After helping students successfully navigate the college application process for the past 15 years, I have found that an often overlooked section of the CommonApp can sometimes represent the difference between a coveted acceptance letter and a disheartening rejection missive. While college applicants have rightfully been coached to dedicate the majority of their high school careers towards optimizing grade point averages, increasing standardized test scores, and cultivating compelling Personal Statement and supplemental essay topics, many tend to overlook an equally essential component of their application materials: the Activities List.
An unheralded, yet critical section of the Common Application many students are unaware of prior to senior year, the Activities List represents one of the very few opportunities students have to distinguish themselves from their peers beyond conventional GPA and standardized test metrics. As universities look to transition to "test-optional" application requirements this Fall on account of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, colleges are likely to endow this section with added significance as Admissions Officers search for ways new ways to differentiate applicants.
Of course, standardized test scores and high school grade point averages are the two greatest determinants of whether or not a student will be accepted into a school. But as the number of worthy applicants increases each year and colleges remain flooded with tens of thousands of applications featuring identical test scores and grade point averages, admissions’ panels have become increasingly reliant upon other factors to help weed out their hyper-competitive applicant pools. The Activities List is, perhaps, the seminal metric that Admissions’ officers have gravitated towards in recent years and should be thoughtfully considered as students embark on their college applications.
What is the Activities List?
A de facto high school “resume” of sorts, the Activities List affords all applicants the invaluable opportunity of enumerating their greatest interests, passions and values in the form of “activities.” Students are able to enter as many as ten extracurricular activities into this Common Application section, along with brief descriptions of their affiliations with each activity. To complicate the exercise slightly, the Common App also asks that students 1) “rank” each entry in order of importance to them (i.e. Activity #1 would be of greater “importance” than Activity #2 and so on) 2) list the specific high school years in which they participated in the activity 3) approximate the number of hours they participated in each activity per week as well as 4) the number of weeks per year they were involved with the activity. The entire section is meant to be straightforward, yet - like most resumes - can take an inordinate amount of time to get just right.
Why is the Activities List so important?
Colleges have placed increasing importance on this section for a few very important reasons. First and foremost, the Activities List is one of the rare opportunities throughout the entire Application process in which students are able to transcend their “numbers” and project a three-dimensional representation of what they may want to accomplish in college. If a student is motivated to enter the medical field, for example, and has fashioned his/her schedule towards volunteerism at health centers and internships at medical laboratories, a thoughtfully constructed Activities List chronicling such experiences can enable Admissions Officers to better assess that student’s level of commitment towards this interest. Of course, students can also reflect on such goals and collective experiences in their Personal Statement essay, yet the Activities List can effectively substantiate such aspirations and add proper perspective as to how any given activity may fit into the broader context of that student’s life.
The Activities List not only provides colleges an invaluable glimpse at the totality of meaningful experiences throughout a student's high school career but also informs Admissions Officers as to approximately how much time that student has devoted to a given endeavor. By being able to ascertain 1) the gross number of hours an applicant has spent towards a specific pursuit as well as 2) how highly a student “ranks” that same activity, Admissions Officers are able to employ what I have termed a “passion calculus” to gauge both a student’s interest and ability in a given activity. This is important because in recent years colleges have begun focusing on admitting incoming Freshman classes that feature a well-rounded “student body” rather than the traditional well-rounded “student.” And as colleges seek to accept applicants who posses highly specialized skill sets, Admission Offices have been increasingly reliant upon the Activities List to determine students who are both self-motivated and expert in specific fields.
Spend time thinking about extracurricular activities early and often! I encourage students to begin busying their schedules with a multitude of activities in the hopes they uncover a nascent interest they can dedicate themselves to for years to come. Moreover, it has been my experience that colleges appreciate students who are willing to sacrifice their most precious commodity - time - in the pursuit of new experiences and the acquisition of specialized knowledge. So whether it be volunteerism, music, sports, or after-school clubs, don’t be afraid to experiment with different activities and fully commit to an interest. Colleges are counting on it!