Daria M. Rockholz, Ph.D.

Nutella is like happiness in a jar.
A single bite of Nutella will put an instant smile on your face.
French parents name their child Nutella . . .

NutellaPhotoSeriously, have you ever met anyone who didn’t love Nutella? If your college application is a delicious banana sandwich, your extracurricular activity list is the Nutella: it distinguishes you from the other banana sandwiches in the room.

Your extracurricular activity list is a critical component of the college application, one that most students do not devote enough attention to. Your activity list will demonstrate how you have spent your time and energy learning and accomplishing outside of the academic life that everyone shares. Plus, the way you describe your activities will distinguish you from others who may have done similar activities — and colleges look for students who are unique and who will be active participants on campus! Keep in mind that there are only a few things you can actually control on your application; you can’t change your GPA, your test scores, your ethnicity or your athletic ability, but you can enhance the way you portray your life outside of class.

The big ten. Start by compiling a list of extracurricular activities that you have been involved with since freshman year. The Common Application provides space for your top ten – choose quality over quantity, even if you have more than ten – and list them in order of importance. Remember, an extracurricular activity is anything you dedicate your time to outside of your academics that improves you as a person. It could be practicing a sport or an instrument, participation in a club, volunteering at a community event, or working at a job. Think about how these activities reflect your passion, dedication, leadership, and talent. Focus on several activities that really represent your efforts, especially if they align with your intended college major. Consider how you grew and how others were impacted by your involvement.

Wording is key. On your Common Application you need to be clear, concise and savvy with the way you utilize the 50 characters to name your activity, and with the 150 characters (think Twitter) to describe each activity. Utilize a variety of descriptive, active words and phrases — organized, founded, assisted with, arranged for, led, implemented, awarded, created, elected by, directed, produced, managed, invited to, planned, competed — highlighting accomplishments, responsibilities, and awards. Eliminate extra words, use abbreviations, avoid commas and periods whenever possible – don’t waste a single character! Be specific and quantifiable about your accomplishments and participation. Demonstrate that you are a do-er, an active participant and leader. Shine a light on how you stand out both among your peers and among other applicants.

Here are a few examples to follow (use present tense if still in progress):

Community Charity League: Chair of Membership Drive (45 characters)
Led projects to increase membership. Encouraged organization to accept younger members which increased membership by 20% in one year. Organized fair to raise club awareness (148 characters)

Pet Store Employee, Sales Assistant & Animal Care-Giver (48 characters)
Walked dogs, cleaned cages, fed animals, opened/closed store on weekends, interfaced with customers. Rec’d hourly salary increase after four months and bonus after one year (148 characters)

National Honor Society, current VP, former Secretary (46 characters)
Plan committee meetings, schedule guest speakers, track student volunteer hours. Arranged for state senator and town mayor to visit HS, invited local veterans to our meetings (149 characters)

Soccer Team Manager and Sports Writer (32 characters)
Assist coach with team travel arrangements, game scheduling, equipment management. Mentor new team members, write sports articles, interface with local news reporter (144 characters)

Appalachian Srvc Project: Volunteer Worker, Team Leader (49 characters)
Helped reconstruct homes in rural Virginia. Assisted with transporting materials to site, organized specific work teams, communicated daily progress with supervisor (144 characters)

HS Radio Club, Co-Founder, President & Lead Host (41 characters)
Initiated plans to start club, wrote original documents to present to staff, funded equipment by organizing “radio dances”, raised nearly $500 start up money, host weekly shows (150 characters)

Start thinking about the Nutella (oops, I meant the activities) you dedicate your time to that make you stand out as an interesting person and future college student. If you don’t have enough Nutella, it’s never too late to start trying out new recipes for activities. You’ll learn a lot, meet new friends, and bolster your application. If your Nutella is spread too thin, consider picking an activity that you really enjoy and allocate a larger proportion of your time to it. Dedication can be rewarding, and you’ll undoubtedly find an experience to write about in your application.

The takeaway is that academics and test scores are not enough to distinguish you from other applicants to the college of your dreams, and that a well-crafted activity list can greatly improve your chance of acceptance and receiving scholarship awards. A banana sandwich is just a plain old healthy sandwich. You need to add the Nutella to enhance the flavor.