How to Successfully Market Yourself on the Activities Section of College Applications
The summer before my senior year of high school, I felt my appreciation and love for writing slowly transform into distaste and fear.
My junior year was transformative for my growth. Writing essays on classics like Jane Eyre and The Crucible (which all my classmates seemed to hate) made me realize how much I enjoy rearranging words and sentence structures until they sound just right.
However, the power that my words held seemed to dwindle when college application season began.
I grew up in a competitive environment. Just a short walk away from Princeton University, my high school classmates had their eyes set on nothing less than top universities.
I had several friends exhaust the curriculum our high school had to offer. Instead, they opted to take classes such as Introductory Biology and Multivariable Calculus at the Ivy League level.
Meanwhile, I was “only” taking AP Calculus AB (and struggling). I couldn’t help but compare myself to others.
I, too, wanted to attend an elite university, but I hadn’t done anything spectacular. I hadn’t published a novel, served a Congressman, or played piano at Carnegie Hall.
I found it easy to be self-deprecating while writing my Common Application essay. I couldn’t help thinking, “I bet student A has an amazing story to write about” or “I imagine Student B student has so many achievements to list.”
I realize now that my positive mindset and confidence was stunted by stress. When I talk to high schoolers now, most are insecure about the strength of their extracurriculars.
Admissions nowadays are so competitive that students still consider their extracurriculars weak even when they’re president of three clubs or aided a research paper publication.
Whether you have a list of strong activities or just a few, I want to emphasize that the wording of your descriptions can make all the difference.
What is the Activities Section Like?
Even though the activities section is easier to fill out then your essays, it doesn’t mean you should neglect it! Colleges want to see your passions and interests outside of school. It’s important to frame your activities in the best way possible.
Contrary to what you may think, the Common Application gives you very limited space to describe each activity. This is why wording is so important! You have to be concise and pack a punch in the small character limit.
Each activity has three sections: Position/Leadership description (50 characters), Organization name (100 characters), and Activity details (150 characters). Yes, that says characters not words!
In addition, there is a space to list in which grades you did the activity, how many hours a week, and how many weeks a year. Here is an example of an activity:
Activity Type: Academic
Years: 9, 10, 11, 12
Timing of Participation: All year
12 hr/week, 17 wk/year
Position: Girls Who Code Club President
I Intend to participate in a similar activity in college: Yes
Word Choice Matters
Does changing a few verbs really do anything? I’m here to tell you that word choice is key! Let’s look at two descriptions for the same activity:
“Computed math problems. Went to National Math Championship and scored high. Helped younger students with math homework”
“Founded Math Club; invited to National Math Championship, placed 2nd nationally; assisted students with AP Calculus homework and tutored AP Stats”
The second description is significantly stronger than the first. Why?
Let’s start with the first sentence. “Computed math problems” is to be assumed. There is no need to restate what the admission officer can probably guess. Another example of this mistake would be using the statement “debated topics” for a Debate Club activity.
When you’re filling out your activity descriptions, I encourage you to skim through a list of action verbs. Instead of using a flat statement like “told students about STEM”, you could use a good action verb and transform it into “introduced students to STEM careers!”
In addition, it’s important to switch up the verbs you use. For example, let’s say you founded three different clubs. Instead of using the word “founded” three times, try using “founded”, “established”, and “implemented.”
Look for reasonable synonyms that don’t eat your character count too much. Also, I recommend using words that you use in everyday language. Be wary about using words on the same difficulty level as “substantiated” or “interceded.”
Have An Overall Theme
By October of my senior year, I had finalized most of my Early Decision application. However, something that I found really strengthened both my extracurriculars and my overall application is revisiting my core values. I wanted my application to have a theme.
My core values were:
- intellectual vigor
- strong communication skills
I later revised my activity descriptions to better capture some of these values. For example, instead of describing my Yearbook Editor position with the statement “used Photoshop to design spreads,” I changed it to align with my leadership quality and wrote “mentored staff members in Photoshop and design”.
Cut It Out!
Having trouble keeping your description within the character limit? Try rephrasing. Here’s an example:
Example 1: I organized soccer games for local community members. I am the captain and fundraising chair. I fundraised $300 through the Millerstown baked goods sale. I lead teammates to victory at 2021 Bakersville Cup against the Branchburg Tigers
Example 2: Organized soccer games for locals, fundraised $300 through bake sale, lead teammates to victory at 2021 Bakersville Cup
Look at that! I reduced the character count from 235 to 119. Now there’s more room to add other things you accomplished with the activity. Don’t be afraid to use semicolons, commas, and sentence fragments.
Move Your Words
Pro tip: instead of describing your role in the description, add it to the Position/Leadership description box! This saves space for your description. In the example below, Student #1 uses the description box incorrectly.
Position/Leadership Role: Swimmer
Organization Name: Swim Team
Description: “I am the swim captain…”
Position/Leadership Role: Captain of Varsity Swim Team
Organization Name: Lion Aquatics (#1 in Idaho)
Description: “Responsible for coaching…”
- Use present tense
- Mention selectivity. For example, were you one student selected out of 100 students to be NHS president?
- Quantify everything! Instead of saying “revised many editions for the school Food Magazine,” say “revised 20 editions of Fork Magazine.”
- Mention the impact the activity had on others. This can’t be applied to all activities, but showing how you helped your surrounding community can help strengthen volunteer activity descriptions. Instead of saying you fundraised money, perhaps you could say how that fundraising helped the homeless stay well fed or provided those in need with basic necessities.
I want to end this article with an important reminder that it is a privilege to have access to some extracurricular activities. If you spend most of your time outside of school caring for a loved one or working, please mention this in your application.
On the other hand, for those fortunate enough to have a strong list of extracurriculars, I want you to understand that some students would kill to do what you have accomplished, but they may have had limited resources.
Be grateful for all you have done and how it has made you a stronger person. I wish you all good luck on your college applications!
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