How to Colorfully Describe Your Activities
The Common App’s Activities Section is incredibly important because it’s the only opportunity you have to expand upon your various extracurricular activities. But the Activities Section can also be daunting. Despite the short length of entries (only 150 characters), the pressure is on to communicate effectively.
This blog focuses on actually writing the Activities Section and assumes that you, the student, have already spent some time preparing. Both selecting the activities to include and further brainstorming what those activities entail are crucial first steps. Your college counselor can help draw out these ideas in further detail. After some preparation, it is time to write. Here are four tips to help craft a compelling Activities Section:
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Just like with a resume, using “action verbs” is crucial for making your Activities Section stand out. A quick Google search of “action verbs for resumes” will turn up countless lists to reference. But before diving headlong into the depths of Google, keep some things in mind:
While action verbs are a good jumping-off point, using “action verbs” is really about avoiding boring verbs and verbs that make you seem like a passive bystander. Consider the following example:
“Was on the Varsity soccer team.”
The above example uses a boring verb, “was.” The above example also fails to paint any sort of picture for the reader. Your presence on the soccer team is passive and doesn’t help the reader learn anything specific about you. A helpful rule of thumb is to ask yourself: If my friends were reading my Activities Section, would they know it was me? Now let’s spruce the section up a bit using more interesting verbs and avoiding the “passive bystander” problem:
“Traveled and competed on the Varsity soccer team, led pregame ritual and warmups.”
You have interesting verbs here that paint a picture for the reader and communicate a lot of information in only a few characters. “Traveled” shows a commitment to the team and ability to manage your time, “competed” shows your competitive edge, and “led” demonstrates leadership.
Finally, while action verbs are great, don’t be overly wordy or unnecessarily fancy. Some of the verbs listed online sound more like an IRS auditor than a high school student. Did you really audit, crosscheck, salvage, or appraise? Or would verbs like monitor, oversee, and assist do the trick?
Be Concise. Avoid Redundancy.
Each activity section entry has a 150-character limit, which means you have to be quick and to the point. To put this in perspective, 150 characters is just over half that currently allotted for Tweets (280 characters).
Being concise requires strong verbs (see above) and pointed writing. Avoid “throat-clearing” phrases that don’t move the writing forward. For example, “Had the opportunity to assist” versus simply “assisted.” The first formulation communicates nothing to the reader and takes up almost 20% of your allotted space. The second moves the ball in less than 10 characters.
Another common mistake is to use multiple verbs to communicate the same thing. If you are doubling up on verbs, see if you can pack a punch using only one. For example, “assisted and oversaw” doesn’t accomplish much more than simply “oversaw.” Use the extra space to expand upon other responsibilities you had.
Redundancy can arise not only in the description but also from the short “position or role description” that precedes it. For example, if your role was “Member of the Debate Team” and your description reads, “Debated at several tournaments,” you have basically repeated the obvious. Instead, add insights into what your membership meant: “Argued various climate change theories” or “networked with climate change professionals at tournaments.”
Be Impact Oriented. Quantify.
Similar to Tip #1’s point on avoiding passivity, you want to make sure you are demonstrating the impact that your activity had on you, the school, the community, your employer, etc. To use the preceding example, if you attended debate tournaments, you could discuss any impact the activity had on (1) your skills (e.g., “developed oral advocacy skills”); (2) your knowledge (e.g., “explored theories on climate change”); or (3) the school (e.g., “helped students understand competing climate change theories”). Hone in on the “why” of your activity.
Another easy way to add impact is to quantify your descriptions with impact-oriented figures. If you raised money for a charitable cause, tell the reader how much money you raised. If you worked as a restaurant server, how many tables did you have to juggle at one time?
Show Your Accomplishments. Be Honest.
The Activities Section is your chance to expand upon your extracurriculars and tell the admissions representative about yourself. While you should not hold back about your accomplishments, you should not play at the margins with what is truthful. If something seems like a stretch, find a way to rework it using the above tips. Being impact-oriented and using strong verbs will carry enough weight that you don’t need to “stretch” the truth. For colleges, academic integrity is far more important than how many times you lettered in football.