Effectively Organizing and Presenting Extracurriculars on the Common App

August 22, 2022
College Admissions
College Applications

Student engagement beyond the classroom has long been an important characteristic that admissions offices factor into their application evaluations. Universities are looking for students who are actively and meaningfully involved in numerous extracurricular pursuits and have a variety of interests. When colleges assess your activities, they want to get a sense of who you are, what drives you, and how you will add value to their campus. The introduction and wide-spread adoption of test-blind and test-optional admissions policies has placed added significance on the type and level of student involvement in extracurricular activities.

As you work on your Common App, you may be wondering how you can best frame and present your various extracurricular activities in ways that allow you not only to highlight your achievements and desirable qualities, such as initiative and leadership, but also best distinguish yourself from your peers. Below are several important strategies that will help you effectively organize and present your activity list.

Order Matters!

Humans naturally gravitate to items that are listed in a series. Fortunately, college admissions readers are not robots, so the same rings true for them. The activities you share at the top of your list should be the ones that you value most, consume most of your time, and are most demonstrably impactful. Are you the captain of your school’s soccer team or the lead choreographer of a dance troupe? These sorts of activities - the ones that are the most representative of you- should appear first. Remember, college admissions readers will spend a few short minutes reviewing your list. Placing your most valuable activities strategically at the top of your list will help grab their attention and quickly indicate what kind of applicant you are.

Longevity and Consistency

Next, you should consider which activities you have most consistently participated in. This means prioritizing activities in which you have engaged the longest. Even better are activities in which you’ve clearly evolved. A great example would be if you began writing for your school’s newspaper in ninth grade, and now, as a senior, you are its editor. Colleges admire growth and consistency. If there is an activity in which you have participated for all four years and have progressed into a senior role, place it high on your list. This will prove that you are a motivated and dedicated student who understands the importance of diligence and persistence.

Leadership and Collaboration

Any leadership positions in organizations should be highlighted towards the top of the list. Examples of such positions include Model UN Club president, class secretary, or drama club director. In addition to leadership positions, colleges value activities which demonstrate that someone can be a good team player. This means activities that require collaboration with others, whether peers or adults. You don’t have to be the leader of a group or organization to make a difference. Your ability to successfully collaborate and be part of a team is a desirable quality that you should emphasize on your application.

Summer Programs and Short-Term Activities

Programs that lasted a single summer or for a single semester should be lower on your list. Even if these include pre-college summer programs or other prestigious short-term activities, they reveal less about you than the activities you have engaged in over the course of your high school career. A fleeting college summer program will not impress colleges, but what will, is a well-organized activities list that effectively and concisely showcases your interests, commitments, and talents.

Activity Descriptions  

Your list should also provide meaningful descriptions of your activities. It is important that when summarizing your roles and responsibilities that you emphasize how you made an impact or how an experience impacted you. What did you do to make an organization, team, or club special? What did you learn? How did you make a difference? Using strong action verbs such as spearheaded, collaborated, executed, optimized, and integrated will help in this endeavor. Avoid re-using common words such as made, worked, saw, and participated which risks boring the reader and making the activities appear less interesting. Word choice matters in your activity list as much as it does in your personal statement! Using the right words to describe your activities and accomplishments will not only demonstrate that you are proud of them but will ensure you present your extracurricular activities in the most flattering light.

In Summary

College admissions are competitive and current trends suggest they will continue to be increasingly so. A greater number of students are applying to colleges, especially to the most selective. Universities rely on extracurricular activity lists as an important tool in distinguishing between students. This, coupled with the emergence of test-blind and test-optional policies, has positioned extracurricular activity lists as a mainstay in the evaluation of applicants. By following these strategies, you can ensure your activities are effectively organized and presented in a way that maximizes this important element in the college admissions process.

At AtomicMind, we believe extracurricular involvement plays a vital role not only in the college admissions process but also in students’ personal development throughout high school and beyond. Our team of experts assists students from around the world in identifying, developing, and pursuing their interests. Don’t hesitate to reach out to us for more information about how we can help your student explore and find the best ways to channel their passions.