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

Ana asks:

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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:

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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.

A tip for seniors on managing your parents during application season

Seniors, as you move into the throes of the college application process, here's something you can do to keep the stress levels in your household manageable–talk to your parents about what you're doing.

I'm a big proponent of parents staying "hands off" and letting their seniors take the lead during this time.  And it's normal for seniors to want to assert some independence and tell Mom and Dad to stay out of it.  In fact, that's appropriate given that the seniors, not their parents, are the ones who will actually be going to college next year.

But seniors, understand that stepping back, especially at the time that you're doing something as important as college applications, is a hard thing for a lot of parents to do.  They're worried that something could go wrong and that they'll have to live with college application guilt of not being involved enough when it counted.  That's why parents ask if you've written your essays yet, and if you've started your application to Duke, and if you've seen your teachers about getting letters of recommendation.

You can put your parents at ease by just spending a few minutes every couple of days and actually telling them what you're up to.  That means you need to do more than say, "Mom, stop asking me about this.  I'll get it done!"  Instead, give some detail. 

Update your parents on your progress.  Tell them when you meet with your counselor, when you submit your letters of recommendation, and when you've visiting your English teacher to have her look at your essay.  Show them the information you print out from colleges.  Tell them when the deadlines are, and when you plan to submit yours.  Let them in on what's left to be done, like sending test scores or requesting transcripts or scheduling an interview.  And if you need help organizing all that information, ask your parents to help–not to do it for you–but to help.

If you feel like your parents are standing over your shoulder during this time, and you think it would be a lot less stressful if they would just back off a little, do the opposite of what you're inclined to do.  Instead of telling them to leave you alone, take a few minutes every couple of days to tell them exactly what you're doing. 

Let them in on the process, and they'll be more likely to take themselves out of it. 

More advice on letters of recommendation

There's some good advice on The Choice blog today courtesy of Martha Merrill, Dean of Admissions at Connecticut College, concerning teacher recommendations and how they are used during the admissions process.

Seniors (and their parents) should pay particular attention to this tip:

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Follow instructions.  Admission officers will likely read only the required number of recommendations. If you submit too many, you leave it to chance which ones will be read."

A lot of seniors are under the impression that the more information they can share with a college, the better.  So if a college asks for two letters of recommendation from academic sources, but your dad's business partner and your youth pastor have both offered to write recs for you, it's hard to resist just tacking on those additional two letters.  Four people saying nice things about you might seem better than two. 

But we always discourage our Collegewise students from submitting additional letters of recommendation unless the college invites you to do it.  A student who doesn't follow directions, who assumes that he or she deserves the right to submit additional materials while other applicants are following directions, just runs the risk that you'll annoy the admissions officer.

But Merrill makes an even better case.  If you submit additional recs, not only will the college likely not read all of them, but you won't get to decide which ones they read.  Why not maintain as much control over the process as you can?  Follow directions, choose your letter-writers carefully, and be confident that you're being represented as you want to be. 

How to prioritize activities on a college application

If you had the chance to have a ten-minute conversation with an admissions officer to explain everything you do that is important to you, what would you talk about?  How would you sum up the way you’ve spent your life in high school when you weren’t in class?

You probably wouldn’t start with, “One time, I went to a meeting of the Spanish Club.” 

It wouldn’t make sense to talk first about an activity that you didn’t care about or spend much time doing.  Instead, you’d probably begin by discussing your most important activities—the ones in which you spent significant time and energy.

But, you’d be surprised how many students list their activities in no particular order when filling out college applications. 

Listing an activity that meant little to you is like telling an admissions officer that the one week you attended a meeting of the “Ping Pong Club” was just as important to you as everything else you did in high school.

Share things that meant something to you, where you really dedicated time and energy.  List them in order of importance to you.  If something wasn't all that important to you, consider leaving it off.  An admissions officer is a human being–he or she can only retain a certain amount of information that you present.

And remember that the key is to share things that are important to you, even if they may not seem overly impressive to someone else.  I'm not saying you should be open about watching 6-hours of television a day.  But if you write a blog that shares critiques of your favorite reality television shows and you've got several hundred loyal readers, that's something important to you that you should probably share. 

Should you waive your rights to see your letters of rec?

Most colleges that require a letter of recommendation also ask you to fill out a form that the writer sends to the college along with the letter.  One of the questions on that form asks you if you agree to waive your right to access the letter in the future.  If you waive your right, it means once the writer sends the letter to the school, you have no right to view it.  You will never know what the writer said about you or whether it helped or hurt your chances of admission.  I know–that sounds risky.

Still, you should always waive your rights to access. 

Here's what happens when you don't waive the right.

1.  You're essentially telling the writer that you don't trust him or her to do a good job.  And you're making that implication while asking this person to do you a favor.  A teacher or counselor can't help but be a little offended by that.  And offending the person you want to recommend you is never a good strategy.

2.  A writer who's worried that you'll see the letter one day is often less likely to be honest, and more likely to say things that are technically positive but widely recognized by admissions officers as generic statements that mean nothing.  That's bad for you.  It's the difference between…

"William is never going to be a chemist.  That much is clear.  But while he's struggled at times in my class,  he's cheerful, he keeps trying his best, and he's never given up on chemistry.  I like that in a student."

versus…

"William has shown consistent effort and is both diligent and determined."

That second example means absolutely nothing to an admissions officer.  You are far better served by an honest and revealing recommendation, even one that acknowledges a weakness, than you are by generic faint praise.

3.  The college will wonder why you didn't feel comfortable enough to waive the right, and what you were worried the writer might say about you.

If you're feeling uneasy about waiving your rights, consider asking someone else to write the letter, someone who's more unwaveringly positive about you.  And if you're still uneasy, try to relax.  Teachers and counselors are out to help, not hurt, students.  Just about all of them will do their best to say something positive about a nice kid. 

Authenticity trumps strategy

There's some vigorous debate going on at The Choice blog right now over their thread, "The Perils of Being Too Cute in Your College Application."  It all started with a question of whether or not you should list something like being president of the Lady Gaga fan club.  Yesterday, a former admissions officer from Stanford even weighed in.

Here's my take.  Authenticity always trumps strategy.  In 11 years of doing this, I have never once seen a student who came off as endearingly cute or funny on a college application by trying to be that way.  Endearing responses always come from students just being themselves–funny, intellectual, geeky, or whatever else they might be.

If you're a Lady Gaga fanatic and you proudly serve as the president of her fan club, you obviously have no shame about it.  Why should you have any shame about it on your college application?  List it.  Maybe even write an essay entitled, "I Go Gaga for Gaga."  That's who you are.  

But if you couldn't name a single artist selling songs right now, and can instead name the last 20 recipients of the Nobel Prize in physics, list your membership in the physics club and fly your physics flag high. It's not better or worse than the Gaga kid.  It's just who you are. 

Trying too hard to be something you're not is pretty much always a bad idea (unless you're, say, a kleptomaniac trying not to be one).  Don't try to be cute, or funny, or intellectual, or anything else on your college application.  Just be yourself and you'll do a great job of sharing whichever of those qualities really are yours.

One place not to find a better way

Colleges spend months creating their applications.  They compose the essay questions and arrange the information until the admissions committee has an application that will provide them the information they want, in exactly the way they want it presented. 

So how do you think an admissions officer reacts when in response to a question that asks you to list your activities in the space provided, an applicant simply writes, "See attached resume."?

There are lots of better ways to approach the application process.  There are better ways to get organized and to put together the information for the people writing your letters of recommendation.  There are better ways to choose the colleges to which you will apply, to write your essays and to conduct yourself in your college interviews.  It's worth considering all of them. 

But never do anything that ignores or contradicts the directions on the application.  No matter how unique you think your situation may be, no matter how much more compelling you think your candidacy would be, if you'd be ignoring their directions, don't do it.  Colleges would prefer you do it their way. 

Interests make you interesting

My friend's husband owns a bar.   Last month, I had a fascinating conversation with him about how he runs it. 

This guy was raised in Ireland and has a vision for how an Irish pub should be run.  He knows exactly what kind of feel the bar should have.  He knows how to adjust the volumes of the orders he places to stock the bar based on the seasons and how much business he can expect to see.  He knows what type of customer they want to serve and how to make those patrons happy.  And most importantly, he knows how he wants the Guinness poured.  

As he explained it to me, any legitimate Irish bartender knows that Guinness needs to be poured a certain way.  The glass needs to be held a particular angle.  The pour should be stopped halfway through and restarted again to help create the perfect head on top of the beer.  When a customer complains that he wants his beer faster, he'll remind the customer that he ordered a Guinness, not a Bud Light.  And nothing drives him crazier than seeing one of his bartenders rush a pour.  As he put it,

"If you're going to pour it, pour it right."

This isn't a guy who takes over a conversation by talking only about himself.  He only kept sharing more because I kept asking him questions about it. I was totally fascinated by it. 

I don't own a bar.  I have no interest in owning a bar.  And I don't even enjoy Guinness.  But the fact that he feels so passionately about what he does makes for great conversation.  It's interesting to learn about something from a person who knows so much more about it than I do.

That's what you want to do in your college applications. 

If you're a basketball player, there's a good chance the person reading your application wasn't.  If you're a guitarist, an artist, a stamp collector, an EMT, a dancer or a Civil War buff, chances are that your reader won't know as much about it as you do.  

So don't hide how much you know or how passionate you are about the things you do.  Show the colleges that you care about your interests like this guy cares about his Guinness.  Your interests make you interesting.  They make the colleges want to meet you so they can know more.  And when a college wants to meet you, that gets you a lot closer to being admitted. 

Don’t play the reach school lottery

Some students think that the best way to improve their chances of getting in to a highly-selective college is to apply to as many of them possible.  They think that by submitting 10 or 12 or 20 applications to those schools (we call them "reaches" for everyone given that up to 90% of the applicants are rejected), their odds of winning an admission improve dramatically. 

But they don’t.

We work with hundreds of students every year.  And whatever your dream schools are—Harvard, Princeton, Berkeley, Yale, Duke, Georgetown, or any of the others—we’ve had students accepted there.  But in the nearly 11 years we’ve been doing this, not one of our kids who got into those schools got there by playing the lottery and applying to as many as possible. 

Applying to any reach school is always a gamble (you always run the risk of losing in the form of a rejection letter).  But we don’t have a problem with students gambling on a reach school or two.  In fact, we encourage it.  You’ve worked hard and you’ve earned the right to chase your dream schools.  

But if you place all your bets on long shots, you’re going to lose a lot.  And you're going to take too much time away from your applications to other colleges–colleges that are just as good–where your chances of admission are better.  A student who's really worked hard enough to consider the most selective colleges deserves a number of college options when the decisions come back.  You shouldn't be just crossing your fingers hoping that one of fifteen schools says, "Yes." 

The Collegewise students who get into at least one reach school do it by selecting the 1-3 reach schools that are the best matches for them—the ones for which they have a good, ten-minute answer to the question, “Why do you want to attend this school?” 

So find your 1-3 dream schools.  Take your best shot.  But don't don’t apply anywhere “just to see what happens.”  And whatever you do, don't play the reach school lottery.