If you want your Common App to stand out from the crowd, your short activity descriptions must reflect the same thought and care you give to your personal essay.
If you thought that a 280-character limit on Twitter was tough, get ready to deal with the short answer questions on your activities on the Common App. These only allow 150 character spaces.
When you open the Common App activities tab, you’ll find this note:
Reporting activities can help colleges better understand your life outside of the classroom. Examples of activities might include:
- Arts or music
- Community engagement
- Family responsibilities (learn more)
- Work or volunteering
- Other experiences that have been meaningful to you
Do you have any activities that you wish to report?
If you select, “yes” – which I hope you do – you’ll have the opportunity to add up to ten activities to your application. For each activity, you’ll need to include:
- Activity type
- Position/Leadership description (Max characters: 50)
- Organization Name (Max characters: 100) (optional)
- Please describe this activity, including what you accomplished and any recognition you received, etc. (Max characters: 150)
- Participation grade levels
- Timing of participation (during school year, during school break, all year)
- Hours spent per week
- Weeks spent per year
- I intend to participate in a similar activity in college. (yes, no)
The Common Application specifically asks you to list your activities in the order of importance to you. With so little space to describe your activity, choose wisely. The activity that you believe sounds most impressive may not be your most personally significant activity, and unless you’ve demonstrated an unusual level of commitment to it through your essay or elsewhere on your application, you will lose some legitimacy with the application reviewer.
The correct choice isn’t necessarily the community service project you think will impress the adcom. It isn’t always the sport in which you’ve set records or the club that elected you president. Write about an activity (or hobby) that really makes you happy and provides fulfillment. Colleges want all sorts of students on their campus. They want tuba players and tennis players, presidents and prose writers. Be yourself.
Spend some time thinking about why you spend time on this activity. What makes it rewarding to you? How do you feel when you participate? There’s no room to elaborate, so you must distill its significance to its very essence. You can expand on your relationship with this activity more personally in one of your essays.
Avoid redundancy. If you’ve written your primary common application essay about an activity or interest, or even a person related to one, branch out here and mention something else. Show the admissions committees that you are not a one-note applicant, that you have several interests proving you are a multidimensional individual.
Many of your activities might take place within the context of your high school, but think about the rest of your time. Do you devote many hours a week to a hobby or special interest? Are you particularly involved with a church or religious group, or other club or special interest? One year, our committee considered an applicant who was a dedicated baker. 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? Absolutely.
Be real when stating your true commitment. Sure, you might spend 12 hours during one week preparing for a debate tournament, or spend a full week on a mission trip. But most special activities involve far less time on a regular basis. If you claim that your individual club commitments add up to more than fifty hours in a week, you’ll be suspected of exaggerating, and therefore, being less than honest.
Shorter doesn’t mean simpler or sloppier. In fact, the less space you have to write, the harder it is to be effective. Short answers can be very revealing. Often, they seem to be one-draft wonders, lacking in thought and heedless of editing. Remember that your short answer must reflect the same thought and care you give to your personal statement.
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By Judy Gruen, former Accepted admissions consultant. Judy holds a master’s in journalism from Northwestern University and is the co-author of Accepted’s first full-length book, MBA Admission for Smarties: The No-Nonsense Guide to Acceptance at Top Business Schools. Want an admissions expert help you get accepted? Click here to get in touch!
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