Common Application Extracurricular Activities Essays

The Common Application asks you to “elaborate” on one of you extracurricular activities in 150 words. This short paragraph is an important one on your application.  In just a few sentences, you must convey something personal, meaningful, and interesting about yourself.

Seems impossible, right?  “How can I sum up my experience in my favorite extracurricular activities in just a few sentences?”

Well, it’s time to tackle the impossible. These tips may help you decide which activity to focus upon, and how to write a well-structured paragraph that gives the reader a deeper understanding of your motivations and your priorities.

Choosing the Right Activity

  1. Don’t necessarily pick the activity that looms largest on your resume or activity list.  If you are a star tennis player and possible recruit for a college team, that fact will be clear on your activity list.  If you are the best clarinetist in the city, then your activity list should reflect that fact.  Remember, the prompt asks you to “elaborate” on the activity.  It doesn’t say you have to choose the one that takes up the most time, nor does it say that it must be the one that is your primary extracurricular focus.  More specifically, it may be that the activity in which you have achieved or excelled the most is not the activity that will be the best to elaborate upon in this short essay. Consider the other activities that may help to round out your application and present another view of what motivates and interests you.
  2. Consider which activities carry the most personal meaning to you.  Look back over your resume or activities list and ask yourself, “Which of these would I miss the most if I could no longer do it?” Perhaps it’s that annual scouting trip, or the weekends skiing with your family.  Or maybe it’s that concert you organize at the nursing home twice a year that brings you particular joy.
  3. Consider elaborating on an activity that is not on the activities list or resume.  For example, perhaps your extended family shares Sunday dinner together regularly, and this ritual has had a big influence on you and helped to shape your feelings about family.  Maybe you actually enjoy mowing your lawn every week, making it look nice by paying attention to details. Perhaps you ride your bike to school every morning, and you use that time to notice details on your route, and get your head together before and after your workday.
  4. Consider taking one of your activities and giving it greater specificity and detail.  As you know, the space on the application in which to elaborate on your activities is very, very limited.  So use this short paragraph to pull out some details. For example, perhaps you mention on your activity sheet that you have done volunteer work at a hospital, and that you have several responsibilities.  But there is one responsibility, in particular, that you most enjoy.  To take another example, perhaps you are a guitar player, and your activity list indicates that you’re fairly good, but not great.  However, there I some particular aspect of playing the guitar that you enjoy:  you don’t mind playing scales over and over in order to improve your technique; you go to a music store on Saturdays where a bunch of bluegrass players get together and jam, and you join in, despite the fact you aren’t the best player; or you are a huge fan of Andre Segovia and have listened to every piece he has ever recorded.  These sorts of details can say a lot about the depth of your interest in an activity, even if it is not where your greatest accomplishments lie.

The Focus:  “Why?”

  1. Your activity list or resume should address the questions of “What, When, and Where?” (the “who” should be apparent:  you!).  This list explains your accomplishments and the range of your commitments.  But it doesn’t explain your motivations or your priorities.  This short essay-ette gives you an opportunity do some explaining.
  2. As with your primary college essay and with the supplements, the aim here is to give the admissions officer reading your file a bit more information about yourself.  What you convey in this short paragraph is something that they won’t find in the essays, and that they won’t really know from reading your activity list.  This is another opportunity for you to present another interesting and important facet of your personality.  All the essays give your application depth and dimension.  Don’t throw away this opportunity to tell the reader more about yourself.

Tips for Writing

  1. Start with a list of reasons you participate in this activity.  What do you get out of it?  Why do you enjoy it? Why would you miss it if you suddenly were unable to do it anymore?
  2. Remember that not every aspect of your participation may be enjoyable.  Are there reasons you participate in this activity that actually help you accomplish something else that is, in fact, even more enjoyable?  For example, weigh training may not always be fun, but it can make you stronger.  Practicing the flute may be enjoyable in some respects, and not so much in others—but practicing makes you a better player.
  3. Once your list of reasons why you participate in this activity, pick the top three.  Write your essay in 5 sentences.  One to introduce the activity, three to explain why you do it, and 1 to spare, either as a conclusion or as an elaboration on your introduction.
  4. If you are having trouble, try completing these sentence prompts to get you going.
    • When I participate in this activity, I feel ___________.
    • I originally got involved in this activity because ____________ .  And now I continue this activity because ____________ .
    • My favorite aspect of this activity is ____________ .
    • My friends think this activity is ___________ .
    • I take the most pride in this aspect of the activity: ___________  .

Mark Montgomery
Educational Consultant
College Essay Expert

Filed Under: Application TipsTagged With: college, Common Application, essay

Position/Leadership Description and Organization Name

After you choose the activity type, the application will ask you to describe the position you held (or hold) and the organization name. This section is limited to 50 characters.


Be as specific as possible here. If you participate in a club, define your role, rather than just listing “member.” If you participated in an activity for multiple years and have had multiple roles within it, choose the highest-ranking position you held. For instance, someone who participated in her school newspaper as a reporter for two years and became editor should list “editor.”


You should also be specific in defining the organization. If it has a name, say it, and define what it is if that is unclear. If the activity is typically referred to by an acronym, be sure to list the full name, as you never want to assume that admissions committees will be familiar with the activity to which you are referring.


Writing the Description

You are limited to 150 characters for details, accomplishments, honors won, and accomplishments within each activity, so you will need to be concise and offer only the most pertinent details. If you absolutely need more room to thoroughly explain truly important details about the activity, use the additional information section to expand, or describe it in more detail in your essay if it relates to the topic you choose.


Remember that this section is not there for you to prove your eloquence as a writer; you have the essay to do that. Rather, this serves to inform the admissions committee about your life outside school as succinctly as possible. Use active verbs and limit the use of adjectives and adverbs. You don’t need to use complete sentences. Be as specific as you can be in the space available. If you hold a leadership position, emphasize that role in your description.


Try to focus on quantitative descriptions over qualitative ones. Adding numerical values offers concrete proof of your success, and can show colleges how you were involved specifically. If you are a leader in the activity, mention how many members the group has, how many people you serve (if applicable), how many people your work affected, and so on.


Try not to be redundant, especially considering the limited space. For instance, if you are the president of the tutoring club at your school, you don’t need to list “tutoring” in the description, since colleges are likely to consider that a given; instead, emphasize your duties as president, how you manage and distribute tasks and how you work with club members. If you want to talk about the actual tutoring in more detail, discuss your approach — e.g., “Meet with students one-on-one, develop study aids, and create practice examples.”




Position/Leadership description and organization name, if applicable: Editor, The Daily (school newspaper)


Please describe this activity, including what you accomplished and any recognition you received, etc.: Run weekly meetings, brainstorm ideas, assign and revise 10 articles/week, collaborate with printer to distribute 500 copies to students and faculty.


Participating Grade Levels

The application will ask you in which grade levels you participated in a particular activity. The key is as follows:


9-12: High School Grades


Post-graduate: After High School


If you participated in an activity over the summer between grade levels, choose the rising or later grade level (e.g., the summer between 10th and 11th grades should be listed as “11th grade”).


Estimating Time Commitment

When you estimate the amount of time you spent on a particular activity, it doesn’t need to be exact. However, it does need to be realistic. If you claim to spend ten hours per week on all ten activities, colleges will know you’re exaggerating, to say the least. It’s understandable that you spend more time on some activities than others.


If you are having trouble estimating your time commitment, try keeping a time log for a couple weeks and provide an average.


Participation in College

The last question for each activity asks you whether or not you plan to continue a similar extracurricular activity in college. The application asks this because colleges want to know what kind of student you will be when you arrive. Remember, they are looking for a diverse student body filled with future leaders in respective their fields. If you intend to continue a particular pursuit in college, it shows them that you are truly interested and dedicated to it. To some degree, they also want to see that you are doing the activity because you are truly passionate about it, not just because you want to impress colleges.


That doesn’t mean you have to continue it. Some activities have a natural end and simply aren’t adaptable to a college environment, such as a club particular to your high school. Or perhaps you just don’t want to continue it. But if it is something you don’t really care about, you may want to reevaluate whether or not it is a good idea to include it in your application.


Also keep in mind that just because you intend to continue the activity in college at this point does not mean you are obligated to do so when you actually matriculate. Colleges may give your name to members of a club, organization, or activity in which you participate so they can follow up with you, but you are by no means bound to joining when you begin college (unless, of course, you are accepted on an athletic or other scholarship that requires your participation in a certain activity). So by answering “yes” to this question, you are merely indicating that you are interested in continuing the activity.


List your activities in order of importance. To delete an activity, move it to the bottom of the list and click delete icon. You can also simply edit the activity to reflect a different one.


You may want to start by watching the short tutorial video available at the top of the section to get started. Try not to feel too overwhelmed — college applications take a lot of work, but the reward is well worth it.


Looking for more guidance on filling out the Common Application? Our applications advisers are here to help! Click here to learn more about our College Application Guidance Program.


To learn more about extracurricular activities, check out these CollegeVine posts:


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