How to Describe Activities on the Common App (and Stand Out in the Process!)

Confused How to Describe Activities on the Common App? Let Our Blog Help!

Written by Jason

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Last updated Mar 20, 2023 | Published on Feb 28, 2023

The Common App activities section may seem daunting because you have to list out your whole high school career in detail. There is no doubt about it, but this is one of the most important sections of the Common App because it gives you an opportunity to distinguish yourself from other applicants. How to describe activities on the Common App will be key to your admissions success. It also gives admission officers a look at the flavor you might bring to the incoming class. 

For example, if you spent a summer on a National Geographic expedition as the assistant to a biologist on board the ship, your application should reflect that experience. If you assisted a local law firm through a summer internship program and want to study law in college, you should definitely include that in your activities section.

Learning Adventures Can Be a Wonderful College Activity

You get the idea! But what if you feel as if you do not have standout qualities to put on your application? It is important to note that your experiences are what make you who you are — represent them honestly, accurately, and in detail. We, at Campus to Career Crossroads, will work through an overview, tips on how to describe activities on the Common App, and an example of how you might want to structure your Common App activities section.

Common App Activities Section Overview

Let’s take a quick look at what the Common App activities section looks like, including what qualifies as an activity, character limits for descriptions, and the providing the best information you can offer.

It is an important section. Beyond your grades and test scores, admission officers will zero in on your extracurricular activities. When comparing applicants with similar academic backgrounds, activities can make the difference between applicants.  

For example, let’s say that two applicants look like this, side by side: 

Applicant 1: 

  • GPA: 4.4 on a 4.0 scale
  • Test score: 32 ACT
  • Activities: 

Intern

Cambridge Pets

Cared for all animals at the clinic, ran the clinic’s boarding and grooming, filed paperwork, and named employee of the year.

Director

Change for Mental Health Awareness

Spearheaded first-of-its kind organization at Cambridge High School to combat mental health challenges among the Cambridge student population.

Applicant 2: 

  • GPA: 4.4 on a 4.0 scale
  • Test score: 32 ACT
  • Activities: None listed

Obviously, this is a pretty basic example of how to fill out common app activities, but it highlights what the activities in Common App can do for you.

What the Activities Section Looks Like

First, let’s take a look at what the activities section of the Common App looks like. Knowing how it is laid out can help alleviate the stress of the unknown, especially prior to filling it out. It has four sections. 

  • Activity type: You will select the activity type in a drop-down menu that fits the description of the activity you are listing, such as arts or music, clubs, community engagement, family responsibilities, hobbies, sports, work, volunteering, or other meaningful experiences.
  • Position/leadership description: Next, in fifty characters or less, you can describe the position or leadership position you had at the activity. What exactly is a character? It is a single visual object used to represent text, numbers, or symbols such as punctuation marks. For example, you can put “intern” here like in our previous example. Whatever you do, do not repeat information from any of the boxes. 
  • Organization name: You have room to input the organization name in 100 characters or less in the next section. For example, you will input “Cambridge Pets” like in the previous example of the organization name. What happens if the organization does not fit in 100 characters? Organizations may have really long names! Do your best to fit the entire name in the section.
  • Describe the activity: Next, describe the activity with what you have accomplished and recognition you received, like this: Cared for all animals at the clinic, ran the clinic’s boarding and grooming, filed paperwork, and named employee of the year.

Always Know the Common App Activity Description Character Limits

What Qualifies as an Activity?

According to the Common App website, you can share information about work, hobbies, clubs, and community engagement. You can even mention family responsibilities, which might include caring for your own kids or younger siblings, assisting grandparents, and taking care of household tasks (cooking, cleaning, running errands, working to provide income for the family and other regular tasks).

Character/Word Count Limit for Each Activity

As mentioned above, you have a strict character count (not words) for each activity, which means that you want to carefully plan out what you are going to write and make it as dynamic as possible. 

  • Position/leadership description: Max characters: 50
  • Organization name: Max characters: 100
  • Description of activity: Max characters: 150

The dangerous part of this exercise is that you might type something in and get cut off and then stop. However, it is more important to be intentional and creative with every word, which we will walk through how to do in the next sections.

Information You Can Provide

The Common App will also ask for other details, beyond the activity type and description. It will also ask for the grade levels in which you participated in the activity, when you participated in them (whether during the school year or on breaks, for example), hours spent doing the activity per week, and the number of weeks spent doing the activity per year. The Common App also wants to know whether you intend to continue the activity in college. 

14 Tips for How to Describe Activities on the Common App

So, how do you make your activities section awesome? How do you stand out among a crowd of potentially thousands? If it seems like a tall order, you are right. However, it is important to be as thorough as possible with your activities section. 

Tip 1: Keep track of all your activities.

One of the best tips to describe activities on the Common App – track it! Keep a running list of activities throughout high school. Start a Google Doc your freshman year and keep adding to it as time goes on. If you do not keep track of your activities, you may feel at a loss to know how to categorize and organize them when you apply for college. 

C2cc quote image

However, not everyone is that organized, and you are not in deep trouble if you do not do it. Here is how to gather a summary of everything you did, starting in freshman year: 

  • Brainstorm with your parents: Your parents likely have a very good memory of what you were doing freshman year as far as school activities are concerned because they may have been driving you from one activity to another.
  • Have your friends help: Your friends are often in the same activities, and if one friend is pretty organized or another has a stellar memory, you can start from there.
  • Talk with organizations and clubs at your high school: Organizations and clubs often keep records of when certain trips occurred and other activities.

Ultimately, putting together a résumé early on can really help you up your game for keeping track of your activities and accomplishments.

Tip 2: List and organize your activities in advance.

Before you even start putting your activities together on the Common App, write them out and organize them. What happened when? What accomplishments did you achieve with baseball or football? What accolades did your club members give you? The list of accomplishments and activities that you have kept throughout high school will help you get started. You may need to do some simple math to determine the hours and weeks spent doing a specific activity.

Tip 3: Know the importance of leadership skills. 

Naturally, if you have leadership positions, put them on the activities section of the Common App. You may not even realize you have leadership positions among some of your activities, but if you think carefully about your activities, you may realize that you were a director of training on your debate team or that you led the other peer tutors. Even second-chair trumpet shows that you had a leadership position in the band.

Consider the leadership positions you have had among all the activities in high school:

  • Academic teams
  • Theater, band, choir
  • Athletic teams
  • Community service/volunteering
  • Jobs/internships
  • Peer tutoring/advising
  • Political organizations
  • School newspaper, literary magazine, yearbook, etc.
  • Student government

Tip 4: Use active voice.

You want to use the most energetic, active language that you can when you are filling out this section of the Common App. If this has started to sound like the droning voice of your English teacher (snore!), note that this is the time to make sure all of the information you have accumulated in English class thus far gets applied now. 

So, just to remind you, active voice means that the subject performs the action.

In other words, you would consider the sentence “I played tennis in high school” an active voice because you (the subject) perform the action — playing tennis. Avoid passive voice (which in this context sounds kind of weird anyway), “tennis was played by me.” 

Active voice, put simply, is more direct and clear because it identifies the subject and emphasizes the performed action. If you have trouble identifying active over passive voice, reach out to Campus to Career Crossroads and we can help craft your activities with an active voice.

In the meantime, perfect using amazing verbs. “I volunteered at the animal shelter” puts people to sleep, whereas “I donated 1,000 hours of my time at the Kickapoo Animal Shelter.” It is much more clear and more engaging.

Tip 5: Lead with your most impressive activities.

Consider grouping your items based on your potential major or intended college goals and then work your way down through your list.

For example, if you are applying as a music major, why would you lead with “entered a science fair project about bubbles” when you could lead with “took piano lessons for twelve years with Craft Your Music – Center for Young Musicians and led all holiday community concerts” instead?

Musical Activities Can Your Help College Application Stand Out

Tip 6: Use present tense for current activities.

Do not forget to indicate that you are still working on an activity right now. For example, if you are currently still playing soccer, you can use present tense — “play striker for Cambridge High School girls’ soccer team” instead of “played striker for Cambridge High School girls’ soccer team.” 

Tip 7: Do not embellish. 

Do not make up anything on your activities list. For example, if you are not sure how many volunteer hours you committed to the math peer tutor group you belong to, do not make them up under any circumstance. You never know what might happen — your advisor’s letter of recommendation may not match the hours you put on your activities list. If those hours do not match with what you have reported, the admission office may contact you and ask you why things fail to line up. Do not put yourself in that position. It is possible for a college to rescind your admission offer if you falsify application details.

Tip 8: Edit, edit, and edit some more.

How do you make sure it is perfect? You edit it and allow time for revisions. Reviewing your activities the next day is an essential step in the editing phase. You may have been over the character limit in an activity section and editing it the next day can help you find the perfect wording to fit everything within the character count.

Always Edit Your Activities on the Common App

Tip 9: Make it interesting.

As soon as a character count shows up, you may believe it is impossible to get creative. You may think, “That is what essays are for, right?” No, you can actually do a lot to make your 150 characters interesting, and more than you might think. A few examples of words you can use that can illuminate your writing: 

  • Activated the Future Dentists’ Club
  • Traversed Europe with the Cambridge jazz band
  • Pledged as an Eagle Scout
  • Advocated on behalf for homeless kids
  • Assembled a winning robot with the robotics club
  • Collaborated with special education classes
  • Dramatized “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” with the theater club
  • Executed a new plan for new high school tennis courts
  • Finalized plans for a new theater curriculum
  • Kindled interest in bringing Russian to Cambridge High School
  • Interacted with administrators 

Tip 10: Show you are a specialist.

Being well rounded is not the best advice in these record-setting application cycles. Colleges want to see how you connect to your passions and your intended major. If you want to major in physics, do a couple of activities in your list showcase your interest in physics? Show how everything comes full circle.

Tip 11: Create your own activities to better your community.

Being overloaded in school clubs may miss the mark, especially if you are not in a leadership role. Maybe you want to major in information technology while helping underserved communities. What if you begin collecting routers and modems in your neighborhood to showcase how you can intersect your activities with your desire to volunteer? 

Tip 12: Metrics rule.

When possible, in learning how to describe activities in Common App, track and incorporate numbers. Let’s say you help prepare and serve food for a homeless shelter. How many meals did you serve each time and how many pounds of food did you collect or cook? 

Add Numbers to Improve Your Common App Activity Descriptions

You want to make sure you get these numbers exactly right, because you would not want the college to question whether or not you inflated your numbers.

Tip 13: Do not forget summer programs.

Did you attend any college summer programs during your four years of high school? For example, did you attend a business, leadership, art, or STEM camp during high school? Do not forget to add these to your activity list. They can showcase the depth of your experiences and demonstrate how you will bring unique experiences to the potential class.

Tip 14: Skip modesty.

One of the biggest missteps we see when clients are too modest.  The information you are providing is for your college application! While you do not want to brag, you want to ensure you are creating a standout application to be accepted when compared to thousands of other applicants.

Did you lead a fundraiser for four years? You may have raised thousands of dollars, so do not keep those impressive numbers to yourself!

Example of How to Describe Activities on the Common App

Look at a Common App activities example and how you might want to craft your Common App Activities section. Remember that this is just a Common App activities section example and you will want to be scrupulously honest on your Common App:

Founder and President

Literacy website

Operate a successful literacy website with 22,000 subscribers to help dyslexic high school students learn how to decode classic books.

President

Computer Club

Teach other students proficiency in data structures and algorithms, database and SQL, integrated development environments, cloud computing and more.

First-Chair Violinist

Cambridge High School orchestra

Took lessons at a music school for nine years. Performed for the Cambridge Solo Festival for three years. Lead community lessons for second graders.

Assistant Instructor

Carleton YMCA

Trained young swimmers of all ages to develop proper technique and helped instill confidence while learning the butterfly stroke.

Bakery Assistant

King City Bakery

Greeted customers, processed orders, and sold treats. Boxed up bakery items for online orders and shipped them to 41 locations around the world.

Dishwasher

Catalina Diner

Cleaned all dishes in accordance with strict restaurant sanitation regulations. Versatile employee who also prepped food and bus tables when needed.

Create a Winning Activities List

How to describe activities on the Common App does not have to be daunting. In fact, Campus to Career Crossroads can streamline the process for you and even provide additional tips to ensure your entire Common App stands out to admissions officers. Our proven process ensures that you accomplish your application goals. 

Let Campus to Career Crossroads Assist Your Common App Efforts

We will make sure your activities list is comprehensive, impressive and makes you stand out at college to which you apply. Get in touch with Campus to Career Crossroads so you get one-on-one help with the Common App from start to finish.

FAQs

What are some more important questions to ask about how to describe activities on the Common App?

Are activities important?

Yes! Activities have become a big differentiator for admissions officials as many applicants have high GPAs and standardized test scores. This is a new admissions trend that many students are unaware of and which can significantly impact their admissions odds.

How do you write a description of a Common App activity?

Knowing that you only have a limited amount of characters in which to summarize each Common App activity, it can seem daunting to put together a great description in just a few characters. However, it can be done using active voice, exciting verbs, and a great list of activities. Sometimes, you just need to start with your résumé or activities list laid out in front of you to get going.

Does the order of my activities matter?

Organize your activities in order of most important to least important. You want the important activities to stand out and at the top of the list! You want to strategize your activities as much as you can on the Common App. Let Campus to Career Crossroads help you out.

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