Categorizing Your Extracurricular Activities for College Applications

Categorizing Your Extracurricular Activities for College Applications

Too many applicants rush through their Common App activities list. A slap-dash mention of how you’ve spent your time for the last four years is not going to get you into your dream colleges. Everything about your extracurricular activities for college applications matters: the titles, the descriptions, the effective use of the character count, the order, and the categorization. Put thought and strategy into your entries, and you can turn this part of your application into one of your strongest assets.

Each successful college application should tell a story. When I read applications for Dartmouth, I tried to form a sense of each student’s personality, aspirations, and character. Many of the applications did not make this easy. I often struggled to identify common threads that could bring an individual into focus. I’m not saying that everything in your application needs to assert the same message; this would be monotonous! I’m also not suggesting that you should actually articulate your persona. I read a few applications that literally inserted phrases like “on my path to becoming a famous surgeon,” or “this activity developed the dexterity I will need as a famous surgeon” into every possible nook and cranny of the application. It was irritating. What I recommend instead is that you think about the themes of your life and find ways to emphasize them. The Common App activities list is the very best place to express your persona with some direct assertiveness. You do this through the drop down list of 30 classifications for your activities.

Here are your choices:

  • Academic
  • Art
  • Athletics (Club)
  • Athletics (JV/Varsity)
  • Career Oriented
  • Community Service (Volunteer)
  • Computer/Technology
  • Cultural
  • Dance
  • Debate/Speech
  • Environmental
  • Family Responsibilities
  • Foreign Exchange
  • Foreign Language
  • Internship
  • Journalism/Publication
  • Junior ROTC
  • LGBT
  • Music (Instrumental)
  • Music (Vocal)
  • Religious
  • Research
  • Robotics
  • School Spirit
  • Science/Math
  • Social Justice
  • Student Government/Politics
  • Theatre/Drama
  • Work (Paid)
  • Other

Most students haphazardly choose the first classification in the drop-down menu that seems to fit their extracurricular activities for college applications. Instead, I encourage you to look at all of the options and think strategically about how your activities will look together. What kind theme can you emphasize by classifying your activities to tell your story?

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about: I recently advised a student with many different activities. She is a Girl Scout Gold Award recipient, with major service projects that advanced literacy, English language learning, and poverty. She has studied Spanish in Spain and is a dual citizen in the U.S. and Columbia. Active in school politics, one of her most formative experiences was participating in the Women’s March. She has won awards in Spanish, created a mental health advocacy club at her school, been a tour guide, and worked two jobs. The extracurricular activity that consumed the most hours is her work as a board member and performer at a community theatre. Pretty great, right? But how should she classify these varied activities?

She could easily choose from Academic, Community Service (Volunteer), Foreign Exchange, Foreign Language, Social Justice, Student Government/Politics, Theatre/Drama, Work (Paid), and Other! She could even toss School Spirit in there. With this melange, she’d demonstrate her well-roundedness, but the story would be diffuse. Instead, I recommended that she emphasize her passion for social advocacy wherever possible. In the end her activities were best classified as Community Service (3 times, including the theatre group, where her board work was more relevant than her performances), Social Justice (3 times, including Scouting, where this was the unifying theme of her commitments), Foreign Language (2 times, including her exchange term, where the emphasis was on expanding her Spanish skills), and Work (2 jobs, including a significant part time job that shows her ability to work hard and manage her time well).

Now her application theme is asserted by these headings on the activity list. She is a hardworking volunteer dedicated to social justice on a global scale!

She could have gone a different route, of course. If her passion was more for government and politics, for instance, she could have reclassified her activities to indicate this interest.

This example can help you think about how to organize your extracurricular activities for college applications. When you first start to choose the activities you will list, write down all of the possible classifications that might fit each one. Use categorizations that help tell your story! Think about adding some structure to your application this way. It will stand out to the admissions officers reading your file and help them see your story take shape.

About the Author


I am an internationally produced playwright and novelist with 26 years of experience in Ivy League admissions. I earned my MFA from the University of Iowa Playwrights’ Workshop and was a Senior Fellow in playwriting at Dartmouth College, where I graduated Phi Beta Kappa, magna cum laude.

I received a grant from the Kennedy Center’s Fund for New American Plays, a project in cooperation with the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities. My debut fantasy novel LightLand, published by Scholastic/Orchard Books, earned a starred review in Publishers Weekly.

I live with my husband and children in a Connecticut farmhouse.