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Hannah Smith

How to Strategize Your Common App Activities List

This post was written by our friends at Ingenius Prep.

The Common App activities list is your opportunity to provide an admissions officer with a “snapshot” of who you are as an applicant. It’s one of the best ways that you can set yourself apart from the rest of the applicant pool, and show why you’re unique.

Your achievements outside of the class are what make you stand out from other applicants. Just think, thousands of students every year get perfect scores on the SAT or graduate #1 in their high school class. So, in order to stand out in the crowd (especially a crowd full of perfect scores and valedictorians), you need to demonstrate why you’re different.

The activities list and the personal statement are the central ways to stand out on a college application. As you think about how to strategize your Common App activities list, make sure to take these 4 key factors into consideration.

1. Tangible Achievements

Concrete, tangible achievements are easy for an admissions officer to digest. In your activity descriptions, make sure that these are highlighted. Were you the president of the Drama club at school? That’s fine. But it doesn’t necessarily stand out. If you include in the description that you increased membership by 50% in a year and put on a fundraiser that raised $10,000, these examples are 1) Much more impressive than just the title of president; 2) Really display your impact on the club; and 3) Are much easier for an admissions officer to digest.

Takeaway: Be concrete!

2. Impressiveness

Order matters when it comes to your Activities List. Your most impressive experiences should be towards the top of the list. There are certain ways to strategize this, but it’s generally a good rule to follow.

How do you judge impressiveness? I always like to think about it in terms of comparisons. Is the average high school student doing this activity? Yes? Then it’s usually less impressive. No? Then it probably stands out. Examples of this include: doing research with a college professor, getting your work published, holding a meaningful job or internship, starting a club, nonprofit, or business.

That being said, there are plenty of ways to differentiate yourself from other students within more typical activities. Go back to #1 for a concrete example!

3. Sustained Involvement

Maintaining involvement within your activities (and across activities of a similar nature) throughout high school indicates focus. Top schools are looking for students who are passionate and involved. Identifying your passion early on in high school is a key way to make sure you show sustained involvement on your application.

Jumping around from activity to activity that aren’t at all related indicates that you’re not sure of yourself. And while most high school students do not have their entire lives mapped out, it is important to clearly show what you’re interested in. Developing this over time is one of the best ways to display a dedicated interest on your activities list!

4. Your “Application Persona”

Sustained involvement in your activities is the first step towards putting together a good theme or “persona” for your application. Your activities list is the first way you can show a common theme. Take, for example, a student who has done the following:

  • Captain of the soccer team
  • Student council representative
  • Member of the Spanish Club
  • Member of the debate team
  • National Honors Society
  • Volunteers with Habitat for Humanity
  • Tutors middle schoolers in Math

This student seems like a great person and high achieving, but there isn’t really a defining theme to his/her activities. It doesn’t stand out. Compare this with the following:

  • Wrote and self-published a book of poetry
  • Writes for the school newspaper
  • Works on the school yearbook
  • Started a book club at school
  • Volunteers at an ESL literacy after-school program

These activities show much more focus and interest in a specific field (mainly writing). The student is clearly passionate. And what’s more, is that this passion is easy to see even in the bullet-form above. Think about how much more you can show that on an entire application!

Make sure to keep these 4 key factors in mind as you strategize your Common App activities list. It’s a major player in the first impression you will make on an application reader. So make sure you stand out!

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About Hannah Smith

Hannah Smith is a graduate of Stanford University and admissions expert at InGenius Prep.


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