Is your student making this Common App mistake?

By Maxine Seya

While on the phone with an admissions officer this week, I heard her say, “Ugh, the Common App is so clunky and so hard to use.”

The Common App looks almost the same as it did when I applied to college over a decade ago and if it’s hard for a professional who works in the admissions industry to navigate, I can only imagine how confusing it can be for first-time college applicants and their families.

When I advise students on the Common App, besides the essays, I focus mainly on one very confusing section of it: the Activities section.

What Is the Activities Section of the Common App?

This is the section reserved for your student to brag about the clubs he’s started, athletic awards he’s won, jobs he’s snagged, and summer camps he’s completed. Other activities like babysitting, caring for a family member, doing chores around the house because the student lost a parent, etc. may also be included.

Applicants get to list up to 10 activities.

For each activity, the applicant must type out the position description within 50 characters, the organization name within 100 characters, and the explanation for the activity within 150 characters. The Common App asks the applicant to “Please describe this activity, including what you accomplished and any recognition you received, etc.”

Piece of cake, right?

While my students tend to have no problem accurately completing the position description and organization name, say “Varsity Team Captain” as the position description and “Main High School Swim Team” as the organization name, almost always they mess up the 150-character description section.


The Common App Mistake I Often See

What students do: In the 150-character description section, a student might write:

  • As a club member, I was required to complete 50 hours of community service.
  • I played violin for 15 years.
  • I worked at the restaurant every summer.
  • I was the student body president for my school.
  • I started this club with a friend and met with club members once a week.
  • I volunteered for St. Margaret’s Church every week.

What’s the problem?

None of these examples are inaccurate. The applicant was truthful, but made no effort to describe their accomplishment. These short descriptions don’t add value to the position title they already wrote.

What to do instead: Focus on achievements, not responsibilities

Colleges care more about the applicant’s impact on each of the 10 (or fewer) listed activities — and not the job description, the participation requirements, and the title. Besides the essays, this is one of the few parts of the application that allow applicants to demonstrate their contributions to the community.

Contributions are more important than position titles and job descriptions because

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Maxine Seya
Maxine Seya is a former investigative journalist, college consultant, and admissions interviewer. She studied at Peking University (Beijing, China) and Université Paul-Valéry (Montpellier, France) and investigated for CNN and Huffington Post before graduating from Northwestern University. She founded SocratesPost to share the human stories behind the admission gates and offer parents clarity as they help their teens with college.