Updated on January 19th, 2024
Completing the Common Application is practically essential for students applying for college admission. Admission officers from over 800 colleges and universities use it, so there is a good chance your student will at least consider attending one of them.
The full multi-step Common App process requires at least as much work, if not more than filling out the FAFSA. And every section in the admissions process is incredibly important if your student is going to gain entry into one of their preferred schools successfully.
While many students focus most of their attention on the Common App college essays, they need to make sure that they don’t overlook other areas, including the activities list. By including solid descriptions, your student can highlight portions of their experience that can help them stand out from other applicants.
If your student wants to make sure that their activities shine on their Common Application, here’s what they need to know.
- 1 Why is the Common Application Activities Section Important?
- 2 Common App Activity Categories
- 3 Choosing the Right Activities to List on the Common Application
- 4 Completing the Common Application Activities Section
- 5 Participation in College
- 6 FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
- 6.1 SHOULD I USE ABBREVIATIONS OR ACRONYMS WHEN DESCRIBING ACTIVITIES ON THE COMMON APP?
- 6.2 ARE SPACES AND PUNCTUATION COUNTED AS CHARACTERS WHEN COMPLETING COMMON APP ACTIVITIES SECTIONS?
- 6.3 HOW DO I RANK ACTIVITIES ON THE COMMON APP?
- 6.4 DO COLLEGES SEE YOUR ACTIVITIES ON THE COMMON APP?
- 6.5 WHAT IF I DON’T HAVE MANY ACTIVITIES TO LIST BECAUSE OF TIME SPENT SUPPORTING MY FAMILY OR HOUSEHOLD?
- 6.6 WHY ISN’T MY ACTIVITIES SECTION MARKED AS COMPLETE ON THE COMMON APP?
Why is the Common Application Activities Section Important?
While it may seem like the Common App Activities section is an optional supplement, it isn’t. Highly selective schools will review this section to help admissions officers identify stand-out students, ensuring they make sound admission decisions.
Listing extracurricular activities can allow your student to elevate themselves above other applicants with similar GPAs and test scores. Your student can use this section to show what they are like outside of a traditional classroom.
The Common App uses a drop-down menu to help students divide their activities into preset categories. The options include:
- Athletics: Club
- Athletics: JV/Varsity
- Community Service (Volunteer)
- Family Responsibilities
- Foreign Exchange
- Junior R.O.T.C.
- Music: Instrumental
- Music: Vocal
- School Spirit
- Student Gov.t./Politics
- Work (paid)
- Other Club/Activity
Students need to choose the option that represents the best fit. The goal is to select the most relevant one based on what your student wishes to highlight from that experience.
While the dropdown includes categories for almost any activity, there may be times with the Common Application doesn’t have one for a specific activity. When this happens, students can choose “Other Club/Activity” and provide the additional information section details in the “Position/Leadership” description.
If you and your student want to learn more about finding scholarships to help reduce the cost of college, sign up for our free college scholarship webinar! Head over to https://thescholarshipsystem.com/freewebinar to reserve your spot today.
Choosing the Right Activities to List on the Common Application
Your student can only include ten activities on the Common Application. As a result, they may need to be selective if they have more than ten experiences they want to share.
Ideally, your student should favor those that mean the most to them, above all else. In some cases, this could involve focusing on particular organizations. In others, it may mean concentrating on activities that showcase their capabilities in specific areas, like leadership or community service.
The goal is to ensure that the college admissions officer gets a clear idea of what your student values and who they are as a person. Whichever activities make that possible are the ones that need to make the list.
It is important to remember that it’s okay for students to list fewer than ten activities on their Common Application. Some activities represent a more significant commitment or will span across multiple grades, so your student might not have had time for other experiences. That’s not going to hinder their application, and including less than ten won’t work against them in the college admissions process.
Completing the Common Application Activities Section
Once your student knows what activities they want to include on their Common Application, it’s time to add them. Overall, the process is reasonably straightforward. Here’s a look at what your student will need to do.
Choose an Activity Category from the List
First, your student will need to choose the activity type from the category dropdown. If more than one applies, your student should select the option that is most relevant based on what they want to convey.
Describe the Position and Organization
After the category is selected, your student will need to create a brief description of the role in the top box. They only have up to 50 characters to discuss the position, so they will need to be concise. However, it’s also vital to be descriptive, particularly since they will only have a limited number of characters in the second box as well.
For example, instead of listing “President” and then mentioning that it was a student council position in the second box, your student could say, “Student Council President.” That way, that detail is covered, and they’ll have more space for the description in the second box to discuss their responsibilities.
If they’ve held more than one position in the organization, then it’s best to focus on the highest one. This approach allows them to highlight their most significant achievement with that group.
Then, your student needs to provide the organization name. If the organization usually goes by an acronym, it’s still best to write it out. It isn’t wise to assume that the college admissions committee is familiar with the acronym, so writing out the full name is the safest option.
Writing the Activity Description
In the activity description area, your student only has 150 characters available. Since that is a minimal number, your student needs to make every single one count.
They need to avoid rehashing anything in the top box, as that information is already shared. Additionally, they want to use the resume-writing bullet point approach, avoiding “I” statements and forgoing complete sentences.
Emphasizing their impact tangibly is also smart. By quantifying the details and being specific, a statement is more powerful. For example, instead of stating, “Raised money for a community project,” use “Raised $5,000 to fund the creation of a community garden that provides fresh produce to the food bank.”
Using active verbs also makes an activity sound more impactful. They grab the reader’s attention and clarify what your student accomplished while working with the organization. Here are just a few examples of powerful active verbs:
While the examples above are all past tense, your student should use the present tense if they are still handling those tasks. However, if they are no longer performing in that role, the past tense is a must.
It’s also best to vary the verbs you use. Using different ones to describe various activities or tasks makes your student’s descriptions more engaging.
However, your student also needs to avoid extreme language. Instead of saying that they want to help “everyone in need” or they want to “end homelessness,” they need to temper it down. They could be assisting “those in need” or “help in the fight against homelessness.”
Grade Levels and Time Commitments
Your student also has to list when they took part in the activity. The Common Application relies on grade levels instead of ages or years. High school grades are described as 9-12. Anything after high school is considered post-graduate.
If your student took part during the summer between two grades, they should list the higher one. For example, if the activity happened in the summer between 11th and 12th grade, they should list it as a 12th-grade activity.
When your student estimates the time involved, they don’t have to get it perfect. As long as the number is realistic and reasonably accurate, it will be fine.
Participation in College
In the Common Application activities section, your student has to say whether they intend to participate in a similar extracurricular activity while they are in college. This helps the schools understand what kind of student yours plans on being and where their priorities, interests, or passions lie.
Now, this doesn’t mean your high school student will be penalized if they say “no.” First, some activities will naturally come to an end once they head to college. Not all of them translate into the college experience, and that’s alright.
Additionally, for high school students, saying that they want to keep participating doesn’t mean they’ll get in trouble if they can’t continue. Unless your student has a scholarship that depends on their participation, they can change their mind and stop pursuing it once they get to college without a penalty. All a “yes” means is that your student is interested in keeping it up; it’s not a commitment to do so.
Once they answer that question, that activity’s listing is complete. Your student can add more, if they have any, or simply save the information and move forward with their other Common Application activities.
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
SHOULD I USE ABBREVIATIONS OR ACRONYMS WHEN DESCRIBING ACTIVITIES ON THE COMMON APP?
As mentioned previously, it’s usually best not to assume that admissions committees are familiar with specific abbreviations or acronyms when describing activities on the Common App. However, there are a few exceptions.
Particular abbreviations or acronyms are well-known, so using them isn’t typically an issue. For example, most people understand that “US” usually stands for “United States.” Similarly, using “UN” instead of “United Nations” or “NHS” for “National Honor Society” isn’t typically problematic.
However, if the abbreviation isn’t associated with a national-level organization that’s widely recognized, then it’s better to write out the name at least once. For organizations, writing it out entirely in the organization name field is typically the best choice. If they have characters left, they can add the acronym after it in parentheses, allowing them to use the abbreviation elsewhere in the entry.
ARE SPACES AND PUNCTUATION COUNTED AS CHARACTERS WHEN COMPLETING COMMON APP ACTIVITIES SECTIONS?
Yes, punctuation and spaces –like letters and digits – are counted as characters when completing fields in the Common App activities list. As a result, students should be strategic about their use (or non-use) to make the most out of a section without exceeding the character limit.
For example, students may want to skip punctuation when using specific well-known abbreviations, such as writing “US” instead of “U.S.” when referencing the United States. With that example, students cut the character count from four to two using “US” instead of the alternative, which can make a difference.
HOW DO I RANK ACTIVITIES ON THE COMMON APP?
When students fill out their Common App activities list, it’s best to put them in order based on their importance or noteworthiness. Essentially, a student’s standout entries need to be at the top, while those that are less impressive – but still worth including – should be lower on the list.
Ideally, students want to lead with the activity that’s most likely to intrigue the admissions committee at the school receiving their application. They can start with a bang and make a strong initial impression.
For most students, that means focusing on activities with high levels of involvement or ones related to their future (or current) major. Follow that entry up with the next most intriguing, continuing that process until every entry is entered.
Students who plan to apply to several colleges or universities can also reorder their activities before each submission. By doing so, they can present the information to speak to that specific school’s potential priorities.
Unfortunately, reordering the activities is a highly manual process. However, it’s potentially worth doing if it increases a student’s chances of impressing the admissions committee.
Just be aware that any changes to the order only apply to applications submitted after the adjustments are made. Any applications already sent to colleges won’t update to reflect the new order. The benefit here is that it allows students to change not just the order but also the activities they present to entice specific schools.
By using the update process, students use the same technique as tailoring a resume to a specific job. Past submitted applications remain intact, but new ones will include details most relevant to those admissions committees, which could give students an edge.
DO COLLEGES SEE YOUR ACTIVITIES ON THE COMMON APP?
Colleges and universities can see a student’s activities list when they submit their Common App for consideration. In fact, this is one of the sections that helps schools get to know students on a deeper level. It showcases information beyond academic details, giving colleges a more holistic view of what an applicant brings.
How much weight a specific college or university gives to the activities list can vary. Generally, extracurriculars aren’t given as much weight as GPAs, courseloads, and standardized test scores. It’s also common for schools to factor in the answers to Common App essay questions more than the activities list.
But that doesn’t mean the extracurriculars aren’t important. Sometimes, they can be the difference between being selected for admission and being passed over. Activities may be a differentiator if a college is choosing between two students with similar academic backgrounds and essay quality.
The activities may also help a student with a solid – but not stellar – academic background get selected, as it showcases their value in a different way. Essentially, it ensures that students who’ve contributed to their communities had standout non-academic achievements, or another feature not discussed in other parts of their application get noticed.
So, yes, colleges and universities do check students’ Common App activities lists, and in some cases, what’s featured in that section makes a big difference.
WHAT IF I DON’T HAVE MANY ACTIVITIES TO LIST BECAUSE OF TIME SPENT SUPPORTING MY FAMILY OR HOUSEHOLD?
Many students have limited time for activities because of family obligations, so they may worry that they don’t have enough extracurriculars to add to their college application. Fortunately, students can list those tasks under the “Family Responsibilities” category in the Common App activities section, allowing them to have more entries.
A wide variety of household duties can fall into that category. Caring for younger siblings while parents work is a prime example. However, if the student’s contribution is significant, cooking regularly, handling the bulk of the cleaning tasks, and similar responsibilities are worth mentioning.
The benefit of adding family responsibilities to their Common App is that it gives colleges critical context regarding why they may not have other types of extracurriculars listed. It shows the admissions committees that the student was contributing to their household, limiting their time for other activities. Plus, these types of duties can demonstrate the student has a variety of desirable traits, which may improve their chances of getting admitted.
WHY ISN’T MY ACTIVITIES SECTION MARKED AS COMPLETE ON THE COMMON APP?
There are several reasons why a student’s Common App activities section might show as incomplete. Generally, it means a required part of at least one entry is missing.
Students should review their activities list to see if each entry has a green checkmark. If the checkmark is missing next to an activity on the list, they need to add additional information to that entry.
Students can reopen the entries without green checkmarks and see if a required field is missing. They should review those activities carefully, verifying that every part of the entry is complete.
One of the points students often miss is to state whether they intend to continue with that specific activity while in college. However, any missing field can prevent the section from showing as completed.
If a student doesn’t see anything missing, one troubleshooting step they can try is to delete that activity and re-enter it as a new one. Before they delete the original, students should copy the description to avoid having to rewrite it from scratch. They can also record other parts of the entry to streamline the re-entry process. Then, create a new activity for the list and go through the fields in order. Once saved, they can see if it now has a green checkmark.
If the fields are all complete but still do not show a green checkmark, students can contact the Common App Solutions Center for assistance.
Want to learn more about how students can land scholarships to reduce the cost of college? Sign up for our free college scholarship webinar! Take a trip over to https://thescholarshipsystem.com/freewebinar to reserve your spot today.