How to Extracurricular: Common App Activities Charts Explained
In case you missed the news recently, Lori Loughlin (aka Aunt Becky from Full House fame) was sentenced to two months in prison for her role in the “Varsity Blues” college admissions scandal. Loughlin and her husband (along with several other parents) paid a consultant Rick Singer to create fake student athlete profiles and in some cases paid outright bribes to representatives of university athletic departments to gain admission.
Let me be very clear - the whole sordid affair is shameful and the people who perpetrated it are getting rightly punished. But, can I just be immature for a minute and say that my favorite part of the whole thing was that they actually had one of Loughlin's daughters, Olivia Jade pretend to be a varsity-level rower in a crew team - complete with staged pictures of her on a row machine. I can just imagine it . . . “Ok sweetie, let me spritz your forehead and just get on the rowing machine . . . “
For fans of Wes Anderson movies, you might recall the rather famous introduction of the Max Fischer character in 1998’s movie Rushmore. The peculiar central character had a penchant for padding his high school resume in truly a spectacular fashion.
The notion of gaming the admissions application with made up or otherwise fluffed activities even recently made an appearance on twitter, when Aditya Prerepa, a 15-year old student from Fremont, CA posted screenshots of all the follow requests he received from his friends’ newly formed nonprofits.
So what’s going on here? Some of this can be attributed to the bragging that many top colleges do about how "world changing" their incoming classes are, leading many students to wrongly believe that extraordinary achievement is simply the minimum for the best colleges. We have talked often on this blog about the toxicity of this achievement culture fueled by an obsession with what elite colleges want.
However, another aspect is the fact that many of the students come into their application already discounting themselves, often believing (wrongly) that the way they spend their time is considered uninteresting by colleges. You do not have to set-up tent city hospitals in Uganda or have discovered a new breed of sloth to stand out on your extracurricular chart. Just do what you do, clearer and better.
Here are our top tips for filling out your Common Application extracurricular (ECA) chart:
Think broadly: an activity doesn’t have to be an official club, simply an investment of your time and energy. When I was reading applications, I remember being impressed by students who wrote about what books they were reading (some colleges like Reed College in Oregon specifically ask for reading lists), or how they taught themselves to code in Python, or play the ukulele from YouTube.
Rank order your activities by importance to you: list your activities in descending order by how proud you are of each activity. If two or more activities are of equal importance to you, sort those by how much time you spent on them per year. Generally speaking, if you did something in Freshman year, but discontinued it, it shouldn’t be at the top of your list. That would be weird.
Pay attention to the “I intend to participate in a similar activity in college” question: Assuming the activity is even available in college, if you are listing an activity as important to you, it is sometimes strange to then see that the student doesn’t intend to continue the activity. It’s like “I love to surf, and I never plan to do it in the future.”
Spell things out, avoid acronyms if possible.
Do not use full sentences in your 150 word descriptions: instead, consider something like this:
9, 10, 11, 12
School, Break, Year
10 hr/wk, 35 wk/yr
Swim, Team Captain (12), Team Leadership (10-12), Armstrong High School Varsity Swimming and Diving
State qualifier backstroke & IM relay (11 & 12), district champion (11), helped lead practices as a member of Team Leadership
This works for three main reasons 1) you are showing your increasing role and deepening impact on the activity, 2) you are making the most of the limited space by using lists, and 3) you are explaining an aspect of your involvement that may not be well known or obvious (the “team leadership.”)
Trust us when we say that colleges DO NOT expect you to have an expansive list of activities, but they do sincerely want you to be clear about the things you are doing. This falls squarely in the category of doing the little things with care in your application and “controlling the controllables.” We can’t start a web company and sell it off at an IPO as a 14 year old, so for the rest of us, we’ll have to just tell our stories with energy and gusto. Trust me, that is enough. No fake rowing pictures necessary.