How to Make Your STEM Activities Shine on the Common App

Are you planning to apply to college as a STEM major? STEM majors are competitive. In fact, there has been a rapid increase in the number of students seeking a degree in several STEM careers, while the size of the programs isn’t growing at the same rate. For instance, Computer and Information Sciences and Support Services enrollment has grown over 30% in the past four years, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Yet a Washington Post article shows that these programs have not expanded accordingly.

What does this mean to you? Greater competition for those college spots! That’s why putting your best foot forward in your application is so important. This article will tell you how to showcase your STEM extracurricular activities in the Activities section of the Common App so you’ll stand out as a particularly desirable applicant.

student writing college application

Importance of the Activities Section in the Common App

On the Common App, the only space other than the essay where you can showcase your personality and distinctive flair is the Activities section. Yet lots of students miss this opportunity. Abby Maguire, Director of College Counseling for Collegewise, the nation’s largest college counseling organization, said, “If you are considering a STEM degree in college and you have done things like scientific research outside of school, held an internship or even created your own computer game, including STEM activities in the Common App Activities list is a great way to demonstrate your accomplishments and show colleges how you might contribute to their school.”

It’s important to think strategically about how you list your activities, too. Abby explained, “I see far too many students lose valuable opportunities in the Activities section by not using the space to its fullest. I always encourage students to list the activities in order of importance.” The first activity you list should be the activity you cannot imagine your high school career without. Abby’s strategy is to have students answer two questions: (1) what inspired you to begin the activity and (2) what keeps you going back. This generally helps students add new information about themselves and the activity. Abby adds, “Have fun with the descriptions, be yourself, and use the space as wisely as possible.” 

Common App Activities 2019-2020

Tips for Creating a Great Activities Section 

1. Keep a record of your activities starting in your first year of high school—or earlier.

It’s important to keep track of all your activities during your high school career, and middle school, if applicable. Write them down at the end of each semester or year—you’ll thank yourself later when you start to apply to college! Collegewise has a free Common App Activities Section Template that is a great tool for recording all your activities in one place. The activity sheet is similar to a resume but is designed in a format that mirrors college applications.

Keep a written log of each activity, the time spent (how many hours per week and weeks per year), what you worked on, and any examples of your work. Don’t forget to keep photos if you have built something or presented your work. Then, when it’s time to apply to college, you can use the information to fill out the Activities section of the Common App.

2. Describe what you enjoy about your STEM hobbies and extracurricular activities.

As you reflect on your experiences, consider all your STEM experiences—anything inside and outside of high school counts. Were you part of a mathematics or robotics team? Did you take a science course over the summer? Perhaps you worked on a tech passion project on your own time. Sometimes, students focus on activities affiliated with their high school rather than everything they are involved in. An activity doesn’t just show admissions counselors what you’re involved in but also sheds light on why you might not be involved in other things.

Abby recommends students write their descriptions in a Google document so they can play around with the information and ensure they are using the allotted space (150 characters/activity) in the Common App as wisely as possible. She also encourages students to be thoughtful with their responses and don’t state the obvious. For example, if you describe your FIRST Robotics team, highlight that your favorite part of being on the team is staying up late with your teammates, fixing bugs in the code, and eating pizza. This type of description will tell admissions counselors much more about your personality than if you write, “we practice and compete in tournaments,” which is information they will already know because of the nature of the activity. See samples of STEM activity descriptions.

Also, be aware that longevity is important! The Common App only asks you what you have been involved in during high school, but if you have been on a robotics team since middle school, you should share that in the description. This gives admissions counselors more context that this particular activity has been a part of your life from a young age.

3. Present samples of your work.

In addition to documenting your activities, it’s a good idea to keep photos, PDFs, or samples of your work so you can share them in your application. You might even want to create a portfolio if you have completed several projects.

Some colleges use SlideRoom so applicants can submit maker and STEM portfolios within the Common Application. Many Game Design programs will require a portfolio. If a college accepts a SlideRoom portfolio, they will ask if you plan to submit it. When you answer “yes,” SlideRoom will generate a link, and you can set up your account through the SlideRoom homepage. Each college will have its own SlideRoom portfolio, but you can access it through the same SlideRoom account.

To give you an idea of what you can expect from a SlideRoom request, here is an example of MIT’s tips on submitting creative portfolios.

If a college doesn’t use SlideRoom, you can share a portfolio link in the Additional Comments section of the Common App. Here are some examples of how you can share your work:

  • If you took a programming class, make sure your project is well documented and share it via your GitHub profile.
  • If you did summer research in a lab, share your experience in a public Google document.
  • If you are on the robotics team, document your team’s progress with pictures, videos, and technical specs and share it on a personal website like Wix and Weebly, which offer free options.

4. Use your experience with STEM activities to answer essay prompts.

There is limited space in the Common App Activities section—only 150 characters per activity—so students can’t give in-depth descriptions of their STEM extracurricular activities and accomplishments. Many colleges ask supplemental essay questions, and that’s your chance to explain your personal experience with STEM activities thoroughly.

Final Consideration

If you have extensive STEM experience in and out of school, consider using the Additional Information Section in the Common App to provide further context about involvements if necessary. Creating a STEM resume for your college application is another option—some colleges will allow you to upload one and submit it in the Activities section of your application. Having a high school resume for college will also benefit you when you apply for scholarships, internships, and jobs.

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