The Common App Activities List: How to Make the Most of 150 Characters

Student swim team

You should think of the the Common App Activities List as a resume.

Basically, it’s an opportunity to (briefly) highlight what you have participated in outside of the classroom and how you have made an impact through your involvement. But how can you do this effectively in just 150 characters?

Here are some tips to help you pack as much punch as possible into just a couple of lines:

1. Start with an action verb

Just like Like when writing a resume, you can use “incomplete sentences” in your activity list descriptions to maximize the amount of information you’re able to fit. To do this, start each line with an action verb (rather than “I”), using the present tense if it is something that you’re still participating in (e.g., “lead”) and the past tense if you are no longer involved (e.g., “led”).

Examples of great action verbs include: led, managed, coordinated, developed, initiated, (re)designed, achieved, analyzed, authored, trained… You get the idea!

2. Avoid vague or redundant language

One of the most common mistakes that students make when working on their activities lists is that they write descriptions that are entirely too vague or repetitive.

For example, imagine that you want to describe your experience tutoring students at a local elementary school. So you write, “Helped elementary school students.” Okay, great… but you helped them to do what? Learn to play soccer? Study math concepts? Maybe instead you write, “Tutored elementary school students.” While this is a bit clearer, we already gleaned this from what you wrote beneath “Position/Leadership description and organization name”: Tutor, XYZ Elementary School.

Instead, you should write a description that actually helps the admissions committee get an idea for what you did as a tutor. How many students did you teach at a time? Were you teaching first graders or fifth graders? Were you also responsible for developing a lesson plan? Did you do an administrative work to help their primary teacher? By including answers to questions like these in your descriptions, you will give the reader a better sense of the responsibility you had in each role.

Good example: Taught math concepts to 5 fourth grade students individually, organizing weekly lesson plans and developing games to help them learn material.

3. Demonstrate leadership and impact

Wherever possible, it’s a good idea to highlight any actions you took that demonstrate leadership. (Think of things you “led” or “initiated.”) Moreover, it’s important to clearly show not only that you led but also what you accomplished as a leader.

If you “organized a fundraiser,” how much did you raise, and whom did those funds help? If you “founded a new club at school,” how many students joined, and what was your collective impact in the community? Let’s take our previous example about tutoring elementary school students.

Bad: Tutored elementary school students.

Good: Taught math concepts to five fourth grade students individually, organizing weekly lesson plans and developing games to help them learn material.

Great: Taught math concepts to five fourth grade students individually, organizing weekly lesson plans and developed games that helped improve test scores.

Now, we understand not only that you “tutored students,” but also how you went about teaching them and what you were able to accomplish as a tutor. With such detailed descriptions, the admissions committee will get a better sense of what you’re capable of and how you might be able to contribute to their campus community.

>>> Recommended Reading: What You Should Know About The 2016-17 Common App Essay Prompts

3 Common Writing Issues To Avoid On Your College Essays