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How to Ace the Common App Activities List: A Step-by-Step Guide

24/04/202419 minute read
How to Ace the Common App Activities List: A Step-by-Step Guide

This blog post serves as a comprehensive guide to effectively crafting the Common App Activities List, an essential component of your college application. It explores what the Activities List is, why it matters, and how to present your extracurricular activities in a way that captures your unique contributions and personal growth. We'll cover common misconceptions that can lead you astray and offer some easy to follow tips and insights for transforming a dull list into one that showcases your personality and achievements and complements other elements of your overall application.

Wondering how to tackle the Activities List on the Common Application? You’ve probably already figured out that the whole process is not as simple as it appears… Well, you’re right about that.

But when it comes to submitting a stellar college application, the challenge of writing the list is also an opportunity. Once you know how to put the brief activity descriptions to work for you, you'll be surprised how much mileage you can get from from this seemingly dull format as you deftly highlight key features of your accomplishments, values, and personality.

In this post we’ll cover the following topics:

  • What is the Activities List and What’s Required
  • Some Common Misconceptions to Avoid
  • The Format and Length Requirements
  • Top Tips and Insights for Crafting High-Impact Activity Descriptions
  • Illustrations of How to Turn Dull Descriptions into Stellar Ones
  • A List of High-Impact Verbs You Can Use to Elevate Your Descriptions

What Is the Common App Activities List?

When it’s your time to make your Common App shine, one important component you’ll encounter is the Activities List. The List requires you to describe (with some ruthless brevity!) activities you’ve been involved in and awards you’ve won.

Think of the Activities List as your personal highlight reel. It allows you to showcase your extracurriculars and related passions, leadership efforts, community service work, and other types of accomplishments while providing a glimpse of your interests and experiences outside the classroom.

You can include up to ten different activities in this section, along with a brief string of crucial information about each activity (your role, responsibilities, what you did, how much time you invested…).

For this section, the Common App defines ‘Activities’ quite broadly:

  • Arts or Music
  • Clubs
  • Community Engagement
  • Family Responsibilities
  • Hobbies
  • Sports
  • Work or Volunteering
  • Other Experiences That Have Been Meaningful to You

What if you don't have traditional activities such as clubs or sports? Be sure to think about all the things you do outside of school hours, so as not to overlook any suitable activities. For example, though less conventional, you might want to include any suitable family responsibilities, work experiences, or purely personal hobbies.

There’s no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ kinds of activities really. Even unusual activities are fine. What matters is that the activity spotlights a meaningful commitment, meaningful skills, fulfilled a meaningful purpose, or had a valuable personal impact on your life or personal growth.

For example, maybe your activity is a personal passion project — you’re an amateur poet, or an avid bird watcher, or you started your own podcast, or you discovered you love volunteering at the local hospital when there while your mother or father worked their nursing shift…

To be included, an activity also doesn’t have to be a ‘success.’ Maybe you spent a year creating your own podcast and recording and posting your first season of sessions, but the programming never got a big following. Nonetheless, the time you invested, the goals you pursued, the motivation behind the effort, any skill or life lesson you learned… any of these can make the activity valuable regardless of its ‘success.’

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Dispelling Common Misconceptions About the List

Since writing a list is so simple, at least in appearance, some students rush ahead with the task without thinking it through… To be smart in your approach, you want to be sure you understand the genuine purpose of the List, avoiding the following pitfalls:

Misconception 1: The More the Merrier

Some students drop the ball because they think the Activity List is all about quantity — about how many activities you can list.

It’s highly unlikely that admissions officers will be tallying the activities in each of the hundreds or thousands of Common App applications they’ll be sifting through. In this context, the 'less is more' rule often applies, as they say, and quality over quantity is what’s to aim for.

A good way to deal with Misconception 1 is to start by openly brainstorming and listing all the activities you can think of that you've taken part in or devoted time to. Next, go ahead and decide which ones to cross off your list!

When to Consider Taking an Activity Off of Your Draft List:

  • It didn’t require any kinds of meaningful professional or interpersonal skills
  • It didn’t teach you anything
  • There was nothing challenging about it
  • It didn’t influence your personal growth or character development
  • You didn’t give it much thought, time, or commitment
  • It doesn’t fit in with the key themes, accomplishments, skills, and personal values you’ll be highlighting across other parts of your Common App application

Misconception 2: Winning Is All That Matters

Another trap easy to walk right into without realizing it is assuming the ‘purpose’ of your List is simply to demonstrate superiority compared to you peers, essentially endowing your achievements or awards with ultimate value in themselves.

Striving above all to show how your achievements surpass those of others (unless its part of positive competitive nature that you cultivate for some greater purpose) means you're running the risk your list will make an unfavorable impression, with admissions officers wondering if you're overly self-centered and focused on the wrong priorities.

That said, a college advisor may tell you to focus on what ‘distinguishes’ you, such as college advisor Lessa Scherrer, who says “Especially if you are aiming for those name-brand schools, you should focus your application... on those activities where you have really distinguished yourself.”

One part of this advice is spot on — which is the reminder of focusing on quality over quantity when selecting which activities and how many to include. But if you're mostly try to make yourself look better than everyone else, that could lead you astray.

For example, if you get overly focused on surpassing others, might you be tempted to distort the truth by exaggerating your achievements?... Hopefully not!. Just remember that the activities list is a chance to let your unique interests, values, and aptitudes shine, it's not designed for grandstanding.

Misconception 3: A List Is a List Is a List…

Another fatal misconception involves assuming that writing your own Common App Activities List requires no forethought because it’s just a list, like an everyday To-Do List or Grocery List!

Don’t let the task’s simplicity fool you. All college admissions advisors know how deceptively simple activities lists can be, including those on the Common App. We also know that this very simplicity is what can make them so frustrating.

In essence, you’re asked to make a List, but everyone knows, in a competitive admissions context, your List needs to be more than just a simple list. Writing your activities list merits full-blown reflection and thoughtful writing and re-writing steps (with guidance from the Top Tips below, and even better, with the help of a skilled admissions counselor or other qualified adult).

What’s the Essential Purpose of Your Common App Activities List?

Central to crafting your list wisely and artfully is understanding that the list is a crucial opportunity to spotlight your personality, aptitudes, values, character traits, and ‘relational strengths’ — such as leader, helper, facilitator, organizer, planner...

Simply stated, you want the activities and activity descriptions to help admissions officers get a glimpse of the real ‘you’ behind your GPA, test scores, AP courses, and so on…

Remember, selective colleges are looking for academic accomplishments but also candidates with self-awareness and relational awareness who will make a positive impact on campus. A thoughtfully crafted Common App Activities List can highlight and reveal a lot about these dimensions of your personality.

Understanding the Format: Making the Most of Limited Space

  • The Common App Activities List provides specific fields for each activity (listed below).
  • You can list up to ten activities maximum.
  • For each activity you list, your description is limited to 150 characters.

1. Type of Activity

Select it from a dropdown menu of prescribed activity types, or select ‘Other’

2. Describe Your Position and Leadership Title or Contributions

Did you rise to a leadership role? — Captain? Co-President? Treasurer?... First Chair in your orchestra section?  Highlight it! But… Don’t believe you need a conventional ‘title’ like these to get mileage in this section.

For example, did you perform important duties or tasks, or take on meaningful responsibilities — such as creating a logo and outreach posters for the club or team, or training team members in a specific skill? You'll capture that in your description, for now you can put 'member' or 'participant.'

3. Organization Name

If it’s a club, team, troop, or youth group activity, or something like this, provide the name: Scout Troop 1105, Ferndale Youth Symphony, or Alpha HS Debate Team. If your club name won’t mean anything to the admissions officers, include a very short description: Road Crew (auto mechanics club).

4. Grades

Mention the years you participated. (9-12)

5. Weekly Hours

Give a general idea of your time commitment. (5-10)

Remember, what’s reflected on your list, in terms of duration (grades) and time commitments (hours), should be as accurate as possible.

And, with only 150 characters allowed for each description, you’ll want to make every word pull its weight!

Focus on impactful vivid descriptions that showcase what’s most relevant and meaningful in the form of:

  • Achievements
  • Leadership functions or other types of roles or contributions
  • Impact — An impact on personal growth, on your school or community, on peers, on a cause or mission
  • Your own values, passions, goals, or interests

Top Tips and Insights for Writing a Stellar Activities List

Now comes the fun part — crafting your own high-impact Activities List to enhance your Common App!

  1. Know When Less is More: Admissions officers value depth over breadth. Choose activities that demonstrate your passions, spotlight opportunities you’ve had for extracurricular learning, self-growth, and/or self-reflection, or for ‘making a positive difference’ in some way… When deciding which activities will get a spot on your list, remember to pick the ones that resonate with key elements in your larger application profile — making your overall profile more coherent and memorable.
  2. Quantify Your Achievements: Numbers can add clarity and authenticity! Did you raise a specific amount of money for charity — how much? Did your team win a competition — out of how many teams? Were you selected for a role, position, office, or award — out of how many other candidates? In essence, it can be powerful to quantify with precise numbers when it’s relevant and adds impact.
  3. Leadership Matters: Highlight leadership positions you've held and the skills you developed. Did you spearhead a project? Motivate a team? Step up to solve a problem or address a need, at your school or in your community? Use verbs that really highlight your contribution in the form of concrete leadership actions.
  4. Tell a Story: Don't just list activities. Briefly explain why each one is meaningful to you. Did it spark a new passion? Help you overcome a challenge? Use verbs and phrases that reveal connections between your activity and a deeper personal value, interest, commitment, goal, or motivation.
  5. High-Impact Action Verbs Are Your Best Friends: Swap passive voice for active verbs that showcase your initiative. Choose verbs that are vivid and precise. Instead of "I was responsible for," try "I spearheaded," "I organized," or "I mentored." Look for verbs that highlight performative skills and contributions you made, such as “lead” “investigate” “develop” “problem solve” “facilitate” “moderate” “mentor” “encourage” … (You’ll find more about high-impact descriptions and verbs below!)
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Putting Insights Into Action — Creating Your Own High-Impact Activity Descriptions

Now it’s time to put these tips to the test, creating your own high-impact activity descriptions.

How you describe your activities can go a long way in transforming an otherwise dull list into something more revealing and relatable, with deeper insights into your skills, accomplishments, motivations, and commitments.

But wait a minute… You’re probably asking, How do I do all that with only 150 characters??

Carefully applying the 5 Top Tips we just went over is key. These tips offer simple but powerful insights you can apply to add some dynamite to your descriptions, even with just 150 characters.

Before and After…

The before and after descriptions below illustrate exactly how to apply the tips above and infuse hum-drum descriptions with some vivid authenticity and dimensionality, breathing life into your achievements and your larger application.

Student GovernmentI wrote, distributed and analyzed over 200 student surveys to make a school board presentation about isolation.I addressed problems of isolation head on researching and then distributing and analyzing 200 student surveys and reporting to the School Board.
School Orchestra, ViolinI played classical and jazz pieces, performed in all concerts, auditioned into first chair, and mentored other violinists.I expanded my knowledge of classical and jazz genres (gr. 9-12), and promoted to first chair (gr. 11) while mentoring three other violinists.
Fashion Club Co-PresidentCo-leader of club; helped design and organize the school’s first fashion show event, at the school auditorium.Explored my passion for fashion design and coordinated, publicized, and co-hosted the school’s first-ever student fashion show (400+ guests).

Remember: Your Activities List is a conversation starter. It should spark admissions officers' interest and make them want to learn more about you.

By following these top tips, you too can create a high-impact Common App Activities List, one that showcases your unique qualities and leaves a lasting impression.

A Handy List of High-Impact Verbs

You might still be wondering, what exactly are high-impact verbs? There’s no hard and fast rule, but generally they’re verbs that add depth, precision, and dimensionality to your descriptions — conveying more than just facts by evoking specific skills, contributions, roles, responsibilities, and achievements, and potentially revealing personal values or motivations as well.

Compare the verbs and descriptions below for a debate club activity:

Debate current events topics

[describes the activity but not much else]


I synthesized extensive pro and con research using online and print resources to map out strong arguments and rebuttals for our team

[highlights a person with strong analytical aptitudes, a commitment to thorough preparation, and a drive to support peers]

High-impact verbs have more sizzle and vibrancy, making them a better fit to reveal a vibrant person and personality, so your Activities List isn’t left sounding like a grocery list!

  • synthesize — conveys both skill and effort, researching as well as analyzing
  • to map out — ‘map out’ complements ‘synthesize’ to highlight the applicant’s analytical skills and methods; the infinitive form ‘to map out’ highlights a purpose, as in: I synthesized lots of research WITH THE GOAL or PURPOSE of mapping out strong arguments… thus highlighting a motivation and a thoughtful approach to a task, role, or responsibility.

Examples of High-Impact Verbs by Type of Activity

Leadership Traits:

conduct, coordinate, establish, found, lead, oversee, assemble, encourage, inspire, initiate, enact, take on, put an end to


achieve, attain, earn, complete, gain, develop, produce, improve, expand, increase, reduce, eliminate, raise awareness of, exceed, surpass, realize, discover, build, overcome, take on, adopt, try out, audition, discover, realize

Service-oriented Action

coordinate, recruit, organize, facilitate, partner with, contribute, assist, monitor, maintain, assemble, research, investigate, update, educate, coach, mentor, guide, partner with, collaborate


analyze, demystify, research, review, synthesize, fact-check, dissect, reconcile, report (on), recommend, propose, narrow down, determine, demonstrate, validate, test, uncover, question, discern

Some Frequently Asked Questions about Activities Lists

Q. How do I choose which activities to include?

A. It's a judgment call... Consider these suggestions when deciding:

  • List activities, or make them higher priority, when they involve leadership skills
  • Think about which activities complement and validate other passions, personality strengths, values, skills, and accomplishments prominent in your larger applicant profile.
  • Consider including at least one activity, if you have them, for each of the following areas: leadership, community service, a personal passion or interest (can be academic), such as playing a musical instrument, robotics, writing poetry, public service, graphic design…
  • Choose activities that you were most involved in and/or most interested in or passionate about.

Q. Should I try to list all the activities possible or just the best ones?

A. One way to approach this is to put yourself in the shoes of the admissions officer. If you include as many activities as possible, will all of them be compelling and interesting to the admissions officer? Which ones really add weight to aspects of your profile you want to stand out? On the other hand, which ones might you simply eliminate from your list because they really don’t add much value to your profile, or they make it less coherent?

Q. What If I don’t have lots of activities?

A. Be sure you’re really remembering and incorporating all of your activities. Ask people who know you well to brainstorm with you to see if that reveals something you didn’t think of or forgot.

Next, keep in mind that quality really does trump quantity, so don't waste energy comparing yourself to anyone else or 'counting' your activities. For any activity you can list, emphasize what was most meaningful for you (as opposed to just what you did), spotlighting something compelling about your personality, passions, skills, motivations, or values.

Finally, if you're not involved in lots of activities, but you do spend a lot of time on something meaningful — say caring for a younger sibling after school — think about where else in your application or essays you can speak to those time commitments and the personal values or commitments they demonstrate.

Q. What if an activity was very meaningful but involved a lot of different events or roles, or other multifaceted aspects that I can’t describe in 150 characters?

A. Use concise, key-word phrases to capture the most prominent activities and contributions involved. If you had more than one role or position or accomplished multiple, well-defined projects or tasks, you might want to list each role or accomplishment as a separate activity. Finally, you can fit what you can into the space provided and then refer Reviewers to the additional information section of the application, as in (see Add’l Info) or (more in Add’l Info).

What Makes Crimson Different

Final Thoughts

Remember that your Common App Activities List really can be more than just a checklist of extracurricular involvements. With some care and attention to the wording, you can craft a list that does more than tell college admissions officers what you’ve done, giving glimpses into values, goals, and personality traits that you want emphasized across your application.

Focus on crafting descriptions that are as vivid and concise as possible. Showcase how the listed activities involve experiences that have fostered unique skills, turned into renewed or deepened interests, or resulted in service to peers, your school, or community.

Above all, let authenticity and self-reflection guide your selections and descriptions. By presenting a thoughtful and engaging portrait of your extracurricular life, you can add clarity and conviction to important aspects of your college profile across your larger application and essay responses.

If you’re wondering what it would be like to get additional insights and feedback unique to your applications and circumstances, you can also find out more about the Crimson Education network. Simply book a free consultation today to get more insights about writing your Activities Lists, or let us know what questions you have about college applications. A Crimson Advisor will be happy to explore with you ways to make your college journey a bit less stressful and more rewarding!