How to Effectively Complete the
Activities Section of College Applications

By: Judi Robinovitz | Last Updated: November 15, 2018

Good grades and high standardized test scores help get your application into the room where the admissions committee will make its final decision – and for many years they’ve been the top two criteria for evaluating applicants. As we pointed out in a blog we published in January 2013,

many schools use a “cut-off” test score criterion… below the cut-off means that there’s no chance for admission. The Colorado Commission on Higher Education publishes an Admission Eligibility Index used to determine into which of Colorado’s state colleges students can be admitted, a matrix consisting solely of GPA and SAT/ACT scores. Nothing else is considered — if a student’s Eligibility Index score isn’t high enough, the student is not admitted.

And in an article titled “The Three Biggest Lies in College Admission” by Steve Cohen in, September 2012, the #1 Lie was, “Standardized test (SAT and ACT) scores are less and less important.”

In yet another blog published last year, “What Matters to Admission Officers? What you can do to differentiate yourself from those other students,” we pointed out that good grades and high SAT/ACT scores aren’t nearly enough for admission to more selective schools, because their competitors at the admission-decision level have grades and standardized test scores that are at least as good, if not better. There are only three places on applications where students can differentiate themselves from their competition: their essays; their résumés (if the application allows a résumé upload), and the Activities section. The balance of this blog will focus on the last, the Activities section.

There are three elements to completing the Activities section in order to most effectively market a student to college admissions. Those three components are content, sequence, and form. We’ll cover each below.

Content: Follow the link (above) to our “What Matters to Admission Officers?” blog, and be attentive to the Making Caring Common (MCC) Project’s January 2016 e-document titled Turning the Tide: Inspiring Concern For Others And The Common Good Through College Admissions. In 2016, MCC, an initiative of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, had over 200 endorsers and supporters, 175 of them college administrators, many from selective schools. MCC’s mission is to help “educators, parents, and communities raise children who are caring, responsible to their communities, and committed to justice,” and one of its aims is to encourage colleges to admit students “who demonstrate and promote more meaningful contributions to others, community service and engagement with the public good. It encourages admission officers to assess students’ ethical engagement and contributions to others.”

A student’s character is more important than ever in college admissions, so if students want to market themselves to selective schools, then listing activities that demonstrate caring, meaningful contributions to others, community service, and a commitment to justice will serve them well. However, it’s more important that the activities listed be fewer in number but demonstrate significant involvement – rather larger in number with total commitment/time spread thin among them. And leadership in the activities presented – as opposed to mere participation in them – is also important, as is ensuring that they’re part of a consistent picture being presented by the application as a whole.

Sequence: List activities in order of importance to the student – importance often revealed by the depth and breadth of the student’s commitment to that activity. So, list first those activities that show significant time spent — and if they “just happen to be” the types of activities mentioned in the first paragraph of our Content section, above, that’s absolutely ideal.

Form: The Activities section typically calls for information describing a student’s participation in each activity, but provides little space (word or character limits) in which to deliver it. So, be concise – and comprehensive; it’s critical. Get to the point and use abbreviations and truncations. Lead each activity’s description with action verbs that are properly tensed and varied to avoid redundancy.

Final notes:

Exactly how to use the Activities section – and the Additional Information section, if there is one – varies with, among other things, whether or not a résumé upload into the application is permitted. Pulling off excellent content, sequence, and form for the Activities section is one of the most challenging aspects of an application – but one that can surely make you stand out in the applicant pool. Fortunately, we’ve helped thousands of students get admitted to their top-choice schools by shepherding them through the application process from start to finish — and especially the Activities and Additional Information sections — and we’re here to help you, too. Time’s a-wasting, so give us a call today, and let’s get started!

College Admissions Secrets Revealed

Topics: Common Application College Application Coalition App


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