Interview With an Admissions Officer: The Common App and Activities List

This blog post is based on a conversation between Signet’s co-founder and CEO, Jay Bacrania, and Signet’s Engagement Manager and Admissions Consultant, Liz Adams. Liz is a former Harvard admissions officer, and she offers her insight from her time reading applications.

What are the pieces of the Common App, and what role does each piece play?

I think of the Common App as having three distinct parts.

First, there’s the factual information: your name, where you live, what language you speak at home—I equate that aspect to filling out your taxes. This includes a huge range of questions, because admissions officers are trying to figure out who you are. A student may not understand why all the questions are being asked, and not all questions will be applicable to every student, but they provide context and help create a three-dimensional picture of each student.

The other two parts are the activities list and the essay. We’ll mostly discuss the activities list in this conversation.

What’s an example of a question an admissions officer might understand differently than the student does?

The one that always comes to mind is the place on the app where you can list your siblings. I think a lot of people view this as a chance to say “my big sister went to Yale, so now the admissions office knows.” It is true that you can use that question to convey that information.

But more interesting to me is the opportunity to communicate something else, like for instance that the student applying has seven younger siblings. Then when the essay talks about helping out at home, admissions officers have some perspective on what that home life is like. Or say, if the applicant is 17 and has three siblings in their 30s, that’s also something interesting and different. It can reveal a lot about who the student is and how they’ve grown up.

Those two students might each have a lot of responsibility, for very different reasons. The eldest of eight seems pretty self-explanatory, but the youngest of four might have essentially grown up as an only child with aging parents. The story that admissions officers create about each student won’t be exclusively based on the ages of siblings, but those are pieces of the puzzle that help flesh these students out. This helps officers read their essay and understand more about where they’re coming from.

So admissions officers sort of act as detectives to connect the dots to create a sketch of a real life student.

It’s one of the most challenging skills to learn, but also one of the most fun parts of working in admissions. You’re reading what is essentially a piece of paperwork and trying to breathe life into it. The more students remember that, the more helpful their application usually becomes.

Students don’t need to censor parts of their lives that they think are boring or uninteresting. I encourage students to be honest and accurate, tell their full story, and let admissions officers synthesize all that information. A student can’t know what will be in their teacher recommendations, or what life experiences that seem normal to them are actually really different or extraordinary.

I imagine that some students aren’t getting across important or interesting elements of their life experience. How do you think about that in terms of the responsibility an admissions officer has?

Admissions officers are looking for students who fit with what their school prioritizes: qualities such as integrity, intellectual curiosity, or commitment to service. I think that this subjectivity is transparent though, because if you research a school, read the website carefully, listen to what they’re telling you, you will know what that school is looking for.

Students don’t have to get it perfectly right. Occasionally students might not be presenting themselves in the best way or offering the right information. But fundamentally, I believe students who are a good fit for a certain school will not be able to hide the qualities that make them a good fit. There doesn’t have to be a fully developed sense of self; some students are applying when they’re only 16! Officers are looking to see if students share the values of the institution, and whether they will thrive on campus.

Admission isn’t a value judgement, good vs. bad; it’s a question of fit. I encourage families to get away from the question of “Is my student good enough?” It’s a false question. The school is asking “Do you belong here?” but that’s not a referendum on the student as a human. Why would there be so many colleges if they weren’t different from each other?

Let’s talk now about the activity list. What’s that like?

The activities list is an opportunity for you to explain how you’ve spent your time for the last four years. It’s important for students to think of it that way, rather than as a list of school clubs. There are separate fields for summer activities and awards you’ve won, so there’s an element of using your judgement about what goes where.

Technically speaking, it’s a grid that you populate, with a drop-down menu for the kind of activity the student participated in. There’s name of organization, role in organization, description of what you actually did, which grades you participated, whether you intend to participate in college, how many hours per week you spent, and how many weeks per year you participated in the activity. Fill this out as completely as possible; admissions officers know how to read this information.

Unlike with a resume, I encourage students to list activities in order of importance rather than chronological order. That’s a subtle way for students to say “This is what I care about. This is how I spent my time and this is what is important to me.”

So an admissions officer reads that list and it starts to tell them a story. How can students make sure they’re presenting a clear picture of who they are?

The first thing I’d say is fill the activity list out as asked. I know it’s a pain, but don’t send in a resume. It’s like applying for a job: part of the test is whether you can do what’s been asked. Put the work in to tell your personal story and communicate it clearly.

For example, one of your activities might say “Activity: Soccer, Position: Midfielder.” That tells me you played soccer once, and maybe that’s the whole story. But there’s a difference between seeing that and seeing: “JV Team, 9th Grade; Varsity Starter, 10th Grade; Captain, 11th Grade,” etc. There aren’t a lot of characters available, so you have to be clever and judicious with what you share, but one-word answers show students don’t care very much, and don’t give admissions officers much information to work with.

What’s a non-school-related activity that a student could put on the list?

Let’s go back to the example of the person with seven younger siblings. They might not have had time or family resources to participate in many extracurriculars. It’s possible their number one activity might be “babysitting my brothers and sisters” or “cooking dinner.” Even though those aren’t school-oriented, they’re part of the accounting of how you spend your time.

There are two different ways babysitting would be a good activity to include. One is if you babysit for your family because they need the support. That shows you are responsible and invested in your family’s well-being. The other is babysitting for other families to earn money. Then babysitting becomes a job, and shows independence and also entrepreneurship.

Babysitting shouldn’t be included if once in a blue moon your neighbor asks you to come over for an hour. It only goes on the activity list if it’s something you care about, that is a non-negotiable in your life. If you work 20 hours a week and you’re also getting good grades and maybe doing one other activity, admissions officers will have tremendous respect for how you’ve spent your time.

So after reading an application, including the activities list, what’s a hypothetical storyline an admissions officer might create about a student?

Let’s look at the example of the student who has three older siblings. There’s an area to list where you’ve lived on the application; you can also list the languages you speak and the languages you speak at home. Let’s suppose this student speaks three different languages, English is not their first language, they’ve been home-schooled, and they’ve lived in a few different countries. The job description of their parents might be some sort of researcher or doctor, whose position requires them to travel a lot.

For this student, the activities list would probably look pretty different. Their activities would be non-traditional, more independent. They wouldn’t be president of the student council, but there is still a great opportunity to account for how they spend their time in ways that are interesting and unique to them. It’s important to present your activities, even if they’re not official (i.e. recognized by a school). You don’t have to wait for school to give you the “go-ahead” to start a club; it’s okay to begin something on your own and make it official when the time is right.

How does this relate to evaluating a student against the values of the institution to see if it’s a good fit?

If I were reading an application I might flip to the activities list first and ask, “What is this kid doing?” If the activities looked unusual, then I’d flip to the factual information about the family. That would give me some context to ask what else is going on. “Oh, they’ve lived in different countries, oh they have adult siblings, etc..”

That’s a challenging situation for a student to be in, so it gives the officer context for evaluating what they’ve done and what it says about them. Students can’t change the circumstances they’re born into; admissions officers look at what they’ve done within those circumstances. Do they give up easily or make the most of every opportunity?

From what they understand about the student, the officer would then compare that with the values of their school and see if this person would be a good fit. Officers want the student to be happy in their school, and also want the school to benefit from having the student on campus.

I want to note that students and families don’t have to have unusual circumstances to be really interesting. Your pursuits can be more traditional as well; the care a student gives to those activities is what makes them interesting.

It sounds like we want students to be as authentic as possible and to share as much as possible on the common app and activities list.

Yes. Students don’t always know what admissions officers might find interesting. That said, be professional and appropriate when filling out the application. It’s not the place to air your dirty laundry, and there’s still some strategy involved. For example, “hanging out with my friends” doesn’t read as a particularly meaningful activity to an admissions officer. But officers do encourage students to share who they really are so that they can determine whether this school is the right fit. It’s a two-way street: students should be aware of what they want out of a school when filling out this application, so that schools understand what is meaningful to them.

How does a student walk the line of putting their best foot forward without being disingenuous or falsifying information?

I’d definitely advise against rounding up hours per activity. Admissions officers add those up, and they know if things don’t make sense. Sometimes descriptions of leadership roles sound overblown, and they can tell that too. On the other hand, sometimes people write “member” of a club when they’ve probably done more, and that’s underselling themselves. Officers don’t want you to exaggerate, but they can only know what you tell them.

I often see students not explain what a specific club is or does, because they assume everybody knows it. Make the most of places to share information on the Common App. When you list the organization’s title, don’t just list the acronym or an esoteric club name without a brief description!

Does number of activities matter?

You do not need to fill up every space on the activities list. When officers see an entry like “Tennis, 2 weeks in 9th grade,” its inclusion feels like a stretch, and doesn’t add to the picture of who you are. It also implies that you don’t think the other things you’ve shared are important enough.

What about students who may be late bloomers and don’t have a lot of activities?

Do the best you can! Your time has gone somewhere. There is often a creative way to share what you’ve done. I’ll also say that not all schools read the application the way I’m talking about; some focus more on GPA and test scores. For a school with a more holistic approach, students still have the essay, teacher recommendations, and factual information.

Frankly, if a student hasn’t done a ton of activities and is a late bloomer, they will probably not be especially happy at a school where everyone else is doing a lot of activities. It won’t be a good fit. Some schools focus primarily on academics, other schools on the social aspect, and others on extracurricular activities. There’s somewhere for everyone, and it’s important that the college be appropriate for the student as they are.

Any final thoughts?

The activities list is many admissions’ officers favorite part, because it’s like doing detective work! It helps officers understand students’ stories in a more complete way, and students should look at it that way as well—as an opportunity to tell their story.

Want to learn more? Check out Signet’s Visual Guide on the Common App Activity List.

Picture of Jay B.

Jay B.

Jay Bacrania is the CEO of Signet Education. As a high schooler, Jay won awards for chemistry at the state level in his home state of Florida, and at Harvard, he initially studied physics. After graduating, Jay spent two years studying jazz trumpet at the Berklee College of Music.

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