Summarizing Your Activities on the Common Application

You’ll find the activities chart just above the essay questions on the Common Application.  It looks straightforward, and in some ways, it is.  However, given the differences between communities, high schools and your individual passions, it is important to give some thought to the way you represent your extracurricular time.

  • The Common Application specifically asks you to list your activities in the order of importance to you.  (They bold it in their instructions too.)  Time and again, students list activities in an order that doesn’t mesh with the rest of their application.  Chances are, National Honor Society isn’t your most personally significant activity, and unless you’ve demonstrated an unusual level of commitment to it in other parts of the application you’ve just lost some legitimacy with the application reviewer if you list it first.
  • Likewise, don’t assume that the college wants to see any specific activity listed as most important.  Listing one activity at the top because you presume that the admissions committee wants to see it at the top defeats the purpose.  Colleges want all sorts of students on their campus.  They want tuba players and tennis players, presidents and prose writers.  Be yourself.
  • While many of your activities might take place within the context of your high school, think about all of your time.  Do you devote significant amounts of time to a hobby or special interest.  Are you particularly involved with a church or religious group?  One year, our committee had a student who had spent a great deal of time baking.  She took the time to explain her commitment to the croissant.  Did we find her compelling?  Absolutely. Had she explained that her interest went well beyond baking a batch of cookies for the track team bake sale?  Yes.
  • Is your activity selective?  Consider sharing that with the admissions committee.  In some high schools, making a varsity sports team as a freshman is a true accomplishment.  At other schools, there is only a varsity sports team, and everyone participates.
  • Resist the temptation to exaggerate.  Many activities fluctuate in their time commitment.  You might spend 12 hours a day in preparation for a debate tournament, or a week on a mission trip.  When your individual club commitments add up to more than 100 hours in a week, it becomes difficult to gauge your true commitments and the reader is more likely to become skeptical of your application.

Put together a first draft of your activities, then rethink your roles and time commitments from the past few years.  If you need help jogging your memory, flip through your old yearbooks.

 By Whitney Bruce, who has worked in college admissions since 1996. She has served as an Senior Assistant Director of Admissions (Washington U), Application Reader (University of Michigan), Assistant Director of College Counseling (private prep school in St. Louis), and an independent college counselor. She is happy to advise you as you apply to college.


  • margaret

    Where do you list National Honor Society under activities? As an academic activity or as a community service one?