What do Zombies have to do with the Activities Section? Read on to find out how to fill yours out!

September 29, 2021 • by AdmissionsMom

I’ve been thinking about how to describe filling out the Activities Section of the various apps for a while. In so many ways, it’s more of an art than a science, but I wanted to share my resources with you and a few of my favorite tips — and as usual, it got long (sorry in advance). As I was writing this post, I decided I wanted to hear from a few other consultants about how they guide their students to fill out these sections, so I asked a few of my consultant “friends” to share their favorite tips for the Activities Section, and I’ve shared their amazing wisdom throughout the post.

What Counts as an Activity?

Keep in mind that basically anything that you do outside of classwork, homework, and test prep is considered an activity. That includes jobs, family and home responsibilities, elderly or child care, zombie hunter, personal projects, interests, and hobbies, and independent research, in addition to the more typical research, internships, and in and out of school community service, clubs, and sports.

Here’s what MIT Admissions says**: “**Some students feel so much pressure to get into the “right” college that they want to make sure they do everything right—down to their extracurricular activities. Fortunately, the only right answer is to do what’s right for you—not what you think is right for us. / Choose your activities because they delight, intrigue, and challenge you, not because you think they’ll look impressive on your application. Go out of your way to find projects, activities, and experiences that stimulate your creativity and leadership, that connect you with peers and adults who bring out your best, and that please you so much that you don’t mind the work involved. Some students find room for many activities; others prefer to concentrate on just a few. Either way, the test for any extracurricular should be whether it makes you happy—whether it feels right for you. / College is not a costume party; you’re not supposed to come dressed as someone else. College is an intense, irreplaceable four-year opportunity to become more yourself than you’ve ever been. What you need to show us is that you’re ready to try.”

If you’re still not sure what counts as an activity for your college apps or you want to learn more about whether you should be spiky, round like a ball, or star-shaped — or just how to approach exploring your way to involvement in general, here’s a post I made last spring about ECs and Activities. You might find it helpful.

Making the Best of Your Limited Space in the Activities Lists!

So let’s get started! I love what u/CollegeEase from Virtual College Counselors says: For activities lists, the description should answer the following questions:

What did you do?

How did you do it?

Why was it important?

(here’s their fun infographic to show how to do this effectively and efficiently).

Here are the exact steps I use with my students in filling out their activities list.

STEP ONE: Fill out the Big Colorful Activities Spreadsheet (you’ll see 🙂 )

List all activities in these categories. Go crazy here. Don’t worry about limiting it to 10 if you have more. If you don’t have more than 10, that’s totally cool too. (IMPORTANT NOTE: You do NOT have to have something listed for each of these! These categories are simply to get you thinking about what you do have):

  • Jobs/Work/Internships/Researchdo you have a paid job, unpaid internship, research for someone else? That goes here
  • School Clubs or Activitiesthis is where you put your organized and independent-but-school-related activities
  • Outside School Clubs and Organizationsthis is for things like Scouts or anything you might do in your place of worship or in your neighborhood
  • Sports/Physical Fitnessthis can be organized team sports at school or otherwise, but it can also be independent stuff you do like running, yoga, gym rat, weight lifting, basic physical fitness, tae-kwon-do, walking… you get the picture
  • Family Responsibilities — what do you do to help around your house? Sibling care? Grandparent care? Dinner once or twice a week? Basic chores? Yes — family responsibilities count!
  • Community Servicewhere do you volunteer or give back to your community? Can be organized or independent, depending on the ways you choose to give back.
  • Independent Hobbiesyep, this is where the really fun stuff happens! This is where you put what you love to do — what’s meaningful to you. Is baking your thing? Include it. Do you love to read and spend hours reading books — definitely include that, skateboarding? Of course! dungeons and dragons (are you a dungeon master? Even better!), guitar just for fun, Wikipedia rabbit holes about zombies, animal crossing mastery, crossword puzzles… it all goes in this section. Let your nerd flag fly here.

Then, for each of those activities you listed, there are 8 columns for you to fill out (Again, you don’t need to fill out all the columns, but they are there to trigger your thinking):

  1. Leadership/Title: Remember leadership is not just about a title. You don’t have to be Captain High School or President Every Club to demonstrate leadership. So, think about how you’ve demonstrated leadership in your life. You can use this leadership worksheet to help you think about the ways you are a leader: in your own life, with a job, in your family, with your friends, in the classroom, in your school, and in your community.
    1. u/DallasMom98, a fellow admissions consultant, says, “Leadership does not always equal President/VP, etc. Did you organize fundraisers, run drills at practice, plan an end-of-season banquet, be in charge of communications between organization and administration. I think most kids think “leadership = title” (but it doesn’t)
  2. What I Did: This is what you actually did in this activity. What were the actions you took? What were your responsibilities? Here’s a link to my list of Strong Verbs that might help you think about how to describe what you did!
    1. Mark from Better College Apps says: “Verbs matter. It’s really important to use strong verbs that highlight your involvement, investment, commitment, and impact. DO NOT use verbs that indicate you were merely a warm body in the room when stuff happened – “participated,” “helped,” “had the opportunity,” etc.”
  3. Problems I Solved: Think about how you worked through problems and issues if you had them? Describe your actions in overcoming obstacles and looking for solutions.
  4. Lessons I Learned: I love this one. What did you learn — about yourself more than anything here. This is a great place to demonstrate your values.
  5. Impact: Here’s where you can focus on specifics like growth, awards, and quantifying and qualifying what you did as much as possible (I love these tips from some fellow consultants who shared some advice with me):
    1. “I have my kids quantify as much as they can, particularly if they are in a leadership position…i.e “increased membership by 30% over 2 years” “Oversaw activities for 20+ campers…” “served 150+ customers daily” and so on.”
    2. “Give quantitative details for things you can count. Give qualitative details for things you can’t. For volunteering: “volunteered for over 500 hrs. Implemented a new plastic bottle recycling program and raised $675 from donations.” For soccer: “Won League 2x. MVP (11, 12). Created a new team tradition of going to In N Out after games”
    3. Mark from Better College Apps says: “Details matter. As you mentioned in your impact section, quantitative details immediately provide the scale and scope of an activity, so it can be really helpful to include them.”
  6. Years/Grades: What grades did you do the activity or years were you involved? If it was summers, which summers? Rising 9, Rising 10, Rising 11, Rising 12?
  7. Weeks Per Year: Think about how many weeks you are involved throughout the year.
    1. School year every week? That’s about 40 weeks for most kids.
    2. School year but you met once a month? That would be about 9 or 10 weeks.
    3. School year but you met twice a month? About 20 weeks then.
    4. Just for about 8 weeks during the school year? 8 weeks
    5. All year participated every week? 52 weeks!
    6. All year once a month? 12 weeks.
    7. Summers every week? About 12 weeks for most kids
    8. Summers once a month? 3 weeks
    9. 3 weeks over Summer? 3 weeks
    10. I think you get the picture
  8. Hours Per Week: If your hours stay the same every week, then I suggest practicing a moment of gratitude to the admissions gods, but if you’re like most kids and your hours vary by season or month or even week to week, get going on those math skills and average.
    1. I’m gonna share a complicated one: Let’s say you hunt zombies year-round for about 48 weeks a year (taking 2 weeks off in winter and 2 weeks off in summer).
      1. Now, during the rest of the ten weeks of summer, you practice hunting zombies 5 hours a day every weekday, so that’s 25 hours a week for those 10 weeks.
      2. During your 12-week zombie hunting season in school, you practice 2 hours a day and have a 3-hour game once a week. So that’s 13 hours a week for those 12 weeks.
      3. The rest of the year you hunt zombies 3 days a week for 2 hours, so that’s 26 weeks where you practice 6 hours a week.
      4. Now it’s a Math problem, right? 10 weeks x 25 hours PLUS 12 weeks x 13 hours PLUS 26 weeks x 6 hours = Total Number of Hours.
      5. Divide that total number of hours by total number of weeks
      6. You have your average weekly hours!
      7. Most will not be this complicated…

STEP TWO: Once you have this Big Spreadsheet filled out, we can move on to working with the Common App Worksheet (for this post, I’ll be focused here on filling out the Common App Activities list, but I have worksheets in my resource folder for Coalition, Apply Texas, and the UC App also).

  • Use the google doc character counts to help you see how many characters you have. It will save lots of frustration on the Common App. (Tools > Word Count > Character Count)
  • Use phrases that begin with strong verbs.
  • Focus on putting what you did as much as possible in the first two categories (a, b). And for c, put as much of your quantitative and qualitative impact, lessons learned, and problems solved as you can.
  • I suggest using a combination of colons, semi-colons, and commas to separate out the various points you want to make. Begin the new thing you did with a capital letter:
    • A. Zombie Hunter: Captured 89 Zombies over 3 years
    • B. Independent Hobby: Turn my love of hunting Zombies into a creative hobby by writing screenplays
    • C. Collaborated on 3 short Zombie Hunter films; Showed to over 300 students, teachers, & staff; Created Instagram acct w/pics & links to Zombie Reels
  • Add your years/grades, hours/week, months/year

STEP THREE: Think about where you might need to use the additional info section, to tell them more about what you’ve done. If you have an activity where there’s no way you can explain the importance of it, or quantify all your awards, or go into detail about the important aspects of what you’ve done, you can use the additional info section of the Common App.

  • From u/Kunjanvshah from KS Educational Consultants: “When going through the Common App, don’t forget the Additional Information Section. Take advantage of it to share an in-depth look into who you are. Be creative and make sure it has purpose And it’s put across well!!!”
  • You can write (see additional info) or (see add. info) at the end of your description (c)

STEP FOUR: Decide the order you want to show them on Common App. It’s kind of sad to think about, but still think about it like this: they might not finish, or they might get bored, or their cat might jump on their keyboard and make them lose their screen, or they might get frightened by a zombie at the door and spill their coffee. What do you want to make sure they see first?

  • Here’s how I suggest you decide what goes first. It’s a weird mathematical formula — and you know math’s not my thing (although it used to be — in fact, I was the math nerd of my high school believe it or not).
  • Rank them in descending order — highest value first
  • Most Meaningful/Important to You X Most Years (Recent and Current factor in here) X Hours/Week
  • Mark from Better College Apps says: “Order matters. You covered this too, but I’ll add a little nuance – you have control over this order and you can use it strategically. So for example, if you work a part-time job in fast food, the reviewer probably knows what that entails. But if you also do an internship or research, that’s WAY more open-ended. Even if the research/internship is fewer hours per week, it probably makes sense to list it higher because it’s more “intellectually inclined” and the reviewer won’t know how significant, important, or legitimate it is unless you convince them. So moving that up in your list can help with that as well as reinforcing a narrative/theme in your application.”
  • More Mark from Better College Apps: “Impressiveness DOESN’T matter. At least, not as much or in the way you think. It literally does not matter whether you did orchestra vs yearbook vs Key Club or whether you list 25 hours a week vs 20. There is no points rubric, ranking system, or formula that gives an edge to students who sleep less. The activities section is all about what it says about YOU, not some kind of sick and twisted accounting system for rewarding the busiest and highest-strung students. What matters is impact, investment, commitment, and engagement, not labels, titles, hours spent as a warm body in a chair at some meetings, or whatever. Colleges don’t care as much about what you did as they do about what you WILL DO when you get on campus – and they use what you did (and why!) as an indicator of what your impact in their community might look like. So if you mostly did a lot of BS things designed to look neat but had little actual impact, they aren’t going to rate that as highly as someone who did meaningful and impactful things even if they’re “less impressive.””

STEP FIVE: Add to the Activities Section!

STEP SIX: Check it out in preview and make sure it looks like you want it to look! Check for typos, capitalization, issues, etc.

That’s it! You got this. Let me know if have questions or just want to chat about Zombies or cats.

More Resources:

Folder with all my Materials Linked

College Essay Guy’s Post about Writing Activities Lists

Activities and Awards: Making the Most of Your Character Count by Bethany from Better College Apps

Added by Mark from Better College Apps:

The Life Raft for Extracurricular Activities

The A2C wiki page on ECs

MrsScholarGrade’s EC FAQ

How To Start An Organization At Your School

Tl;dr

  • The activities section is important so take your time with it.
  • Dig in and figure out what you want to share about your life.
  • Remember jobs, family responsibilities, and personal hobbies and interests count and that leadership doesn’t have to come in the form of a title
  • Use the character counts provided for you — take advantage of what they give you!

Posted on September 29, 2021 in Activities and Extracurriculars,College Applications

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AdmissionsMom started by giving advice on the subreddit r/ApplyingToCollege and has grown into a full-blown college admissions adventure with a blog, a book, and a College Visit Hub, College Vizzy. AdmissionsMom helps students and parents through the stressful college admissions process with tips on choosing the right school for YOU, learning to leave the pressure behind, and practicing mindfulness while learning more about college admissions and yourself.