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:

  1. Don’t be passive. Don’t be wordy.

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 xthey 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?

  1. 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.”

  1. 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?

  1. 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.

Adjusting to Changes from COVID-19

With COVID-19 have come many changes in the world of college admissions. SAT and ACT tests have been cancelled, AP tests are very different this year, college campuses are closed, and students are taking classes online. Nothing is “normal,” and with that comes a lot of fear and anxiety.

The best remedy I have found is ACTION. Keep moving forward. Here are some ways you can keep moving toward your goal of heading to college:


The next SAT/ACT tests are scheduled for June. This may change but for now register for these tests if you haven’t already.  Spaces are expected to fill quickly.

ACT Registration

SAT Registration

Keep your skills sharp by doing some test prep. Mock SAT tests and practice questions are available for free through Kahn Academy. There are also ACT and SAT prep books available on Amazon if you’re tired of looking at a computer screen. I know I am!

If the SAT and ACT June tests are cancelled, you will still have the opportunity to test in the fall, well before college applications are due.

Also keep in mind that the list of test optional schools is growing daily: University of Oregon, Boston University, Case Western, etc.  This was a trend that started some time ago, but that trend has accelerated with the recent SAT/ACT cancellations. It is worth noting that even for the schools that are test optional, historically about 80 – 85% of the students who are accepted did submit test scores. That indicates to me that tests are not going to go away. However, this year, who knows! If the June tests are cancelled, we can expect to see even more schools going test optional.


Even though you aren’t able to visit college campuses at this time,  you can still be learning about the colleges you are interested in. There are amazing resources available for you to learn about colleges, right from your home.

College Websites: Do a deep dive into the websites. Look at curriculum requirements for your prospective major. If you’re undecided, investigate advising resources for students with undeclared majors. Head to the section on student life and learn about student organizations and club sports. There is a wealth of information behind the landing page of every college website.

Virtual Tours and Information Sessions: Most colleges offer virtual tours  that enable you to see the campus, and with the recent developments colleges have responded by developing a variety of additional ways to connect virtually. Check the website for virtual information meetings, meetings with admissions reps, etc.

Social Media: Join the college’s Facebook group to connect with students. Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat are resources as well. Search for YouTube videos on your colleges of interest and you’ll find plenty of students sharing information and experiences about their colleges.

There is a wealth of information available through virtual experiences so grab your laptop and cellphone and immerse yourself in research and discovery. You will feel better knowing you are still making progress toward finding your college fit!

ACT Section Retakes Coming Soon

Another big change is coming this fall! Starting in September the ACT will allow for sectional retesting. After taking a complete official ACT, students can opt to retake one, two or three individual sections rather than retaking the whole test. All retakes will be computer based, and testing will take place at a testing center where each student will be taking his or her own sections with distinct timing.

Potential Pros:

I have to believe students will love this. They can shift their focus from the full test with four sections to tackling one session at a time. Once they lock in a good score on a section, they will never have to look at that content again. It has yet to be seen if this will benefit students in terms of increasing their scores.

Potential Cons:

Kids who are perfectionists may shift into perfection mode, trying to ace particular sections even after they have attained a solid score. Will this drive students to be better, work harder, and as a result add more stress?

We also don’t yet know how colleges are going to respond. Colleges are in the process of determining their policies regarding retakes. Some will accept retake scores, some will not. Georgetown for example announced it is unlikely to accept single retakes. They are doing further research. Students will have to monitor retake policies of each of the schools they are applying to.

If this is something that interests you, the first opportunity for retakes will be in September; registration will open in July. Test centers are likely to fill quickly so mark your calendars!

Changes Coming to the ACT

There are big changes coming to the testing world in 2020. Starting in the fall ACT will go to computer-based testing, and if history is any indication SAT won’t be far behind. While the shift will take time, everything is eventually going to go to a computer. ACT has already been using computer-based testing internationally exclusively for a year, and graduate exams (MCAT, LSAT, etc.) have already made the change as well.

Test security is driving the change. Paper tests make it too easy to cheat as test forms are recycled and used across time zones and geographies. With computer-adaptive testing there are massive problem banks too large to memorize and no two students will receive the same test.

There will be several tools available that can support good test taking strategies. A line-reader making tool will help you focus on what you’re reading. An answer masking tool will allow you to cover the possible answers, determine your answer and then uncover the choices. You can also use an answer tool eliminator to narrow your attention as you eliminate answers. One of the most helpful tools is a bookmarking tool so you can bookmark questions you want to come back to. There will also be a built-in timer and 5-minute warning that pops up on the screen so you will no longer have to rely on a proctor to give you notice. There are always those nightmare stories of proctors forgetting to let students know that time is running out. Maybe the best part is that you will typically receive scores within 2 days!

While there is no doubt it’s coming, the shift to computer-based testing will take time. We don’t know how many sites will offer computer-based training and there may be issues with supply and demand of seats, staffing and digital infrastructure. It will be important to register early. Registration opens in July for September 2020 tests. Mark your calendars!

5 Types of Application Deadlines

When it comes to submitting your applications, there are several application deadline options out there to choose from. Here is a basic overview of those deadlines:

Regular Decision (RD)

The deadline for regular decision applications is generally somewhere between January 1 and February 1. You will receive an admissions decision no later than April 1 and have until May 1 to make your final decision and confirm your enrollment.

Early Action (EA)

With Early Action you generally need to get your applications in by either November 1 or November 15. The nice thing is you will hear back from the schools as early as December or January, and still have until May to make your final decision.

Restrictive Early Action (REA)

This is similar to Early Action in that you apply to your school of choice and get a decision early. The catch is that you are restricted from applying ED or EA or REA to other schools. If you go this way, you’ll have until May 1 to confirm that you’ll attend.

Early Decision (ED)

The deadlines for ED are similar to Early Action; the difference is that Early Decision is a contract between you and the college. You agree that if the college accepts you, you’ll attend that college and withdraw all other applications. Because of this commitment, you can apply Early Decision to only one college.

Rolling Admission

With Rolling Admissions schools review the applications when they are submitted and make decisions throughout the admission cycle (usually within four to six weeks after they receive the application).

Keep in mind that admissions deadlines will vary from school to school. The only way to be sure about a college’s deadlines is to confirm the dates with each school you are applying to.