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How to Write the Common App Activities Section (with examples!)

Write the Common Application

How to Write the Common App Activities Section (with examples!)
Cassandra Cloutier
How to Write the Common App Activities Section (with examples!)

We see it all too often in the college admissions process: Students feel satisfied with their GPA, test scores, and their common app essay, shift their focus to school supplements, and save their common app activities list until the last minute. Don’t make this mistake! To admissions officers, the Activities List offers a quick glimpse at how involved you are, what you’re interested in, and the impact you’ve had. Below you’ll find advice on how to fill out your list and activities section examples that will help you stand out to your admissions committee without having to dedicate a huge amount of time to it.

What Admissions Officers Want From your Activities List; Brainstorming content: Think Beyond 12th Grade and Expected Activities; Writing the descriptions: Make the most of your limited space; Determine the order of importance based on description, leadership description, and time; Is your list of activities too short? Not finding enough space? Use the Additional Info section
What Admissions Officers Want From your Activities List; Brainstorming content: Think Beyond 12th Grade and Expected Activities; Writing the descriptions: Make the most of your limited space; Determine the order of importance based on description, leadership description, and time; Is your list of activities too short? Not finding enough space? Use the Additional Info section

What Admissions Officers Want From your Activities List 

Before you start building your common app activities section, it’s important to know what college admissions folk keep top of mind:

Sustained engagement

‍They’ll look more highly at activities you’ve done over a long time and/or for many hours a week. Sustained engagement shows you actually care about this thing (and are likely to keep caring as a college student and graduate).


‍Admissions officers like to see you held a leadership role. Formal roles – where you can list a title like “vice president” – are easiest, but even an informal leadership description can add to your college application.


Admissions officers like seeing your unique contribution to the activity. Think about if you were never a part of this extracurricular activity. How would it have been different? (Bonus points if you can quantify your impact with numbers or concrete achievements)

Potential to succeed

‍Admissions officers look for 5 traits that indicate a student will succeed in college and beyond: Drive, Intellectual Curiosity, Initiative, Contribution and Diversity of Experiences. Many activities, formal and informal, can show these traits — fake-trading stocks to write about them in your school newspaper(Intellectual Curiosity), cultivating a large following by building a social media community with a shared interest in robotics (Initiative, Drive), and so many more.

Brainstorming content: Think Beyond 12th Grade and Expected Activities

What have you been up to since the start of high school? It’s surprisingly easy to forget about your own activities and accomplishments. Using our free brainstorming tools can be an excellent starting place before you head to the activities section of the common app. 

In addition, try to think through your school years chronologically and consider content from all grade levels, so you don’t leave anything out. This might also be a great time to call in a parent for support. They just might remember the stuff they had to pay for, drive you to, or listen to you talk about.

Bear in mind that informal activities can be powerful additions to your List. Students often leave off great experiences, to which they’ve devoted substantial time, because they don’t seem “activity-y” enough or they didn’t come with a specific leadership position. Be creative! Ideas include:

Jobs, even short employment stints 

It’s perfectly fine if the position was a typical “high school student” job and didn’t require much skill. You can learn and have impact in any job. 

Taking care of siblings or other relatives; taking on household tasks or household management

Spending time helping your family is important work. It can say a lot about you. As with any other activity, focus on your impact and growth, and quantify when possible.

Note: students with significant family obligations often use the “Additional Info” section to expand on their description. 


If you pursued an interest seriously outside of school (read: demonstrated that Intellectual Curiosity readers love to see), it might be worth writing about here.

Self-learning activities could include trading stocks, taking an online course with an ivy league professor, attending summer programs, honing advanced knitting skills, or learning a foreign language. You may have done this unknowingly: Did your volunteer work inspire you to learn about a particular cause or issue? Did a chaotic student council meeting spark your interest organizational psychology?

Creative projects like blogging, YouTube channels with original music, Etsy stores

Projects like these can show tremendous drive and creativity. However, you’ll need solid metrics for this activity type to add to your application.

Example: Created YouTube channel reviewing favorite nostalgic Disney movies. Grew channel to 1000 subscribers within 3 months. 

A one-off seminar, community service day, or other interesting activity

Note: don’t include short events if you have too many activities, especially if your participation mirrors something you did in a similar activity. 

Prioritize the ones where you spend the most time, or have the most impact.

Writing the descriptions: Make the most of your limited space

Now, your challenge is to pack each of your 150-character activity descriptions with as many concrete examples as you can to show engagement, leadership, impact and the 5 traits. 

There are lots of ways to pack a punch even though the character count has to be 150 or less. Here are the ones we’ve found to be the most helpful:

Tip #1: Explain what the activity was, what you did

If the organization name provides enough information for the admissions reader to understand the basics of the activity (Model UN, Speech & Debate, Athletics), don’t waste space explaining. 

For activities and clubs that are specific to your school, add just a few words of context. Often, it’s helpful to spell out your responsibilities — what did you do? This can do a few things:

  • Show the reader what the unusual activity is. 
  • Show what kinds of skills you’re likely building.
  • Show you’re acting as a leader, even if you don’t have a formal leadership role.

Call in an outside person and ask them what they think each activity was, and what they think you did in it. This can be a friend, a trusted grownup, or a professional

Tip #2: Begin each phrase with a strong verb. 

Starting with a powerful verb (present tense if the activity is ongoing, past tense if not) will help the reader envision your active role in the organization.

Instead of:

  • Did
  • Took
  • Went
  • Led
  • Helped
  • Received

Look for specific alternatives like:

  • Conducted
  • Guided
  • Competed
  • Facilitated
  • Offered
  • Surpassed

Tip #3: Cut complete sentences into succinct phrases.

In this example, the student wastes valuable space:

I led a movie club of peers and senior citizens at the local library, where we watched several movies and talked about how we felt after watching them

Instead, they could pack in:

Chose 12 films for group of 8 peers and senior citizens to discuss. Prepared analysis questions and encouraged each person to offer their opinion

By cutting the description into phrases and removing the location (which could probably be covered in the organization title), the student is able to add more details to clarify their contribution.

Tip #4: Focus on the problems you solved and/or impact you had.

Most people make a mistake here.They list things that anyone in their position would have done:

Wrote articles for the school newspaper. 

Collected donations at a fundraising event. 

Performed in concert with orchestra honors section.

Instead, think about what you did that someone else didn’t or couldn’t have done? (Or done as well). This student’s list could evolve into:

Demystified new junior curriculum requirements in digital newspaper’s most-viewed article of the semester.

Raised over $1000 to help all debate members travel to the state tournament. 

Performed 4 solos, the highest number of any ensemble member this year.

Tip #5: Quantify your impact.

Once you’ve determined your impact, try as much as possible to translate it into numbers or concrete achievements. Even real accomplishments can seem limp if you don’t find ways to make the reader understand what they mean. 


Victorious in a high-stakes yearly contest at work. Competed fiercely, using cunning, strategy, and collaboration to succeed.


Deemed top latte artist of 8 baristas. Studied new frothing techniques and researched judges’ favorite animals to present personalized entries.

By quantifying the experience and explaining their strategy, the second example helps the reader to understand the achievement. 

If you earned awards, mention them. They’ll show quantifiable impact.  

If you’re struggling to articulate your contribution to your school clubs or other club/activities where you were part of a large group, recruit someone to tease out aspects of what you’ve done that may be more impressive — even in a small way — than you think. Having an essay coach is the easiest way to do this, but there’s also a lot of value in getting a counselor, teacher, or parent to go through it with you.  

Determine the order of importance based on description, leadership description, and time

Consider these 3 factors as you decide on an order for your list:

  1. How impressive is the description? — Descriptions with big impacts or awards should come first.
  2. Which activities correspond to leadership roles?  
  3. How much time have you devoted? (Per week and over what period) 

There isn't a hard and fast rule here. But these questions should help guide you.

Is your list of activities too short? Not finding enough space? Use the Additional Info section

If your Activities List is light, put it in context for the admissions reader. For example:

  • Is your school commute 1.5 hours each way?
  • Do you practice violin four hours every day, no exceptions?
  • Are your family responsibilities intensive?

If you fit this kind of unusual pattern, use the Additional Info section to write a straightforward account of why your list might appear bare. 

If you have an activity that requires more than 150 characters to fully explain, you can add to your description in your Additional Information Section. 

If you’re worried about how to put yourself in the best light possible while staying 100% truthful, call in an expert or bring in someone whose opinion you trust. Getting this right is hard, but it really matters.

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Cassandra Cloutier
Cassandra Cloutier is a NY-based actor, writer, and educator. She graduated from Marymount Manhattan College in 2019 with a BFA in acting, and her acting credits include Evil Lives Here on Discovery+ and productions at The Actor’s Temple and Shakespeare NYC. She worked as a Writing Coordinator and the Social Media Manager for Prompt for several years and until August 2023.