Common App Extracurricular Essay Length Words

If you’re applying to more than one or two colleges, there's a good chance you'll have to use the Common Application, and that means you’ll probably have to write a Common App essay.

In this guide, I’ll cover everything you need to know about the essay. I'll break down every single Common App essay prompt by covering:

  • What is the question asking?
  • What do college admissions officers want to hear from you?
  • What topics can you write about effectively?
  • What should you avoid at all costs?

This will be your complete starting guide for Common App essays. At the end of reading this, you should have a lot of ideas for your own essays and directions to write a really strong personal statement.

 

Basic Info on the Common App Essay

Before we dig into the nitty gritty of the individual prompts, let's quickly go over the logistics of the Common App essay and some general tips to keep in mind.

 

Most — but Not All — Schools Require the Essay

Although not every school in the US requires an essay as part of their application, the Common Application has traditionally required you to submit a blanket personal statement. That policy changed last year, and the essay is now optional for some schools.

However, this policy has been adopted by only a handful of schools, including DePaul University, Georgia State University, Hampshire College, Old Dominion University, The New School, and the University of Idaho, and some of them require an additional writing supplement instead.

If you’re applying to more than one or two schools on the Common App, you'll almost certainly need to write a response to the Common App prompts. As such, I would recommend sending your essay to schools even if they don't explicitly require it. You’re writing it anyways and it’s the best way for the school to get to know you as a person.

It's also worth noting that because of the way this system is set up, you could theoretically send a different essay to each school. However, doing so isn't a good use of your time: if schools want to know something more specific about you they’ll require a supplement. Focus on writing a single great personal statement.

 

Pay Attention to the Word Limit

The exact word limit for the Common App essay has varied somewhat over the years, but the current range is 250-650 words. You must stay within this length; in fact, the online application won't allow you to submit fewer than 250 words or more than 650.

Some schools will state that if this isn't enough space, you can send them a physical copy of your essay. Don't do this. No matter how tempting it may be, stick to the word limit. Otherwise, you risk seeming self-indulgent.

In general, I would recommend shooting for an essay between 500 and 650 words long. You want to have enough space to really explore one specific idea, but you don't need to include everything. Editing is an important part of the essay writing process.

 

The word limit is like this barbed wire — you shouldn't cross it, no matter how tempted you are.

 

Don't Stress Too Much About the Question

As you'll see, the Common App prompts are very general and leave a lot of room for interpretation. Moreover, colleges interpret the questions generously — they're more concerned with learning something interesting about you than with whether your topic fits the question perfectly. Per a Common App survey, 85% of member schools "feel the prompts should be left open to broad interpretation."

You can write about almost anything and make it work, so if you have an idea, don’t let the fact that it doesn’t fit neatly into one of these categories stop you. Treat these breakdowns as jumping off points to help you start brainstorming, not the final word in how you need to approach the essay.

 

Make Sure You Look at This Year's Prompts

The Common App change to the prompts fairly frequently, so make sure you're familiar with the most up-to-date versions of the Common App essay questions. If you have friends or siblings who applied in past years, don't assume that you can take the exact same approach they did.

 

This guide will go over the details of all seven current prompts, but first let's talk about some overall advice.

 

4 Tips For Finding Your Best Essay Topic

As you're brainstorming and preparing to write your essay, you'll want to keep these tips in mind.

 

You'll have to search for the best topic, just like this bird is searching for food.

 

Make It Personal

The point of a personal statement is to, well, make a personal statement, that is to say, tell the reader something about yourself. As such, your topic needs to be something meaningful to you. 

What does it mean for a topic to be "meaningful to you"? First, it means that you genuinely care about the topic and want to write your college essay on it — no one ever wrote a great essay on a topic that they felt they had to write about.

Second, it means that the topic shows off a quality or trait you want to highlight for the admissions committee. For example, say I wanted to write about my summer job with the Parks Department. It's not enough to simply tell a story about my feud with a raccoon that kept destroying all the progress I made repairing a bench; I would need to make it clear what that experience shows about my character (perseverance) and explain what it taught me (that there are some things in life you simply can't control).

Remember that the most important thing is that your essay is about you. This advice may sound obvious, but when you're used to writing academic essays it can be tricky to dive deep into your own perspective.

 

Take Your Time

Give yourself plenty of time to brainstorm and write, so you don't feel rushed into jotting something down about the first thing you can come up with and sending it right off. I recommend starting the writing process 2 months in advance of your first deadline. 

On a similar note, you should take the essay seriously: it's an important part of your application and worth investing the time in to get right. If you just dash something off thoughtlessly, admissions officers will recognize that and consider it evidence that you aren't really interested in their school.

 

Avoid Repetition

Your essay should illustratesomething about you beyond what's in the rest of your application. Try to write about a topic you haven't talked about elsewhere, or take a different angle on it. 

A college essay is not a resume — it's the best opportunity to show off your unique personality to admissions committees. Pick your topic accordingly.

 

Get Specific

The best topics are usually the narrowest ones: essays focused on a single interaction, a single phrase, or a single object. The more specific you can get, the more unique your topic will be to you. Lots of people have tried out for a school play, for example, but each had their own particular experience of doing so. One student saw trying out for the role of Hamlet as the culmination of many years of study and hard work and was devastated not to get it, while another was simply proud to have overcome her nerves enough to try out for the chorus line in West Side Story. These would make very different essays, even though they're on basically  the same topic.

Another benefit of a specific topic is that it makes coming up with supporting details much easier. Specific, sensory details make the reader feel like they're seeing the experience through your eyes, giving them a better sense of who you are. Take a look at this example sentence.

General: I was nervous as I waited for my turn to audition.

Specific: As I waited for my name to be called, I tapped the rhythm of "America" on the hard plastic chair, going through the beats of my audition song over and over in my head.

The first version could be written by almost anyone; the second version has a specific perspective — it's also intriguing and makes you want to know more. The more specific your essay topic is, the more clearly your unique voice will come through and the more engaging your essay will be.

 

Breaking Down the Common App Essay Prompts

Now that we've established the basic ideas you need to keep in mind as you brainstorm, let's go through the Common App essay questions one at a time and break down what admissions committees are looking for in responses.

Keep in mind that for each of these questions, there are really two parts. The first is describing something you did, or something that happened to you. The second is explaining what that event, action, or activity means to you. No essay is complete without addressing both of sides of the topic.

 

 

Prompt 1: A Key Piece of Your Story

Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.

 

What Is It Asking?

This prompt is very broad. Is there something you do or love, or something that happened to you, that isn’t reflected elsewhere in your application but that you feel is vital to your personal story? Then this prompt could be a good one for you.

The key is that whatever you write about needs to be genuinely important to you personally, not just something you think will look good to the admissions committee. You need to clarify why this story is so important that you couldn't leave it out of your application.

 

What Do They Want to Know?

This question is really about showing admissions officers how your background has shaped you. Can you learn and grow from your experiences? 

By identifying an experience or trait that is vital to your story, you're also showing what kind of person you see yourself as — do you value your leadership abilities or your determination to overcome challenges? Your intellectual curiosity or your artistic talent? Everyone has more than one important trait, but in answering this prompt, you're telling admissions officers what you think is your most significant quality.

 

What Kind of Topics Could Work?

You could write about almost anything for this prompt: an unexpected interest, a particularly consuming hobby, a part of your family history, or a life-changing event. Make sure to narrow in on something specific, though. You don't have room to tell your whole life story.

Your topic can be serious or silly, as long as it's important to you. Just remember that it needs to showcase a deeper quality of yours. 

For example, if I were writing an essay on this topic, I would probably write about my life-long obsession with books. I'd start with a story about how my parents worried I read to much as a kid, give some specific examples of things I've learned from particular books, and talk about how my enthusiasm for reading was so extreme it sometimes interfered with my actual life (like the time I tripped and fell because I couldn't be bothered to put down my book long enough to walk from my room to the kitchen). Then I would tie it all together by explaining how my love of reading has taught me to look for ideas in unexpected places.

 

What Should You Avoid?

You don't want your essay to read like a resume: it shouldn't be a list of accomplishments. Remember that your essay needs to add something to the rest of your application, so it also shouldn't focus on something you've already covered unless you have a really different take on it.

Also try to avoid generic and broad topics: you don't want your essay to feel like it could've been written by any student. As I touched on above, one way to avoid this problem is to be very specific — rather than writing generally about your experience as the child of immigrants you might tell a story about a specific family ritual or meaningful moment.

 

Prompt 2: Coping With Obstacles

The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount an incident or time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?

 

What Is It Asking?

This prompt is pretty straightforward. It's asking you describe a challenge or obstacle you faced or a time you failed and how you dealt with it.

The part many students forget is the second half: what lessons did you learn from your challenge or failure? If you take on this question you must show how you grew from the experience and, ideally, how you incorporated what you learned into other endeavors.

 

What Do They Want to Know?

This question really raises two issues: how you handle difficult situations and whether you are capable of learning from your mistakes.

You'll face a lot of challenges in college, both academic and social. In addressing this prompt, you have the opportunity to show admissions officers that you can deal with hardships without just giving up.

You also need to show that you can learn from challenges and mistakes. Can you find a positive lesson in a negative experience? Colleges want to see an example of how you've done so.

 

What Kind of Topics Could Work?

Good topics will be specific and have a clearly explained impact on your perspective. You need to address both parts of the question: the experience of facing the challenge and what you learned from it.

However, almost any kind of obstacle, challenge, or failure, large or small, can work:

  • Doing poorly at a job interview and how that taught you to deal with nerves
  • Failing a class and how retaking it taught you better study skills
  • Directing a school play when the set collapsed and how it taught you to stay cool under pressure and think on your feet 

 

What Should You Avoid?

Make sure you pick an actual failure or challenge — don't turn your essay into a humblebrag.  How you failed at procrastination because you're just so organized or how you've been challenged by the high expectations of teachers at school because everyone knows you are so smart are not appropriate topics.

Also, don't write about something completely negative. Your response needs to show that you got something out of your challenge or failure and that you've learned skills to apply to other situations.

 

Spilling your coffee is not an appropriate failure, no matter how disastrous it may feel.

 

Prompt 3: Challenging a Belief

Reflect on a time when you questioned a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?

 

What Is It Asking?

There are two ways to approach this question. The first is to talk about a time you questioned a person or group on an idea of theirs. The second is to talk about a time that something caused you to reconsider a belief of your own.

In either case, you need to explain why you decided the belief should be challenged, what you actually did — if your story is just that someone gave you a new piece of information and you changed your mind, you should probably find a different topic — and how you feel about your actions in hindsight.

 

What Do They Want to Know?

The obvious question this prompt raises is what your values are and whether you're willing to stand up for what you believe. Whether you've reconsidered your own beliefs or asked others to reconsider theirs, it shows you've put genuine thought into what you value and why. 

However, colleges also want to see that you're open-minded and able to be fair and kind towards those who have different beliefs than you do. Can you question someone else beliefs without belittling them? If not, don't write about this question.

 

What Kind of Topics Could Work?

This prompt is really one where you either have a relevant story or you don't. If there's a belief or idea that's particularly important to you, whether political or personal, this might be a good question for you to address. 

 

What Should You Avoid?

The main pitfall with this question is that lends itself to very abstract answers. It's not very interesting to read about how you used to believe chocolate is the best ice cream flavor but then you changed your mind and decided the best flavor is actually strawberry. (Seriously, though, what is wrong with you!?) Make sure there's clear conflict and action in your essay.

Divisive political issues, like abortion and gun rights, are tricky to write about (although not impossible) because people feel very strongly about them and often have a hard time accepting the opposite viewpoint. In general, I would avoid these kinds of topics unless you have a very compelling story. Also keep in mind that most people who work at colleges are liberal, so if you have a conservative viewpoint you'll need to tread more carefully. Regardless of what you're writing about, don't assume the reader shares your views.

You also want to avoid coming off as petty or inflexible, especially if you're writing about a controversial topic. It's great to have strong beliefs, but you also want to show that you're open to listening to other people's perspectives, even if they don't change your mind. 

 

Prompt 4: Solving a Problem

Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma-anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.

 

What Is It Asking?

The first part is very straightforward: how have you or would you solve a problem? 

However, you also need to "explain its significance to you." In other words, why this problem?

 

What Do They Want to Know?

This prompt helps admissions officers see both what you care about and how you solve problems. Even if you pick something seemingly minor to talk about, like fixing a dishwasher on your own, explaining why you wanted to do it yourself (maybe because you like knowing how things work) and how you did so (maybe by asking other people for advice of maybe by looking up videos on YouTube) will show admissions officers a lot about what you value and how you think.

Answering this question is also an opportunity for you to show the maturity and perseverance you'll need to face the challenges of college. You will face inevitably face problems, both academic and personal, in these four years, and admissions officers want to see that you're capable of taking them on.

 

What Kind of Topics Could Work?

Any kind of problem (“no matter the scale”) is fine — it just has to be important to you.

Like number 3, it will be easier if you can focus in on a specific event or occurrence. You can write about something funny, like how you figured out how to care for your pet hedgehog, or something more serious, like how you resolved a family conflict.

Writing about a problem you want to solve, rather than one you've already found a solution to, is much harder because it's more abstract. You certainly can do it, however; just make sure to have a compelling and concrete explanation for why this problem is important to you and how you came upon the solution you're proposing. 

For example, say a student, Tommy, wanted to solve the problem of homelessness. First of all, because this is a very big problem that no one person or solution is going to fix, he would need to describe specifically what problem within the larger issue he wants to address. Then, in writing his essay, he might focus on telling a story about how a man he met while volunteering in a homeless shelter inspired his idea to hire men and women living in shelters to work as liaisons in public spaces like libraries and parks to help homeless people get access to the services they need.

 

What Should You Avoid?

Avoid anything sweeping or general: for example, "How I plan to solve world hunger" is probably not going work. As I mentioned above, you want to stick to concrete ideas and solutions that clearly relate to your own experiences.

Simply writing down some of your ideas, no matter how great they are, isn't going to make for a very interesting essay.

 

Look at those dummies, solving a problem!

 

Prompt 5: Personal Growth and Maturity

Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.

 

What Is It Asking?

Like prompt 1, this one is very general. It's asking you to talk about something you did or something that happened that caused you to grow or mature as a person.

The other key point to remember when addressing this question is that you need to explain how this event changed or enriched your understanding of yourself or other people.

 

What Do They Want to Know?

In short: when and how have you grown as a person? Personal growth and maturity are complicated issues. You essay may touch on themes like personal responsibility and your role in the world and your community. You don't have to explain your whole worldview, but you need to give readers a sense of why this particular event caused significant growth for you as a person. 

This prompt can also help you show either a) your own sense of self-concept or b) how you relate to others. 

 

What Kind of Topics Could Work?

Much like prompt 3, this question likely either appeals to you or doesn't. Nonetheless, here are some potential topics:

  • A time you had to step up in your household
  • A common milestone (like voting for the first time or getting your driver's license) that was particularly meaningful to you
  • A big change in your life, like becoming an older sibling or moving to a new place

It's important that your topic describes a transition that lead to real positive growth or change in you as a person. However, personal growth is a gradual process, and you can definitely still approach this topic if you feel like you have more maturing to do. (Fun fact: most adults feel like they have more maturing to do, too!) Just focus in on a specific step in the process of growing up and explain what it meant to you and how you've changed.

 

What Should You Avoid?

Almost any topic could theoretically make a good essay about personal growth, but it's important that the overall message conveys maturity. If the main point of your essay about junior prom is that you learned that you look bad in purple and now you know not to wear it, you will seem like you just haven't had a lot of meaningful growth experiences in your life. 

You also want the personal growth and new understanding(s) you describe in your essay to be positive in nature. If the conclusion of your essay is "and that's how I matured and realized that everyone in the world is terrible," that's not going to play very well with admissions committees as you'll seem pessimistic and unable to cope with challenges.

 

Prompt 6: Your Passion

Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?

 

What Is It Asking?

This prompt is asking you to describe something that you're intellectually passionate about. But in addition to describing a topic of personal fascination and why you're so interested in it, you also need to detail how you have pursued furthering your own knowledge of the topic. Did you undertake extra study? Hole yourself up in the library? Ask your math team coach for more practice problems? 

 

What Do They Want to Know?

Colleges want to admit students who are intellectually engaged with the world. They want you to show that you have a genuine love for the pursuit of knowledge. Additionally, by describing how you've learned more about your chosen topic, concept, or idea, you show that you are self-motivated and resourceful. 

 

What Kind of Topics Could Work?

Pretty much any topic you are really interested in and passionate about could make a good essay here, just so long as you can put can a) put an intellectual spin on it and b) demonstrate that you've gone out of your way to learn about the topic. 

So It's fine to say that the topic that engages you most is football, but talk about what interests you in an academic sense about the sport. Have you learned everything there is to know about the history of the sport? Are you an expert on football statistics? Emphasize how the topic you are writing about engages your brain. 

 

What Should You Avoid?

Don't pick something you don't actually care about just because you think it would sound good. If you say you love black holes but you actually hate them and you tortured yourself with astronomy books in the library for a weekend to glean enough knowledge to write your essay, your lack of enthusiasm will come through. 

 

 

Prompt 7: Your Choice

Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you've already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.

 

What Is It Asking?

You can write about anything for this one! 

 

What Do They Want to Know?

Since this is a choose-your-own-adventure prompt, colleges aren't looking for anything specific to this prompt. However, you'll want to demonstrate some of the same qualities that colleges are looking for in all college essays: things like academic passion, maturity, resourcefulness, and persistence. What are your values? How do you face setbacks? These are all things you can consider touching on in your essay. 

 

What Kind of Topics Could Work?

If you already have a topic in mind for this one that doesn't really fit with any of the other prompts, go for it!

 

What Should You Avoid?

Avoid essays that aren't really about you as a person. So no submitting your rhetorical close-reading of the poem "Ode on a Grecian Urn" you wrote for A.P. English! However, if you want to write about the way that "Ode on a Grecian Urn" made you reconsider your entire approach to life, go ahead!

 

5 Key Takeaways About the Common App Essay Questions

We've covered a lot of ground, but don't panic. I've collected the main ideas you should keep in mind as you plan your Common App essay below.

 

Neatly packaged takeaways. (Henry Faber/Flickr)

 

A Topic for Prompt 1 Must Be Something Beyond What’s in the Rest of Your Application

For prompt 1, it's absolutely vital that your topic be something genuinely meaningful to you. Don’t write about something just because you think it’s impressive. Big achievements and leadership roles, like serving as captain of a team or winning a journalism award, can certainly be used as topics, but only if you can explain why they mattered to you beyond that it was cool to be in charge or that you liked winning.

It's better if you can pick out something smaller and more individual, like helping your team rally after a particularly rough loss or laboring over a specific article to make sure you get every detail right.

 

Prompts 2, 4, and 6 Are Generally the Simplest Options

Most students have an experience or interest that will work for either prompt 2, prompt 4, or prompt 6. If you’re uncertain what you want to write about, think about challenges you've faced, a problem you solved or want to solve, or your major intellectual passions.

These prompts are slightly easier to approach than the others because they lend themselves to very specific and concrete topics that show clear growth. Describing a failure and what you learned  from it is much simpler than trying to clarify why an event is a vital part of your identity.

 

Prompts 3 and 5 Can Be Trickier, but That Doesn’t Mean You Shouldn’t Write About Them

These questions ask about specific types of experiences that not every high school student has had. If they don't speak to you, don't feel compelled to write about them. 

If you do want to take on prompt 3 or 5, however, remember to clearly explain your perspective to the reader, even if it seems obvious to you. For prompt 3, you have to establish not just what you believe but why you believe it and why that belief matters to you. For prompt 5, you need to clarify how you moved from childhood to adulthood and what that means to both you and others.

These prompts elicit some of the most personal responses, which can make for great essays but also feel too revealing to many students. Trust your instincts and don’t pick a topic you’re not comfortable writing about, but don't hesitate to take on a difficult or controversial topic if you're excited about it and think you can treat it with the necessary nuance.

 

Make Sure to Explain What Your Experience Taught You

I've tried to emphasize this idea throughout this guide: it's not enough to simply describe what you did, you have to explain what it meant to you.

Pushing past the surface level while avoiding cliches and generalizations is a big challenge, but it's also what will make your essay stand out. Make sure you know what personal quality you want to emphasize before you start and keep it in mind as you write. Try to avoid boring generalizations in favor of more specific and personal insights.

Bad: Solving a Rubik's cube for the first time taught me a lot.

Better: Solving a Rubik's cube for the first time taught me that I love puzzles and made me wonder what other problems I could solve. 

Best: When I finally twisted the last piece of the Rubik's cube into place after months of work, I was almost disappointed. I'd solved the puzzle; what would I do now? But then I started to wonder if I could use what I'd learned to do the whole thing faster. Upon solving one problem, I had immediately moved onto the next one, as I do with most things in life.

Then, as you go back through your essay to edit, every step of the way ask yourself, "so what?" Why does the reader need to know this? What does it show about me? How can I go one step deeper?

 

Don't Worry About What You Think You're Supposed to Write

There is no single right answer to these prompts, and if you try to find one you'll end up doing yourself a disservice. What's important is to tell your story — and no one can tell you what that means because it's unique to you.

Many students believe that they should write about resume-padding activities that look especially impressive, like volunteering abroad. These essays are often boring and derivative because the writer doesn't really have anything to say on the topic and assumes that it will speak for itself. But the point of a personal statement isn't to explain what you've done, it's to show who you are.

Take the time to brainstorm and figure out what you want to show colleges about yourself and what story or interest best exemplifies that quality. 

 

What's Next?

For more background on college essays and tips for crafting a great one, check out our complete explanation of the basics of the personal statement.

Make sure you're prepared for the rest of the college application process as well, with our guides to asking for recommendations, writing about extracurriculars, taking the SAT, and researching colleges.


 

Want to improve your SAT score by 160 points or your ACT score by 4 points? We've written a guide for each test about the top 5 strategies you must be using to have a shot at improving your score. Download it for free now:

 

One of the trickiest parts of the Common App is understanding how to make the most of the extracurricular activity section. You might have a ton of activities - or not very many - and be wondering how you should write about your activities to impress college admissions readers.

If you’ve felt stumped by what you’re supposed to do in this section and how to make the most of your very limited space, read on.

In this guide I will tell you:

  • How many extracurricular activities you should list
  • How to choose which activities to list
  • How to write about your extracurriculars

But before we get into that, you may be wondering...

 

Why Do You Need Extracurricular Activities in the First Place?

Colleges love to see that students are active, contributing members of their communities. Even more importantly, they love to see students who are developing their talents and passions.

When a student is actively involved in the community and other activities in high school, there is a good chance that they will be doing something similar in college. Universities like to be known as hubs of activity, charity, and culture, and it’s largely the students that make them that way.

Because of this, the activities section of the Common App is very important. It’s your chance to show the admissions officers how you will become an actively contributing member of their school community.

Remember that almost anything that you are actively and productively involved in can be considered an extracurricular activity. This includes things like having a job or taking care of family members.

For the Common App, you'll need to reflect on what you have learned from your activities and how they have helped you develop. Admissions officers are going to be particularly interested in seeing how you have been involved in leadership positions and that you have dedicated a significant amount of time and energy to your activities. 

You know why you need extracurriculars and what the admissions officers most want to see. But do you know how many of them you need for your application?

 

How Many Activities Should You List on the Common App?

 

It’s time to seriously start looking at the application and what should and shouldn't be included under the activities section.

The Common App gives you room to write about ten of your activities.

 

But What If You Don’t Have 10 Activities?

That’s absolutely fine. You don’t need to panic or try to make up activities just to fill in the blanks. In fact, college admissions advisors would prefer to see a few activities that you've made a significant dedication to than several activities that you've had lesser involvement in.

It would be much better to show significant involvement, leadership, and personal development in two or three activities than it would be to write about ten activities that you were hardly involved in because you spread yourself too thin.

A great looking application could have between one and three activities showing significant involvement (depending on the number of hours dedicated to each), and a few other activities with a lower level of involvement. These would likely either be from your earlier years in high school before you figured out what you were really passionate about, or a lesser interest that you have dedicated a couple hours a week to.

 

What If You Have Too Many Activities?

This will only really be a problem for a few people, though many might initially think it’s an issue.

Admissions officers only want to see the activities that you have been engaged in significantly.

There’s no hard and fast definition for what “significant involvement” looks like, but most people can work it out. If you helped out at your church’s pancake breakfast one year, that really doesn’t need to go on your application. But if you have volunteered at the hospital for 10 hours a week every week for four years, that definitely counts as significant involvement.

In other words, you need to be looking for quality over quantity. Instead of aiming to fill each blank with something inconsequential just to have it filled, make sure that everything you include reflects a significant time investment and an experience that you learned from.

You can often combine multiple activities under one heading if none of them is individually significant enough, or if you need to save space. Let’s say you play volleyball. You've been on the JV team at school for four years, you play club volleyball in the off-season, and every summer you both do volleyball camps and help coach camps for younger players. If you are running out of room, feel free to lump all of those together on the application as one activity.

 

 

Finally, make sure you're not confusing academic awards with extracurricular activities. For example, many good students are accepted into the National Honors Society every year. If you've been accepted and that’s the extent of your involvement, list it as an academic honor. On the other hand, if you've been accepted, got elected as the president of your school chapter, organized weekly meetings, and planned several volunteer activities throughout the year, list it as an activity.

What if you legitimately have more than ten activities you have been significantly involved in, and you feel your application would be incomplete without them?

Never fear! The Common App does have an “Additional Information” section, and this is the place to let admissions officers know about these really important things that you couldn’t fit elsewhere. Just make sure they really are important! They’ll be rolling their eyes if you insisted on filling out this section to talk about the one hour you spent working at the pancake breakfast three years ago.

Still not quite sure how you should choose from among your many activities? Read on for a step-by-step explanation of how to pick what activities you should write about, and how you should list them on your application.

 

Step-by-Step Guide to Choosing Your Activities

This part of the application is difficult because you have to convey a lot of information in a relatively small space. It’s important to brainstorm ahead of time to make sure that you'll be able to make the most of this section.

 

Step 1: Write Down Your Activities

On a piece of paper, write down a list of your activities. These can be almost anything that you have done in high school, from sports, to organized clubs, to outside hobbies and interests, to work or community service.

For each activity, make sure you write down:

  • The name of the organization where you did the activity (if applicable).
  • A description of what you did. Feel free to go in-depth and fully explain your involvement. Did you attend meetings? Classes? Did you organize any activities? 
  • Write down any leadership roles you had – meaning any time you were responsible for the actions of other people, or had responsibilities beyond just being a participant. These do not need to be official. If you ran the meetings but didn’t have an official title, still write it down. Also include any achievements or special responsibilities you had.
  • Were there any special projects that you did or were in charge of? If so, what specifically did you do? This can be a one-time thing (like organizing a food drive) or something more long-term, such as running a tutoring clinic throughout the school year.
  • What were the dates that you participated in the activity? How many hours per week did you do?

Your examples might look like this:

  • Soccer Team: Member of my high school's soccer team, played forward position. JV team two years, Varsity team two years. Lead goal scorer my junior year. In charge of spring fundraiser that raised $800 to cover team travel costs.
  • Animal Shelter Volunteer: Freshman through junior year. Volunteered 10 hours a week taking care of cats and dogs, cleaning cages, feeding animals, and interviewing potential owners at my local animal shelter. Received "Volunteer of the Month" award in May 2017.
  • Outdoors Club: Member for four years, vice president my senior year. Attended and helped run weekly meetings as well as weekend events. Responsible for planning over 15 outdoor-related events that helped students experience the outdoors and get to know one another better.

 

Step 2: Number Your Activities From Most Important to Least Important

Base this off the amount of time you dedicated to the project, your leadership in the activity, and how important the activity has been for developing a passion or pursuing a future goal.

Important note: Make sure that the order you put them in is the order of importance they have for you according to your passions and interests. Don’t just try to guess what the admissions officers want to see, because the whole point is to show off what is important to you.

Why is this important? This is going to the be order that you list your activities on the application. It’s important that you put what’s most important to you at the top of the list so that you make it as obvious as possible to the college admissions officers. Don’t make them hunt through your list to see what your best contributions and activities are!

 

Step 3: Have Your Parents or Friends Read Over Your List

This is not only to check that you've remembered everything correctly, such as the dates and time commitments, but also to make sure that you haven’t missed out on anything important. Maybe that three hours a week you spent as a peer counselor slipped your mind. Always get someone to check it over and ask for anything they can contribute.

Another reason it’s important to check in with someone else is to make sure that what you've written makes sense. Maybe you're used to certain acronyms or assume that everyone knows what the Quill and Scroll Club does!

 

Step 4: Understand Your Story

Now that you have your list, it’s important to reflect on it and try to think about how the admissions officers are going to see your activities. Do you think that the activities, as you have listed and described them, tell a story about who you are as a person? Is it a good representation of how you've spent the past four years outside of the classroom? And does it show what kind of contribution you will be making to a college community?

At this point, it’s important to consider how you're presenting yourself. You may have heard that admissions officers are looking to create a well-rounded student body. While that’s true, that doesn’t mean that they are only looking for well-rounded students.

Some students are “pointy." They have fantastic achievements in a certain area – and don’t have a lot outside that area. For example, imagine all your extracurricular activities are related to biology. You’re the president of the biology club at school, you’ve participated (and won awards) at various science competitions around your state over the past four years, you’ve worked with a professor at the local community college on some biological research, and you volunteer five hours per week as a bio tutor.

 

 

Though you haven’t tried a lot of different things, you can still turn this into a great story about having a strong passion in one area.

Admissions officers tend to like “pointy” students because their great focus shows that they have potential to make a big difference in the future of a certain field. A lot of “pointy” students with achievements in different areas will together make up a diverse student body.

But realistically, most applicants aren't going to have such massive achievements in just one area. Well-rounded students also help make up a well-rounded student body, so try to think about how your diverse activities tell your story. You've probably learned different but valuable things from each experience, and having a diverse range of interests shows that you're not afraid to try new things – another thing that will be viewed positively by admissions officers.

Also keep in mind that unusual activities often will stand out. Many students are involved in quite generic activities. While that isn’t bad, something different will definitely get you noticed, so don’t be afraid to include something a bit unorthodox on your list – especially if you’ve had a good achievement in it and it’s an important part of your story.

So now that you know exactly what you’ll be writing about, let’s get into the details of how to actually fill out that application.

 

How to Write About Your Extracurriculars: AKA Putting Your Twitter Skills to Use

Let’s go through the Activities section of the Common App step by step.

When you click on the Activities page, you’ll see a brief description of what’s expected in this section, and you can choose whether or not you have any activities that you would like to report.

Click yes. Then press “Continue.”

 

Next, click on “Activity 1."

You’ll have a drop-down menu where you’ll be able to choose what kind of activity you’re going to talk about. Choose whatever best describes the #1 activity from the list you made previously.

In the next box, you can put the Activity Name.

 

You have 50 characters to fill out this section.

The main rule for this is to be as detailed as you can within the character limit.

This is because you want to save as much room as possible in the next section, where you have to describe the activity.

Let’s say your activity is that you have spent the past four years playing the violin. You're the first chair violinist in a community orchestra, you're the soloist in your school’s concert band, you won local awards for your playing, and you've been taking lessons for 12 years.

The bad way to phrase this would be:

Violinist

The great way to phrase this would be:

Award-winning soloist/first chair violinist

If you do this, you're making the most of your first 50 characters, and you can then use the Activity Description to elaborate on the points you have already raised in the Activity Name.

Let’s move on to the Activity Description.

In this box, you can use 150 characters to talk about details of your activity.

While that may have been a challenge for older generations, it should be a breeze for anyone who is familiar with using Twitter!

Look at your activity list that you wrote earlier. Choose the most important things for each activity – leadership positions, initiatives you ran, important contributions you made.

What you should not write in this space is a general description of what the club or group does. Make this all about you and your role in the activity.

 

Tip #1:

Don’t try to use a full sentence here. Use action words and small phrases to describe what you've done. It’s ok to use symbols and abbreviations (&, /, etc.) in order to save room.

 

Tip #2:

Be specific! Emphasize the numbers of what you did. How many people did you lead? How many people joined the club because of you? Exactly how much money did you raise for that cause? The more specific you are, the better picture you are painting for the admissions officer about what you actually achieved.

 

Tip #3:

Don’t exaggerate or lie about what you’ve done, but also make sure you aren’t modest. This is your time to shine and be proud of what you've accomplished.

 

What if you don’t have room to write a complete enough description?

Almost everyone will feel like they could write more, but try to refrain from doing so unless you really feel that something very important cannot be described well enough in the space given.

If that’s the case, this is where the “Additional Information” section comes in.

You’ll find this under the next section on the Common App, labelled “Writing.”

If you do choose to use this space, make it clear that you are referring back to the Activity section. Continue to be brief and highlight the important things that you feel cannot be left out.

 

Back on the Activities page, check the boxes for the years that you have participated in your activity, and also select if you participated in the activity during the school year, during breaks, or all year long.

Next, fill in the number of weeks per year that you did the activity, and the hours per week.

Finally, check if you would like to do something similar in college. You don't have to check “Yes” unless you really want to do something similar in college. It’s fine to want to explore new interests, but it’s recommended that you have at least one activity that you would like to continue in college.

When you're finished, click on the “Preview” button. Read through it to make sure that you have no mistakes, that it makes sense, and that it says everything you want it to say.

 

Feel free to repeat with up to nine other activities.

Congratulations! You have now completed one of the most difficult sections of the Common App!

 

What’s Next?

Trying to get inspired? Check out our guide with four amazing extracurricular examples. These will be sure to help you stand out from the crowd!

Looking for more extracurriculars to participate in? Here's a list of hundreds of extracurricular activities you can choose from. 

Now that you know more about how to write about extracurriculars, check out the number one thing colleges wish students knew.

 

Want to improve your SAT score by 160 points or your ACT score by 4 points? We've written a guide for each test about the top 5 strategies you must be using to have a shot at improving your score. Download it for free now:

 

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