Ask Collegewise: “How should I fill out the Common Application ‘Activities’ section?”

Ana asks:


Hi there!  My name is Ana, and I am a huge fan of the Collegewise blog! The website is definitely one of the most informative resources for all things admissions, and it gives a levelheaded view that is rare in this often stressful process.  I was hoping you could answer a question of mine in a blog post. How should the extracurricular section of the Common Application be filled out? There is a drop down menu for selecting the type of activity, but where should the more specific title (ex. camp counselor, peer tutor, etc.) go: position held or activity?  What about the short description of the activity? If you have some spare time and could post an example Common App activities form with a few different activities, it would be extremely helpful to me and many other confused seniors!  Thanks for your time and your awesome blog."

Flattery like that will get you everywhere, Ana.  Here are a few tips for the activity section of the Common App.

Let's say your three principal activities are volleyball, writing for the school newspaper, and working as a camp counselor over the summer.  Here's how you might approach those. 

The drop down menu

Select the activity from the drop-down menu.  It's important to let this drop down menu do the work for you.  Look carefully and try to find a category that works before you select "Other club/activity."  There are a lot of categories you might not expect to find, like "Family responsibilities," "cultural," "academic," etc.

 Positions held, honors won, or letters earned

This section is for three things–your roles, titles and recognitions.  For example, if you work as a camp counselor, that's your role.  Put "Camp counselor" here.  If you were the Editorial Page Editor for the school newspaper, that's a title–put that here.  If you were the captain, MVP, and first-team all state in volleyball, those are recognitions.  Put those here.   

Roles, titles and recognitions are short and punchy, like “Varsity,” “Eagle Scout,” "Coach's Award," “Counselor,” “Founder,” “Sports Editor” or  “Captain”.  Anything that takes more space to explain should be put in the next section. 

Details and accomplishments

Ask yourself two questions for this section.  1)  Is it possible that whoever is reading this application might not understand what this activity really was based on the previous two sections alone?  2) Did I or the organization accomplish anything that can’t be summed up with a simple recognition that I listed above?  If the answer to either of those two questions is “Yes,” then you should provide that information here.

For example, let’s say you listed your camp counselor work under “Work (Paid).”  But what if the camp was specifically for children with physical and mental disabilities?  That’s something interesting the reader wouldn’t know just from the previous two sections.  So here’s where you could put the name and description of the camp, like “Special Camp for Special Kids: Camp for children with physical and mental disabilities.” 

And what if your school paper won a state-wide award during your junior year? That’s a cool accomplishment that can’t be summed up in the previous two sections.  So here’s where you could say, “2/2010 issue won the state-wide journalism award, “Excellence in Student Press.”

Somewhat annoyingly, the “Save and Check for Errors” function of the Common App will tell you you’ve made an error if you leave this section blank.  So even if you’ve already described everything necessary about an activity, you might need to just fill this space in with “High school football” just to get past the error message.  Try to include information here that fits the categories I’ve described, but if you just don’t have anything else to say, don’t ruin it by trying to make it sound good.  Just put the basic description in and move on. 

So using the example above, our completed Common App activity section would look like this when it's printed:



A few other Common App activity tips:

  • Make sure you click the “Preview” button at the top of the screen when you finish this section.  That’s the only way to really tell whether your responses fit in the spaces provided.
  • Pay attention to the directions for this section:  “Please list your principal extracurricular, volunteer, and work activities in their order of importance to you.”  It's important to make sure your activities really are listed in order of importance to you.  The first activity you list should be the one you’d pick if you were only allowed to list one activity (that’s a trick we teach our Collegewise students).  
  • “Principal activities” mean activities that were important to you.  And they don't necessarily have to be formal activities.  It's OK to list a hobby that's important to you, too.  So if you played JV badminton freshman year and never played again, it obviously didn't mean enough to keep playing.  Why take up the space with it here?  But if you write a blog, or host a book club, or knit sweaters, and it's something you really enjoy and spend a lot of time doing, it’s OK to list that here. 
  • Don’t try to list everything you’ve ever done.   It’s OK to have blank spaces.  Our sample student above only listed three activities.  But they were the three activities that defined her high school experience.  The reader gets what was important to her.  She doesn't need her to list anything else.
  • Don’t attach a resume.  The directions in this section (“…even if you plan to attach a resume”) make it sound like that’s something the colleges invite.  They don’t.  In fact, most colleges hate resumes.  They’re too long, they come in too many different formats, and they ignore the activity section of the college’s application.  Unless a college specifically instructs you to do a resume, we tell our students not to do one. 

CommonAppGuideImage And (shameless self-promotion coming) if you'd like more help, you might enjoy our Collegewise Guide to the Common Application.  We take you through every section of the Common App and share the same advice we share with our Collegewise students. 

Thanks for your question, Ana.  I hope it helps.

With activities, don’t follow the crowd

I've met a lot of kids who have volunteered at hospitals.  But I've only ever met one who worked as an emergency medical technician.  She wrote her essay about her first night on the job when she did chest compressions in the back of a speeding ambulance on a 19 year-old motorcycle accident victim who had just gone into full cardiac arrest. 

Volunteering at a hospital is a popular choice for high school kids.  But I'll bet she was the only kid working for that ambulance company.

Lots of kids go to expensive summer programs at colleges.  But I've only ever met one who spent his summers taking history classes at his local community colleges for $20 per unit.  He got to know one of the professors, and she shared the reading assignments for her upper division course on George Washington.  He didn't care whether any college would look favorably on it–that's not what it was about for him.  He was just obsessed with history and wanted to know more. 

Lots of kids play an instrument in the high school jazz band.  But I've only ever met one who also played trumpet in a real mariachi band. He wasn't doing it to put it on his college applications–he just liked playing good music (and wearing the authentic mariachi outfit). 

The problem with popular activities is that they're crowded.  It's much harder to make an impact and stand out if lots of other students are doing exactly the same thing you are.  And the truth is that if you really care about what you're doing, if you're really interested and you're not doing it just to put it on your college applications, the popular choices won't be appealing to you.

If you really want to help people, you probably won't be satisfied volunteering at a hospital doing exactly the same thing the other 30 student volunteers are doing.  Why not work at an ambulance company?  Or better yet, volunteer at a mobile health clinic that travels to the poorest parts of town.  Or find a doctor who focuses on under-served populations and offer to help her for free.

If you really want to learn more about history, don't pay thousands of dollars to go to a famous college's summer program where lots of other students are just paying to play.  Go after your knowledge and take a local class with only 12 students, one where you can really get to know the professor.  Or read as many books as you can about the period that interests you.  Or email a professor at a local college and ask if you can meet him during his office hours so he could recommend the best ways for you to learn more about the Civil War. 

If you really love to play music, you probably won't be satisfied just playing in the jazz band.  You'll find a mariachi band, or a dixieland band that plays at retirement homes, or a slot at a local coffee shop where you can play on Sundays. 

The students who have the most rewarding experiences in their activities, who ultimately stand out from the crowd when they apply to college, are the students who care a lot more about following their interests then they do about following the crowd.

How your free time can make you more interesting to colleges

How you answer this question says a lot about how interesting you'll be to colleges.

Imagine that all of your obligations–school, homework, soccer practice, anything that fills your schedule–magically disappeared for the next month (and you were somehow guaranteed that their disappearance would in no way negatively affect you or your college future).  What would you do with that time?

Interesting students have interesting answers that question, like..

  • Try to see one baseball game in every single major league park in America.
  • Take some Italian cooking classes.
  • Adopt a guide dog for the blind and train it.
  • Travel to Europe and backpack for a month.
  • Make more of my jewelry and sell it on Etsy
  • Surf every day and maybe take some fishing trips with my friends.
  • Run a marathon.
  • Relax, write in my journal, and read whatever I wanted.
  • Take all the cool classes my gym offers that I never have time to take, like yoga and hip-hop dance.
  • Draw a lot.  Maybe do some painting, too.
  • Play pick-up basketball games with my friends.

Here's the thing about interesting people–they have interests.  Not things they're doing just to help them get into college, but real interests, things they enjoy and want to spend more time doing, or new things they'd like to explore.  That's why interesting students love this scenario. 

Less interesting kids say things like:

  • I have no idea. 
  • Sleep a lot and hang out with my friends.
  • Study for the SAT.
  • Get more community service hours at the local homeless shelter.

There's nothing wrong with those answers.  It's not bad to work at a homeless shelter.  It's just sad that the kid's doing it just to pad his service hours.  How much better would it be for him and for the people he's helping if he volunteered somewhere he really cared about?  Answers like these aren't indicators of real interests.  They indicate either a lack of interests, or a focus on doing things just to get you into college.   

lot of high school students fill their schedules with so many
obligations, so many scheduled activities that they believe will make
them "look good to colleges," that they don't have any genuine interests of
their own.  Working hard and committing yourself to your college future is a good thing, but you're still allowed to have free time to pursue real interests.  In fact, the colleges will reward you for doing it.

How to get into Stanford with Bs on your transcript

I can't believe I'd never found Cal Newport's blog until yesterday. 

He's a Phi Beta Kappa grad from Dartmouth who also got a PhD in electrical engineering from MIT in 2009.  And he's the author of a new book, How to Be a High School Superstar: A Revolutionary Plan to Get into College by Standing Out

But the real reason I was so happy to find his work is that he's all about showing students:

  • How to live a low-stress, under-scheduled, relaxed high school lives yet still do phenomenally well in college admissions. 
  • How you can get into great colleges and have a successful life by simply doing fewer things, doing them better, and knowing why you're doing them
  • Why it's more important in college admissions that you be interesting than it is for you to be impressive.

And even if you're one of those students who has your heart set on a
highly selective college, Cal's techniques can work for you, too. For starters, check out his post, How to Get Into Stanford with Bs on your transcript.

No more meetings?

Students, how many hours did you spend sitting in meetings last year for your French Club, student body government, yearbook or newspaper staff?  Probably a lot.  But were all those meetings really necessary? 

What would happen if your school instituted a "No more meetings" rule for clubs and organizations?  Would your club be mortally wounded?  Would the yearbook staff or the school newspaper stop functioning?  Probably not.  And that's got to make you wonder why you're bothering to have as many meetings as you're having.

Here's an excerpt from a chapter in Rework entitled "Meetings are toxic."  


When you think about it, the true cost of meetings is staggering.  Let's say you're going to schedule a meeting that lasts one hour, and you invite ten people to attend.  That's actually a ten-hour meeting, not a one-hour meeting.  You're trading ten hours of productivity for one hour of meeting time…Is it ever OK to trade ten or fifteen hours of productivity for one hour of meeting?  Sometimes, maybe.  But that's a pretty hefty price tag to pay. 

So, what if your French Club, newspaper or yearbook staff cut your yearly number of meetings in half?  What if the leadership of those organizations did a better job of communicating, delegating and managing without necessarily requiring everyone to get together?  How much more productive would everyone be if they spent what would have been meeting time writing, planning, and working?

I'm not sure how well it would work, but it might be worth trying.  Involved students have busier schedules than ever before.  And the easiest way to find more hours in the day to relax, have fun, or sleep might be to lighten your meeting load.

What you can learn working at McDonald’s

I wrote a post last week about the value of getting a job while you're in high school.  There's a reason why colleges love kids who've washed cars or bussed tables or made pizza to earn an honest dollar; you learn a lot when you find and keep a job.  Here's an example. 

Today, Scott Heiferman is the founder of  But he started and sold his first internet company right in the middle of the dotcom boom in the late 90s.  And when the frenzy of the internet started to get to him, he went and took a job at McDonald's in New York City and wrote about the experience. 

Here's what his job at Mickey D's taught him about management:  


nobody thanked me.  i worked hard.  i got paid peanuts.  i even ate mcdonald's food during my break (deducted from my pay).  it was intense:  the cash register was complex, people want their food NOW, the lines get deep, the mcflurry must be made just right.  i was trying hard and i was doing an ok job.  now, i've been the leader/manager for most of my life.  i've had plenty of crap jobs, but i've been the boss for the past few years.  i faithfully read my fast company magazine and my harvard business review.  i've been taught countless times the value of a leader/manager showing appreciation for people's effort.  however, my instinct has often been that showing appreciation really isn't too necessary for good people.  they just take pride in a job well done — and, anyway, they can read my mind and see the appreciation.  well, from day 1 at mcdonald's, i was yearning for someone there to say "thanks".  even a "you're doing ok" would suffice.  but, no.  neither management experience — nor reading about management — teaches this lesson as well as being an under-appreciated employee.

A job doesn't have to sound great on your resume to teach you something. 

You can find Scott's entire post  about the experience here.

What’s your role?

What's role on the baseball team, on the student government, or in the school play? 

You might say you're the pitcher, the treasurer, or Danny Zucko (if you're performing Grease).  Those titles are important, but they're not your roles.   Titles are easy to describe.  Your role is a little more complex.  Your role is different than a position, an office, or a part.

For example, in addition to being a pitcher, you might also be the one who gave all the guys nicknames.  Or you might be the one who kept people laughing on the bus even when you were in the middle of a 5 game losing streak.  Or you might be the one who called the catcher the day after his error cost the team the championship, just to see how he was doing.

In addition to being the treasurer, you might also be the one who mediated the dispute between two other officers, or who studied parliamentary procedure and encouraged everyone to use it at your meetings, or who knew how to stand up and give an impassioned speech when you could tell the group needed to be inspired.

In addition to being the lead in the school play, you might also be the one who made sure the understudies got invited out for the post rehearsal pizza, or who made it your mission to promote and sell out opening night, or you could be the one on whom the teacher relied to run rehearsals on days when she had to teach an after school program.

When we brainstorm college essays with our Collegewise students, one of the things we listen for is evidence of them playing their roles.  The roles are often more interesting than the job titles. 

So think about the roles you play, how you play them, and how they help you make an even bigger impact.  And don't be afraid to share them when you discuss your activities with colleges.

Recommended reading for leaders

If you're a student body president, team captain, section editor for the school newspaper, or in any other role where your job is to supervise or lead people, here are three great books to learn the skills you need to be great at it.

OneThing The One Thing You Need to Know by Marcus Buckingham

Leadership and management are not the same thing.  They require very different kinds of skills, and Buckingham explains how to do both.  He's also got a surprisingly simple secret for personal success that involves quitting.  It's a good read. 

to Great
by Jim Collins

Collins is a professor at Stanford Business School who based this book on his exhaustive study of great companies and the leaders behind them.  Some of the findings are surprising, like the fact that charisma can be as much a liability as an asset for a leader, and that spending time and energy trying to motivate people is a waste of effort–if you have the right people, they will be motivated as long as you don't de-motivate them.

FirstBreak First Break All The Rules by Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman 

The authors worked for The Gallup Organization and did a comprehensive study to find out what great managers do differently.  If you're in any kind of supervisory role, this book will give you great ideas about how to manage the group and get the best out of each person.  Every single adult I know has a story about working for a terrible manager, but you can start learning to be a great one while you're still in high school

Are bright, well-rounded kids boring?

We're training a new counselor in our Irvine, CA office.  Today we discussed highly selective college admissions–what it really takes to get into the most selective colleges. 

The problem with college admissions today is that all the highest achievers–from around the world–apply to the same 40 colleges.  So schools like Stanford, Harvard, Princeton, Duke, Georgetown, Yale, Northwestern and the rest of the 40 most famous colleges have far, far more qualified applicants than they can ever possibly admit.  Some of them only admit 1 out of every 10 kids.  So most of the applicants, by comparison, don't stand out.  They feel inadequate because they haven't published a book or written a concerto or invented a way to travel back in time.        

Rachael Toor wrote Admissions Confidential about her time working as an undergraduate admissions officer at Duke.  Here's an excerpt from page 2:

"Most of the students I meet on my travels are BWRKs.  That's admissionese for 'bright well-rounded kids.'  You know, the ones who do everything right.  They take honors classes, study hard enough to be in the top 10% of their class, get solid 1350's on their SAT's (blogger's note:  That's like 2030 on the new scale), play sports, participate in student government, do community service (sometimes even when it's not required).  They're earnest, they're hardworking, they're determined.  They do everything right, and most of them don't have a chance of getting in.  We deny them.  In droves.  Another BWRK. Zip.  How boring."

That's a bleak outlook.  Unfortunately, the fact that these schools are so ridiculously hard to get into only feeds peoples' belief that famous schools offer better educations.  

It doesn't have to be that way.

If you're a BWRK, you are almost certainly not boring.  You're smart, you work hard, you commit yourself to activities, and you probably don't spend nearly enough time goofing off and just having fun.  In fact, you'd probably be even more interesting if you followed your real interests instead of just trying to please famous colleges.  But still, hundreds and hundreds of colleges are going to trip over themselves to accept you.  You just have to pick the right schools.

High school students (and their parents) have a choice.  You don't have to buy into the college admissions insanity.  You can reject the idea of desperately trying to stand out to Yale, and you can embrace the idea of working hard, being yourself, and finding the droves of colleges who absolutely love BWRKs. 

Get a job

Colleges love an applicant who's had a job.  And it doesn't have to be a fancy-sounding internship at your mom or dad's company.  Colleges–and future employers–are even more impressed by real, honest teenage jobs, like flipping burgers or coaching basketball or selling clothes at the mall.    

Colleges know that it takes initiative and responsibility to find and keep a job.  Look up the biography of a successful adult you know, and you're likely to find jobs in their past before and during their college years.

Today, Mark Cuban owns the Dallas Mavericks, but when he was a kid, he sold trash bags door to door to make money to buy a pair of expensive high top shoes he wanted.

When he was in high school, Zappos
CEO Tony
ran the lights at a community theater, then became a game tester for Lucasfilm, then worked as a computer programmer.

When she was seventeen, Maya Angelou worked as the first black female streetcar conductor in San Francisco. 

During high school, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor worked at a bargain retail store in
the Bronx and at the local hospital.

Sherwood Rowland won the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1995 for his work identifying the causes of ozone depletion.  He spent portions of his high school summers running the local volunteer weather station, a job he cited as "my
first exposure to systematic experimentation and data

So if you're looking to learn, make some money, and impress colleges, get a job.  And someday when you're a big success, you'll have a great story about your first job back in high school.