More than just numbers
Perhaps to a greater extent than any other country’s university admission process, when considering whether to admit a prospective student the US system values more than just grades.
Here’s what Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins University has to say about their approach:
“The admissions committee conducts a holistic review of every applicant based on his or her accomplishments, goals, and fit with our community. We’re looking for students who will truly thrive as Johns Hopkins undergraduates. Each required item is requested for a reason and contributes to our evaluation.”
Along with a personal essay, supplemental essays, Letters of Recommendation from the student’s counselor, and possibly multiple letters from the student’s teachers, the Common App’s ‘Activities’ section is an example of US universities wanting to get to know each prospective student ‘in the round’.
The Common App’s Activities section
The Common Application activities section asks for:
- the ‘type’ (such as community service, cultural, debate/speech, sports, etc…),
- the ‘position/leadership description and organization name’ (50 characters)
- a description of the activity and your accomplishments (150 characters)
- the grades (year groups) of participation
- the timing of your participation (during school year, during school break, all year)
- hours spent per week
- weeks spent per year
- whether you intend on participating in a similar activity in college.
Students are limited to including 10 activities, and they are supposed to rank them according to their importance to the student.
The 150 character long descriptions are the most important thing here. They should provide additional information that the student’s personal essay and supplemental writing do not cover, and should bring the student to life versus what’s provided to admissions officers by the student’s test scores and school transcripts.
Ideally, the activity descriptions should build the student’s profile as a well-rounded individual and should tell the story of the student’s personal interests and ambitions.
What do your activities say about you?
The activities that can be included are limited to ones that a student has done during their high school years (grade 9 through 12 for the US system, and years 10 through 13 for the UK system).
For each student, the activities section of the Common App should answer the question “What do you choose to invest your time in?”
These activities could include:
- Extra academic endeavors
- Research, honor clubs, tutoring…
- Community service
- Through the local community or through a school/global club
- Sport teams
- Include whether the student had a leadership position such as captain or received an award
- Performing Arts
- Theater, musicals, acting classes, singing, band, dancing, and what role the student had in the production
- Conferences and Competitions
- Model United Nations, international or national youth political conferences, math competitions, sports conferences….
- Jobs and internships
- Include whether they were paid or voluntary
- Summer camps
- Investing time during vacation shows extra dedication
- Camps could include language immersion camps, specific subject camps (such as journalism, psychology, law, medicine), intensive sport camps, and more.
- Any other activity that the student believes important in communicating who they are to the university
- If the student has a passion for woodworking at home, this should be included even if this is a personal endeavour that was taken independent from an official club
What to include in each Activity’s description
Here are a few questions that each description could choose to answer:
- Why did the student choose to include this activity in the list?
- What does this activity tell the admissions officer about the student?
- What did this activity mean to the student?
- Since the description is so limited in length, space should not be wasted by repeating the name of the activity or the position that the student held in the organization (that will already be included in the organization and position description).
- Abbreviations (NHS instead of National Honor Society) should be used to save character space.
- Other than cutting down on characters, a student should aim to:
- Find a balance between overconfidence and being too modest
- Use the active voice and verbs instead of the passive voice, eg “Harry ate six shrimp at dinner” (active), vs “At dinner, six shrimp were eaten by Harry” (passive)
- Use bullet points or listing instead of full sentences
- Be as concise as possible - if you can use fewer words, do!
Examples of good and bad descriptions
Position/Leadership description and organization name: Editor, The Daily (school newspaper)
Please describe this activity, including what you accomplished and any recognition you received: Run weekly meetings, brainstorm ideas, assign and revise 10 articles/week, collaborate with printer to distribute 500 copies to students and faculty.
The description name is detailed and leads to there being no need to repeat the words “newspaper” or “editor” in the description.
This description is concise (listing is efficient with words), contains good detail (using numbers is helpful), and uses active verbs
Position/Leadership description and organization name: Retreat Leader
Please describe this activity, including what you accomplished and any recognition you received: 9 seniors are chosen as leaders of the junior retreat. We meet weekly to critique each other’s speeches and learn to mediate small group discussion.
Although the description is strong in that the student is demonstrating that they were part of a select few leaders, the description name could have provided more detail on what type of retreat the student was leading, and what leadership role the student had as a leader. If the student was a facilitator, the name could have been modified to “Junior Retreat Leader Facilitator.” By adding detail to the name (junior and facilitator), in the description there would have been more space for the student to include details on what was actually done during the retreat or what the results of the retreat were.
I am an incoming student at Johns Hopkins University. I have always been part of the international community and have attended French and American schools in the United Kingdom, London and the United Arab Emirates, Dubai. Having constantly been in the midst of change, I understand the importance in having the right support through the rigorously competitive U.S. college admissions process.