Tips for the Common Application Activities Section

Most college-bound students will complete the Common Application. One section of the 2015-2016 Common Application that confuses many students is the activities section. Demonstrating participation and accomplishment through extracurricular activities is essential for all college applicants. Extracurricular activities can take on a special importance for homeschoolers. Stereotypes about homeschoolers persist and activities are an opportunity to demonstrate that teens have been well-socialized and are  members of their communities. Here are a few tips for making a good impression in the activities section.

Ten Activities Aren’t Necessary
Many students see ten lines in the activities section and they panic. They may not have ten high school activities or ten activities that they find to be important. That is totally fine. By offering room for ten activities the Common Application is not saying students should have ten activities, just that they possibly may. What really impresses colleges are activities where your student has dedicated him or herself and demonstrated a commitment to persist and work hard. Coming up with lots of tiny activities they devoted just a little bit of energy to impresses no one.

What’s an Activity? How You Spend Your Time
According to the Common Application “your activities may include arts, athletics, clubs, employment, personal commitments, and other pursuits.” While traditional extracurriculars like orchestra, debate, sports, and clubs are all appropriate to list on the Common Application, these are not the only options. Activities on the Common Application do not need to be based in schools or through traditional organizations like Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts.  Students are really being asked to explain how they spend their time in productive ways. Playing video games or hanging out with friends at the beach doesn’t count as an extracurricular activity. Designing iPhone apps or working at the beach as a lifeguard are appropriate to list. Some of the diverse options for extra curricular activities on the Common Application drop down menu include career oriented activities, cultural activities, family responsibilities, environmental, religious, robotics, science/math, and paid work.

Most Important Activities First
Applicants are encouraged to put their most important activities first. Sometimes students have trouble with this. They may want to list the activity that they think sounds the most impressive to other people. Instead encourage your homeschooler to think about the activity that they’ve devoted a lot of time to and feel has been most important to their development.

Details About Activities
Students are asked to indicate some specific details about their activities including the grades in which they participated, if the participation was during the summer or year-round, and how many hours they typically devoted to the activity. Most of us don’t keep time logs of every minute of our days, so estimating is what is expected here. Encourage your student to be realistic and not to over or underestimate. Often I find that teenagers don’t have a really accurate gauge of time so it may be helpful to weigh in with your own observations.

Position and Organization Details
The first text field provides a place for students to list position/leadership name and organization name if applicable. The text for this answer is limited to 50 characters including spaces. Examples of student answers might include:

First chair violin, Mid-Central Youth Orchestra
Green Committee Chair, Youth In Action
Junior Volunteer, Central Food Pantry

Please Describe this Activity
The second text field allows you to elaborate and provide more detail. “Please describe this activity, including what you accomplished and any recognition you received, etc. This response text is limited to 150 characters including spaces. You have some flexibility here. Take the time to plan your answer carefully and remember that your reader may not be familiar with the specific activities or organizations you are involved with. Play around with different answers to see how much information you share and stay within the allowed word count.

common application activities previewPreview is a Must
Be sure to take the time to preview your activities on the screen. This will allow you to get a sense of how your activities all look together and what picture they may paint of you as an application. This is also a good time to make sure you’ve proofread this section of your application carefully.

Take Advantage of this Opportunity
Colleges want to recruit students who have demonstrated they are good citizens who are involved in developing their talents and contributing to their communities. Admissions officers know that students who were immersed in activities during their high school years are more likely to also be active on their college campus. Make the best use you can of the activities section of the Common Application to showcase what you have been able to do with the freedom and flexibility afforded by a homeschool education.

You may also be interested in:
Common Application Essay Strategies

29 comments

Skip to comment form

    • Annie Marie Peters on September 3, 2014 at 1:18 pm
    • Reply

    Wonderful advice! I think it’s tempting for homeschool teens to want to cram their Common Application with as many activities as possible, but it really is about quality over quantity.

    • Evan on October 19, 2014 at 7:07 pm
    • Reply

    At the end of each activity, there is a yes/no question asking if I want to continue this activity in college. Should I say yes to all of them to demonstrate possible activeness in college? Or would something like Spanish club not make sense to continue because not all colleges have such a club?

    1. Hi Evan,
      I’d just try to answer honestly and not over-think it. Assuming the college offers a similar club or activity, do you still want to participate? It is pretty common for students to carry on some but not all of their high school interests into college so you don’t have to say yes to everything.
      Good luck with your applications,
      Barbara

    • Abigail on December 2, 2014 at 10:17 am
    • Reply

    What if we have private lessons? Is it a good idea to put that up as an activity?

    1. Hi Abigail,
      Sure, private lessons such as music lessons are an activity. Activities are really the way you spend your time engaged in something productive and private lessons fall into that category.
      Best of luck,
      Barbara

    • Michelle on August 17, 2015 at 11:24 am
    • Reply

    I’ve been playing viola since I was young. I’m in my HS orchestra, chamber (first chair 9-12), and participated in multiple festival events. I want to put viola player as the “position” but I feel like there would be too much information to include and I’m only allowed 150 characters. I’ve also heard that it’s not good to put stuff in the additional info category. What should I do?

    1. Dear Michelle,
      Thanks for your question. It would be great to include you were first chair 9-12 – that shows you are successful with your instrument and that you’ve had a leadership role. Yes, you are limited by characters but if you find a way to play around with it you’ll figure out how to make the most important stuff fit.
      Barbara

    • Aili on August 18, 2015 at 6:16 pm
    • Reply

    Quick Questions:

    1. How do we title the activity if we had a leadership position in 11th grade, but not 12th grade? Would it be correct to say for example (for my journalism publication): “Reporter, Social Media Producer (11), Mustang Morning News”?

    2. What are some things that you SHOULDN’T say in your details portion of each activity? I’m kind of having a difficult time deciding how to phrase those right to make them sound wholesome but not too ‘showy’.

    Thanks!

    1. Thanks for your questions. The student will be able to list the years they participated and how many hours. On the description of activities, applicants should feel free to “toot their own horn.” It isn’t braggy to share positive things about yourself or your accomplishments.

    • Mina on September 9, 2015 at 4:47 pm
    • Reply

    Should I include National Honor Societies in the activities section if I’ve already listed it under education?

    1. Dear Mina,
      There is no single rule here. It just depends on what you have to choose from and how involved you’ve been in the activity.
      Best wishes,
      Barbara

    • Kathy on September 11, 2015 at 4:46 pm
    • Reply

    How would you suggest listing the “Hours” field?
    For example my daughter may spend 2 hours one week yet 12 another in student government . Also she plays a seasonal spot– 10-15 hours per week, but only for 2 months,but played every year since 10th grade?
    She also plays for one month for a seasonal community music group-a prestigious, audition only part– it’s 3 hours a week for 5 weeks only,but participated– every year– this is her 6th consecutive year.
    So hard to list when they are not full year activities, and when the hours vary from week to week.

    1. Kathy,
      There is no perfect answer here. As most of us don’t walk around with stop watches we just have to guess the average. College admissions understand that some activities run year round and some (such as a being in a theater performance) may be intense but for a shorter period of time. Encourage your daughter to just estimate the best she can and not worry about it too much.
      Barbara

    • LiLy on October 8, 2015 at 7:03 pm
    • Reply

    Should I combine activities if they are similar. e.g. many orchestra participation; summer jobs, etc.? Thanks.

    1. Hello Lily,
      Yes, that is totally fine to combine similar activities such as several theater productions, etc. It is a strategy that many busy students use in order to make their activities fit the space available.

    • bridget on October 20, 2015 at 4:04 pm
    • Reply

    My son ran spring track grades 9-11 and will run again in grade 12 too. Is it correct to check all grades 9-12 for his participation in spring track even though the spring season for 12th grade did not start yet?

    1. Yes, that would be correct!

    • Megan on November 4, 2015 at 6:55 pm
    • Reply

    Would being a parent qualify for the “family responsibilities” section? I have a 2 year old.

    1. Yes, absolutely!

    • Rosanna on November 17, 2015 at 11:07 pm
    • Reply

    I am currently involved in some activities that I am really proud of and would like to include on my Common App, but I am not sure if I should include them since I’ve only been involved with them in a short time. Is there a way that I can state that the activities are ongoing or should I just not include them?

    1. There will be space to indicate the grades you were involved, the weeks a year, and the hours a week. It is fine to list new activities if they are important to you.

    • Maria on March 17, 2016 at 11:52 am
    • Reply

    I too am confused by the activities section. My daughter takes piano and voice lessons, she is involved in choir in school and community theater. Under activity, does she list musical theater as the activity or does she list each play she has been in. Also, she has had a lead role in each, does that count for leadership. She was rehearsal assistant for a production but just once. Is it okay to list it even if she only did it one time? Thanks

    1. Hello Maria,
      There really are not firm rules and the way activities are arranged with vary based on the student’s record. Often it works best to just start grouping activities and see how they fit in the space. Often students will list an activity like musical theater and then provide some detail like – Roles in six YouthCenter productions. Also, as a homeschooler you may also have options elsewhere in your homeschool documents or application to provide additional detail.

    • John on September 10, 2016 at 12:42 pm
    • Reply

    Would it be okay to combine club and school soccer into one activity. I plan on mentioning my club soccer with my school soccer since its very minimal. Under “Athletics: JV/Varsity”. I don’t want to put it on a separate “Athletics: Club” because I don’t have a lot to say about club soccer. School soccer is my main. Should I combine or separate the two?

    1. Sure, that would could work well.

    • Wendy on October 10, 2016 at 10:45 am
    • Reply

    We are having trouble with the “average hours per week” section. My son has a weekend activity once per month (Friday night through Sunday at noon). He has answered the “weeks per year” as “12”. Does he answer the “average hours per week” as the total hours divided by 52 (weeks in a year), or the total hours divided by 12 (weeks he has put down as participating)?

    1. Hello Wendy,
      It is a common question that students have. Admissions understands some activities run year round and some meet just occasionally or for a shorter period of time. Let’s take an example. If once a month your works at the food bank for a four hour shift – I would answer that he is participates 12 weeks a year, four hours per week. I hope that helps!

    • Ahmad on October 15, 2016 at 10:37 am
    • Reply

    my high school didn’t show much attention towards activities (it’s a Saudi Arabian high school).
    In Saudi Arabia here colleges don’t care about activities and they don’t even bother to ask about activities. i never knew the importance of extra curricular activities until now that i’m applying to U.S colleges. That’s why i never really had the chance to participate in school activities. should i mention what i just said in the common app?
    one other problem is that i’m applying to U of Michigan and in their essays they ask me to talk about one of my activities. i have nothing to talk about. HELP ME 🙁

    1. Dear Ahmad,
      Yes, this is a common situation for international applicants. I encourage you to look at your life and think about anything you did aside from work in the classroom. It doesn’t just have to be organized activities. Do you write poetry? Spend time caring for an older relative? Do you play guitar? All of these are kinds of extracurricular activities.
      Good luck!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.