • Computer/Technology
  • Cultural
  • Dance
  • Debate/Speech
  • Environmental
  • Family Responsibilities
  • Foreign Exchange
  • Journalism/Publication
  • Junior R.O.T.C.
  • LGBT
  • Music: Instrumental
  • Music: Vocal
  • Religious
  • Research
  • Robotics
  • School Spirit
  • Science/Math
  • Student Gov.t./Politics
  • Theater/Drama
  • Work (paid)
  • Other Club/Activity

Writing the activity items depends on the application as well. The UC activities list allows for a longer description (350 characters) so you can use complete, though tightly written, sentences. The Common App allows only 150 characters so those full-sentence descriptions from the UC list get truncated down to abbreviated sentences starting with active verbs. For example:

UC style activities list sentence: I choreographed and taught a dance routine to nine peers for our school’s jubilee. (82 characters)

Common App activities list sentence: Choreographed jubilee routine & taught 9 dancers. (49 characters)

If you were unable to participate in on-campus activities due to external commitments such as work or family responsibilities, don’t worry. Whatever you spent your time doing, as long as it was productive, will be of value. Holding a job and helping family members, even babysitting siblings after school, demonstrates positive character traits and that you’ve developed positive habits. Ultimately, admissions teams want to know that you will be a productive member of their campus community.

Prioritize Quality Over Quantity

Admissions committees are looking for students who have made a significant impact in a few areas, rather than those who have dabbled in many different activities without committing to any of them. Therefore, it’s better to focus on quality over quantity when selecting which activities to develop in high school. You will indicate how many years you spent in each activity plus the number of weeks and hours per week. It’s important that you have items on your list that you committed to for more than one year at a time. For incoming high school students, I advise them to try things freshman year, find what they like, and then stick with those even as they add other activities along the way. Students who don’t get around to trying things until the end of sophomore year or junior year miss the chance to show commitment and growth in that area over time.

I had one student surprised they could only list 10 items on the Common App because they’d spent high school collecting experiences for the college application. This student still had 5-6 really solid, multi-year involvement activities, but also another 12-15 one-off activities (a day, a weekend, or a summer camp). Unfortunately, some activity items had to be cut. It’s important to understand that an activities list is not a laundry list of everything you’ve ever done outside of class. Instead, it represents a curated (carefully selected) presentation of your most important activities. One of my students made item #10 on the Common App about her passion for baking cookies and cakes for friends, teachers, and neighbors. It was an important part of her identity, a consistent use of her time, and therefore a good reflection of her personality and character. One of her short response supplemental essays focused on a family tradition of cooking and baking and how continuing that tradition kept her feel connected to her grandparents, especially a grandmother who was deceased. It was a feel-good essay.

Be Specific and Concrete: Action-Oriented Verbs and Measurable Results

When describing your activities, use strong verbs and action-oriented language. For example, instead of saying that you “helped” with a project, be more specific about how you helped. Anything current is in the present tense, and past items are in the past tense. Perhaps you “led”, “coordinated”, “negotiated”, or “organized” an event.  Active verbs help you stand out because instead of being vague (where I really don’t know what you did), they are specific. I can see you leading a meeting, writing a newsletter, coordinating a meeting of 50 students, etc.  

When describing your activities, provide specific details to quantify the impact of your efforts. I want to know about HOW you made a difference. For example, instead of stating that you were a member of the robotics club, explain if you designed, built, or programmed the robot that took first place at regionals against 26 teams. This kind of concrete information brings your activities to life. 

At the end of this blog post is a link to a video I recommend by the College Essay Guy about “up-leveling” the activities list by adding action verbs and specific detail. 

Highlight Leadership and Initiative

Admissions committees are looking for how you’ve demonstrated leadership skills and taken initiative in your activities. These kinds of accomplishments demonstrate that you are a self-starter who sees the big picture and works well with others. Showing leadership in high school is a great sign you’ll be proactive on campus and make a positive impact on your community.

How can you get more leadership experience on your application? Well, leadership typically comes with staying in the same group over time and rising to a position of respect and influence, like senior patrol leader in scouting or senior class president in ASB. Here are other ways to step into leadership:

  • Get out of your comfort zone and start volunteering
  • Ask if a club or group needs help getting organized or planning an event
  • At the beginning of the school year, start a club at your high school
  • Work with younger students (you’re automatically a leader to them)
  • Join ASB (student council) and run for something 

Keep Track of You Community Service and Volunteer Hours

On the activities lists, you’ll either group your volunteer hours together or separate them by organization. If you volunteered at a dozen different places over the years, that gets complicated to explain on your lists. Look for an overarching theme or organization (an umbrella) under which you can organize your volunteer efforts. Some advisors refer to this as a “passion project” idea that shows your commitment to alleviating hunger or clothing the poor, but I’m more about what’s pragmatic and makes sense on the application. (Unless, of course, as a 16-year old you’ve already discovered your passion!)

Imagine a student who volunteered through local community groups but across various areas of need. He worked with other students sorting canned food donations, he spent time with pets at the local shelter, and he delivered meals with his mom through a senior center program. In all, he earned 73 hours of community service by the start of his senior year. Not bad. But how does he present this on the activities list? If there is room for three items, great. But if not, I would umbrella his volunteer work under a “city or community-level” volunteering effort, emphasizing his commitment not to one thing but to helping the entire community. The organizations can be listed in the description as well as a summary of hours. The hours you post are on the honor system unless you’ve worked with a group to officially track them (like the Congressional Awards program). Be honest about your hours. Start early in high school and be consistent (stay motivated) about volunteering. It will add up! 

For ideas on how to get more community service hours and how to track them, see my blog post:  What Do College Admissions Look For? Top 5 Most Important Factors

In conclusion, the activities list is a critical piece of the college application. Consciously investing time in activities, volunteering, and developing leadership while you’re in high school will make it easier when it’s time to write your activities lists. When you start your college applications, complete your lists (both versions if you’re applying to UC campuses and using the Common App) before starting your essays. Use the “story” that develops from your cultivated activities about what you did/do to help decide what else needs to be said in your college essays about who you are. Remember to prioritize quality (longer commitments) over quantity (neat experiences but with no long-term time investment) and use specific action verbs to describe your individual efforts. 

Here’s an online tutorial I recommend by College Essay Guy about how to “up-level” your Common App Activities in 30 minutes. Watch it after you have a first draft of your Common Application activities list. The CEG website also offers other free videos with industry-respected advice. 

Good luck!

Lisa Harrison, M.A., Founder, Empower College Consulting
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