If there is one thing we know for sure about the US university application process, it is that US colleges are genuinely interested in who you are and what matters to you. Unlike other higher education systems across the world, US colleges and universities ask the most personal questions and ask extensively about student hobbies. In the US, extracurriculars account for about 30% of your application.
When wading through tens of thousands of applications — many from great students all over the world — admissions officers need a way to get a better understanding as to who you are beyond your school grades and standardized test scores.
While your personal statement is an integral part of this holistic assessment process, it is your activities list that provides admissions officers with a real insight into your leadership and extracurricular achievements and more importantly, how passionate, creative, entrepreneurial, and original you have been when it comes to taking these activities to the next level.
But what does the activity section of the Common App look like, and how do you make sure your list stands out above the rest?
Let’s take a look at what top US colleges are looking for when assessing your extracurricular and leadership profile.
Universities are looking for evidence of commitment and consistency of effort over time. They will be much more impressed if you devote one hour a week to a cause for a year than if you spend 40 hours on a project over the course of one week. This is not to say that all of your involvements ought to be long term commitments. However, you should strive to maintain involvement in three or more extracurricular activities for two or more years.
All students are different – some may fill their calendars with 20 different activities each week while others may have a central 2 or 3 activities that align with their passions. The trick is to find a happy medium that shows variety but also a ‘well lop-sidedness’. This means narrowing down on 4-6 activities or projects that:
- Align with your personal study goals
- Showcase your enthusiasm
- Explore your ability to think beyond the obvious and take your activity to the next level
- Evidence your desire to make a difference to your broader community
In addition to looking for evidence of dedication, US universities are also looking for indications of thoughtfulness and genuine interest in the activities you have chosen.
It is natural for a student to have a variety of interests, but it can become concerning if a student lists 10 different activities on the application that are drastically different from one another. This could indicate that the student has not chosen these activities with care and that they’ve not yet developed an understanding of the types of activities they find rewarding and meaningful.
A great way to present yourself in the most compelling way possible is to narrow down on activities that can be grouped into themes (e.g. sports, philanthropy, entrepreneurial ventures, creative pursuits, technology competitions). These themes help admissions officers to get a real feel as to who you are and what you will bring to campus.
Going Beyond Your Comfort Zone
To really impress US universities, especially those ranked highly on national and international lists, you must demonstrate a willingness to stretch yourself and push beyond your comfort zone. This could be communicated by taking on leadership positions, by participating in competitions at the regional, national, or international level, and by creating a project or organization from scratch.
Top universities are looking to attract students who openly embrace challenges as opportunities to grow, and who can positively impact others during the process. If you can demonstrate both personal growth and impact through your extracurricular activities, then you’ll succeed in differentiating yourself from the majority of your peers.
Common App Activities Section
The Common Application is the most widely used college application platform in the US. While some schools, such as the University of California family (eg: UCLA and UC Berkeley) and MIT for example, have their own processes, the great majority of colleges use the Common App.
So how is the Common App Activities page formatted and how can you communicate years of your extracurriculars on a single form submission?
The form requires that you indicate:
- The type of activity undertaken (a drop-down menu is provided)
- A description of your leadership position within any organization involved
- Details as to your achievements
- How long you have been engaged in the activity (during which school years/grades)
- An estimation of your time of commitment
- An indication as to what level you took this activity eg: school, local community, state, national or international
How Should Activities Be Presented?
Start by listing your most meaningful and most impressive activities first. Whenever possible you should group your activities thematically, to quickly communicate your main areas of interest.
If you’re not sure if you should list an activity or not, think about what you are trying to communicate to the admissions officers. Sometimes it can be tempting to include an activity to fill up more spaces on the list, but if the activity doesn’t communicate something important about you, and is not something which you can reflect on in detail, then it might not be beneficial to include it in your list.
Are Extracurriculars Worth the Extra Time?
A common question we are asked at Crimson is: “If I do really well in my exams and on my standardized tests, and I write a set of really compelling essays, can I then focus less time and effort on my extracurriculars?”
If you are aiming to gain admission to a top university, then the answer is definitely ‘no’. Even less competitive universities will expect to see evidence of consistent dedication to some of your core areas of interest.
Of course, it’s not always easy to juggle several extracurricular activities alongside school work and personal commitments. But by narrowing down on your passions early, and choosing extracurriculars that add to your personal development, lift your spirits and help you form meaningful connections with others, you’ll find these activities aren’t a burden but a blessing in the busy school year.
Ultimately you need to:
- Plan your schedule in advance
- Find activities you truly enjoy
- Choose activities which allow you to spend time with friends and the people you value in your community
- Have confidence in your ability to make a unique impact on others around you
The Evolution of Extracurriculars Throughout High School
Exploration: The first year or two of high school should be dedicated to exploring your passions. If something sounds interesting to you, try it out! Take Crimson student, Jessica, for example. Jessica started off high school by exploring activities such as science, technology, working with children, and getting involved in her community’s youth commission organization. While she didn’t know just yet what she would decide to focus on and pursue, Jessica knew these particular topics piqued her interest.
Consolidating: Around the time you turn sixteen or second semester of sophomore year, you should start to discard activities that are no longer of interest (for Jessica, this was identifying that she really wanted to focus on STEM and working with young students). This is also the time to start pursuing leadership roles and taking on more responsibilities within your established initiatives. You can still try out new activities, but it’s important to only pursue new interests if you intend to stick with them. Try to branch out and divide your involvement between inside and outside of school.
Measuring and Mentoring: By your senior year or age 18, you should know exactly what your interests are and this should be easily identifiable on your college applications. Senior year is the ideal time to really level up your extracurricular involvement and think about scale. How can you expand your organizations or clubs outside of your school or local community? Now is the time to demonstrate mindfulness of your wider community and to deeply reflect on how your involvement benefits others. In Jessica’s case, she was able to finetune her interests and that’s when she founded STEMpower: a voluntary organization dedicated to providing virtual and in-person STEM-related workshops with hands-on activities and discussion for preschool and elementary students. Initially offered this spring to children of frontline healthcare workers. Jessica has expanded her reach and now has a team of approximately 15 volunteers helping to develop and curate the curriculum and deliver programming to a larger audience.
It is initiatives like Jessica’s –ones that start off small and eventually scale to reach a wider audience– that are most successful in high school. Creating and providing resources to one’s community is not always a straightforward task. In order to have a successful extracurricular project, it is key to be patient, be persistent, and be passionate!
How Crimson Can Help
At Crimson, our extracurricular and leadership mentors have helped thousands of students find and develop activities that not only helped them gain admission to their dream universities, but also helped them form lifelong friendships, and develop skills and insights which furthered both their professional and personal development.
Many of our students come to us with little idea as to what activities they should commit to. But one of the most rewarding parts of supporting students comes in helping them narrow down on their passions and identifying the activities that will ‘stick’.
We also help our students identify somewhat difficult to see ‘connections’. We’ve helped students combine even the most seemingly disparate of interests such as sport and robotics, computer science and drum playing, debating, and sewing – just to name a few!
Crimson also helps students who may feel a little intimidated by the prospect of taking on additional responsibilities and challenges, be it guiding you in securing leadership positions you may never have thought possible, preparing you for academic competitions, directing you step by step in planning for and completing an impressive independent project… Our Crimson students continue to amaze us and more importantly themselves.
As for that restrictive character count, admittedly nailing your activities in 150 characters is a challenge for many students. But our mentors — many of whom are graduates from, or current students at, the very universities our students are aiming for — have read thousands of student activity lists and know exactly how to both capture the reader’s attention and to communicate key interests in a matter of seconds!
Of course, none of what we do would be possible without the talents, enthusiasm, creativity, and hard work of the amazing high-schoolers we are lucky enough to work with. Through their extracurriculars, our students have developed lifelong friendships, skill development, and insights which went on to further both their professional and personal development.
Shannon completed her Bachelors at Franklin University Switzerland where she majored in Comparative Literary and Cultural Studies & minored in Social Justice and Sustainability. Shannon has a passion for learning new languages, environmental and social justice, and immersing herself in new cultures. Shannon has worked in higher education and now works as an Education Coordinator with Crimson. Shannon currently lives in Southern California and enjoys reading, water polo, yoga, and traveling.