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Many college applications will ask you to “briefly elaborate” on one of the extracurricular activities you listed on the application.
While simply listing your activities might seem like enough information for colleges, try thinking about it from the eyes of an admissions counselor.
- A student who founded the Spanish club and ran a successful fundraiser to sponsor a field trip is not the same student who attended meetings “sometimes, when they felt like it.”
Admissions counselors are looking for applicants who are prepared to be successful and motivated college students.
It is your job to prove that you fit those criteria.
- There are two key terms to consider before beginning to write your response: “briefly” and “elaborate.”
While this may seem like an oxymoron, it’s actually quite possible, and can be an effective means of revealing important qualities about yourself. This will strengthen your college application.
What should you put in the “Activities” section of the Common App?
Before you commit to writing about a particular extracurricular, it is important to brainstorm.
First, write down a list of all the extracurricular activities you listed on your application.
Next to each activity, briefly note:
- How long did you participate in the activity?
- Did you receive any awards, certificates, medals, etc.?
- What skills did the activity teach you?
- What events related to the activity had a significant impact on your life?
Once you have created this list, go ahead and cross off any activities that did not impact your life in any significant way.
Sure, it’s nice that you were able to list “Student Government Association Representative” on your application, but if you simply attended meetings for one semester without participating in SGA events, then it is probably not what you want to list on your application.
Next, comb through your list for an activity that shows both commitment and growth.
This means that it is an activity you committed to for a significant period of time (at least a year), and one in which you believe you grew as a student, athlete, teammate, etc.
When selecting an extracurricular, it’s also important to think about how relevant it was to your life in the past few years.
- Bonus points if this activity heavily influenced your ambitions for college and beyond.
If you were the Principal’s Pal in the 4th grade and represented your peers at the carnival, that’s awesome, but probably not an experience relevant to your college application.
- Colleges want to see growth. It’s better to have two to three activities to which you were dedicated than a random assortment of eight or nine activities to which you contributed little.
That’s why you’ll hear about leadership so often — students who pour time and effort into activities are often rewarded with leadership positions because they’ve demonstrated their dedication. Colleges like seeing this.
How should you choose extracurricular activities list for your college list?
When listing extracurricular activities, some students are tempted to list every activity they’ve ever participated in, even if it was for an insignificant period of time.
However, college admissions officers are interested in quality over quantity.
- It’s better to list a few activities in which you were deeply involved rather than creating a massive laundry list of minor activities.
Admissions officers want to see that you are passionate about a few interests and has dedicated significant time and effort to developing them.
- They’re also particularly interested in leadership roles, so don’t leave out any officer positions or captaincies.
Ideally, you should have at least 2-3 activities demonstrating significant involvement, but it’s okay to include a few other less significant activities.
The Common App has space for students to list ten activities, but you should not feel obligated to fill out all ten.
Adding Common App Activities: Start by brainstorming and reflecting.
Over the four years of high school, many students are involved in a wide variety of activities, so remembering all the details can be difficult.
Before attempting to write about all of these experiences, it can be helpful to spend time reflecting on what you have learned from these activities and how they have helped you develop.
- The Common App, in particular, asks students to answer questions to this effect.
You can start by brainstorming a list of activities. At this point, it’s fine to list anything that comes to mind.
Later, you can evaluate these items and decide which to include in his application.
As you brainstorm, you should also list a description of what you did with each activity.
- This includes leadership roles (even unofficial ones) and how many hours you devoted to the activity weekly. You should also include the dates participated in each activity.
The next step is to rank these activities in order of importance. By “importance,” we mean the activities that are most meaningful to you.
- The goal here is not to choose the activities that will impress admissions officers.
- Instead, the point is to show admissions officers what matters to you.
When filling out the application, you should list activities in this same order of importance.
This way, you can prominently feature the activities you most care about and to which you made the greatest contributions.
- During this process, you should also be reflecting on how these activities have shaped you as an individual, the lessons you’ve learned, and specific moments or memories that have helped you grow or develop.
This will help you prepare to write introspectively about extracurricular activities on college applications.
Maximize your short word count.
Usually, students are limited to writing only about 150 words when describing an extracurricular activity.
Due to the word count being limited, staying focused is key.
- If you were on the lacrosse team for four years, don’t waste time explaining what lacrosse is to your readers — they likely already know.
However, if your extracurricular is something with which readers are likely to be unfamiliar, then describe what it is briefly.
- Save every word you can for the main focus for your response, which is to explain the impact participating in this extracurricular activity had on you.
Use the first few sentences to describe the activity you will be discussing, how long you participated in the activity, and your role (ex. participant, team member, team captain, president, etc.).
This will give your readers a frame of reference for when you describe the importance of this experience.
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Be specific on your activities list.
When you begin polishing the list and transferring it to college applications, you should be as specific as possible.
- Instead of saying “Helped with fundraisers,” you should add specifics.
- What type of fundraisers?
- Exactly how did you contribute to the fundraiser?
Of course, you don’t have unlimited space. On the Common App, for example, you will have only 150 characters per activity description.
- This means you’ll have to focus on what’s most important.
- This may include leadership roles, special achievements, and other significant contributions.
You should also keep the focus on the particular role in each activity. Admissions officers do not want to see a general description of what the club does or how many games the soccer team won.
- They want to know exactly how you contributed and what you achieved while participating in each activity.
Because space is so limited, it’s okay not to use complete sentences in this portion of the Common App.
It’s a good idea to use phrases that begin with action words, like on a resume.
Played varsity soccer for 4 years. Served as captain for 2 years. Led stretches and drills at the start of each practice.
Additionally, you can save space by being as specific as possible in the “Activity Name” box that precedes the “Activity Description” section.
You are allowed 50 characters in the name section, so take advantage.
- Let’s consider the example above. This student played varsity soccer all four years and served as captain for two.
- These are great achievements, but it took 53 characters to share this information.
- Instead, this student could list “Activity Name” as “4-year varsity soccer player/2 year captain.”
- That’s 40 characters, and it frees up space in the description for the student to go into detail about her leadership role and impressive statistics on the field.
The “Be specific” rule applies to longer-form writing about extracurricular activities as well.
If you write about how an extracurricular activity has shaped you, think of specific examples to illustrate this point.
Space is limited on college applications, but using specific details instead of wordy, general sentences can help you make the best use of the space given.
Recognize the Impact.
When writing about your extracurricular participation, it is most important for you to consider how you have been changed by your experience.
Readers should be able to gather that you have had experiences that have important life skills.
- Don’t feel discouraged if you weren’t the team captain or president of a club.
- Those accomplishments are not necessary to have had a valuable learning experience.
Consider these questions when brainstorming the impact of your extracurricular activity:
- Feel challenged and learn to overcome those challenges?
- Become a leader and learn to manage a team?
- Experience failure and did it make you a better person?
- Support and uplift your peers by learning to be a part of a team?
- Have an experience that inspired or confirmed a career choice?
- Build community relationships and why is that important to you?
- Branch out of your comfort zone and what did you learn?
This, of course, is not an exhaustive list of ideas. Your own personal experiences will shape your essay.
Once you have solidified the focus of your essay, think about the term “elaborate.”
Writing that your experience had a “big impact” or “changed my life” is not enough. Follow up with specific details about how it did.
As a technique, try to write a very short story, and then shorten your essay once you’ve written the essential details. For example:
- Who: What was your position?
- What: What did you do?
- When: How often and during what time frame did you participate?
- Where: Name the location that hosted you.
- Why: What was your ultimate goal for this activity? Did you accomplish it?
- How: By what means did you accomplish your goals?
Don’t be afraid to plan. Many students neglect this, but we’ve found that planning helps save time and reduces confusion.
Still having trouble?
- Go for a walk and think about your activities.
- Talk to a friend and discuss your activities.
- Sit in peace and reflect.
Often, talking about something is much easier than writing it down. It defeats writer’s block and helps you distill the important things.
If you still have space to write, concluding with how or what you learned from your experience will serve you well in college or later in life.
Consider the “Story.”
After you have completed the list, you should consider how well this list and the accompanying descriptions tell your story.
Do the activities present an accurate picture of your high school experience, particularly time spent outside of the classroom?
- Reading over the list, do you get a glimpse of who you are as an individual?
Will this list help admissions officers imagine the type of contribution you will make to a college campus?
Admissions officers want to know about extracurricular activities for a few reasons:
- To learn about what’s important to you outside of the classroom
- To envision how you will contribute to their campus
- To see that you are pursuing your interests and passions
- To get an overall picture of your personality and high school experience
That may seem like a lot of information to glean from a simple list of extracurricular activities. But read over your list and see if you think admissions officers will get an accurate picture of you as both a high school student and a person.
- If not, is there anything else you can include that’s important to you?
- Anything unnecessary that should be removed from the list?
- Did you forget to mention any achievements, like leading a project or organizing an event?
- Have you included volunteer work that is meaningful to you?
Common App Activities Section Examples: Briefly Elaborating Activities
Here are examples from top high school students. These examples should help you write a great Common App activities list:
DECA Executive Vice President
Trained 7 state qualifiers; developed fundraising, recruitment campaigns to raise $1200 in 1 year, increase membership from 6 to 40 members in 2 years
PGTD Lead Performer & Show Co-organizer
Combined 10+ years of competitive dance experience to organize and execute 4 shows to raise $3000 for charities; managed over 100 performers for shows
Boy Scouts of America Senior Patrol Leader
Increased attendance from 5 to 30 by organizing and marketing troop events; presided over monthly conferences, weekly meetings; delegated troop duties
Eagle Scout Project at Temple of Holy Rosh
Raised $1500 to finance fence construction; Designed proposal, plan, and report; recruited and managed 24 volunteers; performed 100 hours of service
Gutank Dance Team Captain & Co-Founder
Choreograph Gutank dances; teach 8 club members at weekly practices; create mashups for and perform at pep rallies; evaluate team performance
The Lead Free Project Team Leader
Constructed cost-effective water filter compliant with EPA regulations for Flint Water Crisis; led team research on activated carbon, nanotubes
Rajan Sales Internship – India
Recorded sales and analyzed foot-traffic trends for 3 store locations with Shoper-9 POS software; supported full-time staff with client sales
Varsity Cross Country
4 years varsity track & cross country; 3-time cross-country district champions and regional qualifiers; competed in track 800-yard, 1600-yard events
Competed in 100-yard breaststroke, 50-yard freestyle, 100-yard individual medley, 200-yard medley relay, and 200-yard freestyle relay
FBLA Executive President & Founder
Advertised first recruitment campaign with 33% student to membership conversion, manage daily communications, lead competition training sessions
Design Head, FIRST Robotics Competition Team
Led design team that built competition robot per FRC specifications; provided training in design processes to 50 new team members
Student Researcher at Baylor University
Performed research with graduate students and professors; developed computational simulations to determine pricing strategies for service providers
Volunteered to tutor IMSA students in computer science, mathematics, physics, chemistry, French, and biology
Student Computing Support Team
Provided technical assistance to students to solve computer issues; responsible for setting up incoming student laptops for use on GSDA’s intranet
Fundraising Ambassador for Anant Amari
Created a fundraising campaign and held clothing drive for orphanage in Ahmedabad, India; raised Rs. 40,000 and gathered over 100 clothing items
Founder of MyClassicHelper
Learned Android Studio programming to develop an Android App, MyClassicHelper, which connects students with available tutors at their high school
Teacher at Math Tutors and Helpers
Employed as a competition mathematics teacher for middle school students; taught students techniques to solve MathCounts problems
Tutor at Kumon
Tutored 20 elementary and middle school students in mathematics and reading fundamentals
Trained pianist; performed at multiple recitals
What if I don’t have anything for my Common App Activities section?
If you didn’t participate in traditional extracurricular activities, don’t panic yet!
It’s time to think outside of the box and consider if you had a compelling reason for not having activities to list.
- How did you spend your free time in high school? Working? Family responsibilities? Independent study?
If so, consider writing about those experiences and how they changed and shaped your life.
Perhaps you don’t have traditional activities to list because you had to pick up your younger siblings from school every day and then had to start cooking dinner.
- These certainly are life experiences about which you can write.
Think about it: If you’ve faced a particular struggle, that differentiates you from most students.
- If you can frame this correctly, then this will be a strength during the college admissions process.
As you grow older, you’ll learn that people who’ve faced adversity are often more qualified to handle conflict and pressure.
Leverage this during college applications.
- Is there a reason why you couldn’t dedicate more time to activities? Did you need to handle a long-term family or health difficulty that prevented you from maximizing your time in school?
Don’t be afraid to voice your story. Colleges are empathetic, but they can only be empathetic if you let them know.
Depending on the application and school to which you are applying, there may already be a place for you to write about any “holes” in your activities.
- Therefore, be mindful of the structure of the application and where you want to add this information.
Before submitting your writing, ask a friend, mentor, or family member to read your response and follow up with the question: “What did you learn about me from reading this paragraph?”
If you’re not satisfied with their answers, go back and revise by adding details that elucidate what you want your reader to understand.
How to Have Extracurriculars to Write About
Alex Goldman, admissions counselor at Sweet Briar College, has this advice for underclassmen who want complete college applications:
To make the most of high school extracurricular opportunities, students should lean in and embrace the experience while rising to the challenges their activities present. Taking leadership roles within their organizations, building influential relationships with teachers, coaches and peers as well as volunteering with community-based programs are all great ways to expand a student’s extracurricular experiences.
Going beyond the after-school commitment will allow a student to pursue their interests more in depth and further develop a student’s character, which will shine through in résumés and college applications!
Conclusion: How to briefly elaborate extracurricular activities
Overall, your discussion of extracurricular activities should be short, sweet, and to-the-point.
If you make your response meaningful, you’ll be one step closer to achieving your college dreams.
- Always remember to elaborate and show the meaning of each relevant extracurricular activity.
College admissions officers don’t know anything about you before they read your college application, so you need to supply pertinent information to paint a portrait of yourself. It’s critical to ask for feedback from honest people since you have a limited amount of space.
Pay attention to “briefly” and “elaborate.” You want to tell a story about yourself and how you’ve developed as a person.