How to Write the UC Activities List
“Widow’s First Year,” a piece of microfiction by Joyce Carol Oates, goes like this: I kept myself alive. That’s it. Powerful and heartbreaking, it communicates an entire narrative in just four words. Like Oates, microfiction and flash fiction writers revel in the opportunity to say as much as possible in the smallest amount of space. They’ll also tell you that short does not equal easy. Brevity takes work. So, when crafting your UC activities list descriptions—which must be between 250-600 characters (more on the UC activities list word count below)—take a leaf from their well-thumbed thesauruses and use the characters available as mindfully as possible. But how much can I really pack into two or three sentences? you wonder. As with any piece of writing, the key is preparation and a plan. So let’s dive in, shall we?
How many activities are on the UC application?
At all nine UC campuses (Berkeley, Santa Barbara, UCLA, Riverside, Irvine, Davis, San Diego, Santa Cruz, and Merced), admissions officers learn more about how you spend your time outside of school via the activities list. As a result, the UC application allows you to provide information for up to twenty activities and awards. However, unlike the Common Application activity list, the UC application asks you to provide different information depending on how you categorize each activity. Here are the current six categories:
- Award or Honor
- Educational Preparation Program (per the UCs: any programs that have enriched your academic experiences or helped you prepare for college)
- Extracurricular activity
- Other Coursework (per the UCs: courses other than those required for UC admission/courses that do not fit in UC’s A-G subject areas)
- Volunteering/Community Service
- Work Experience
Your first step will be to make a list of everything important you have participated in since ninth grade, This will include activities that you no longer do, that you just started, or that you only did for the summer (like research or a part-time job). Also, we highly recommend that you ask a parent to double-check; it’s incredibly common for students to forget an activity or two. (We’ve even seen students forget time-intensive activities like piano or soccer.)
Got your list? Before we start writing, let’s look at each activity category. The UC activities list word count varies depending on category, but is between 250-600 characters (approximately 40-100 words). They also include a number of brainstorming questions for each category.
Award or Honor
Written Descriptions Required:
- What are the eligibility requirements for this award or honor? For example: How are award recipients chosen? How many people are selected to receive the award? Is there an application or nomination for the award? (250 characters)
- What did you do to achieve this award or honor? We’d like to understand what it took – on your part – to achieve this award. For instance: Were there multiple competitions that you had to participate in? How much time did you dedicate to winning this award? (350 characters)
Educational Preparation Program
Written Description Required:
- Briefly describe the program. Think about the program’s main focus, your experience, and what you accomplished and learned while participating in the program. (350 characters)
Written Description Required:
- What did you do? Think about your experience, and what you accomplished and learned. We’d also like to know if you’ve held a leadership role, which can mean more than just a title — it can mean being a mentor to others, acting as a point person in charge of a specific task, or taking a lead role in organizing an event or project. (350 characters)
Written Description Required:
- Briefly describe the course. What program or school offered the course? Also, think about describing the major themes or topics the course covered, as well as what knowledge or skills you learned. (350 characters)
Written Descriptions Required:
- Please describe the organization, program, school or group. Consider what kind of work the organization does: What’s the reason the organization exists today? How does it help a certain community or population? (250 characters)
- What did you do? Think about your experience, and what you accomplished and learned while volunteering. We’d also like to know if you’ve held a leadership role, which can mean more than just a title — it can mean being a mentor to others, acting as a point person in charge of a specific task, or taking a lead role in organizing an event or project. (350 characters)
Written Descriptions Required:
- Please briefly describe the company or organization where you worked. Consider describing the industry, the size of the company or organization, or its main focus. (250 characters)
- What were your job responsibilities? (350 characters)
How to Write the UC Activities List Descriptions
First, let’s review the Golden Rule of College Admissions: they don’t know what you don’t tell them. Unless admissions officers are secret Legilimens, they have no actual clue what you spend your time doing, why you spend your time doing it, where you spend your time, whom you spend your time with, and when you engage in said time-spending activities…hey…that sounds familiar…
Who, What, When Where, Why?
At the risk of sounding like a Busytown Mysteries episode (disclaimer: do not look this up on YouTube unless you want to hum a very catchy children’s song for days), who, what, when, where, and why are the questions to answer while collecting pertinent information for your UC activities list.
- Who do you typically do this activity with? Who do you lead? Who are you mentored by? Who do you impact?
- What are your responsibilities? What skills have you learned? What results have you produced? What honors or awards have you achieved?
- Where does this activity take place? Where have you traveled or lived as part of this activity?
- When did this activity take place? When did you start this activity? When did you stop doing this activity?
- Why do you participate in this activity? Why is this activity important to you? If you no longer do this activity, why did you stop?
UC Activities List Example
What would all this look like for an actual student? Let’s say Julia founded the science club at her school in tenth grade. When she started, the club only had two regular members, but over the years, she’s grown the membership to twenty students. It is Julia’s responsibility to plan meetings, during which she and other members conduct chemistry experiments. After each experiment, she leads a group discussion. Last year, Julia and a few other members also started conducting demonstrations at the local middle school. In addition, it is her job to handle administrative tasks, such as keeping an up-to-date list of club members and taking notes during meetings. Finally, she’s also responsible for cleaning the chemistry lab after each meeting.
Based on the category options available, Julia should classify Science Club as an extracurricular activity. Accordingly, she’ll need to respond to the following:
What did you do? Think about your experience, and what you accomplished and learned. We’d also like to know if you’ve held a leadership role, which can mean more than just a title — it can mean being a mentor to others, acting as a point person in charge of a specific task, or taking a lead role in organizing an event or project. (350 characters).
Who: 20 other club members, middle schoolers.
What: Planning meetings, researching experiments, conducting experiments, leading group discussions about how the experiments went. I also take attendance and notes, and clean the lab. I’ve grown the club and expanded our reach to the middle school.
Where: Chem lab and middle school.
When: Since tenth grade.
Why: To help others develop a love of chemistry, since it’s what I hope to major in.
UC Activities List Example: Rough Draft
Now that we’ve organized our thoughts, let’s write a rough draft of this description. Here goes:
I started the club in tenth grade with two people and grew the membership to 20. I come up with the experiments we’ll be conducting during our meetings and then lead group discussions afterward. Last year, we started putting together demonstrations at the middle school. I also take notes, take attendance, and clean the lab.
How can we improve this? Let’s go through the following steps.
Tips for UC Activities List Word Count
- Strengthen verbs. Choose precise, active verbs–they’ll save you space & make your descriptions more engaging and specific. For example, “come up with” could be replaced with “organized.”
- Include quantifiable impact (when possible). You can typically determine quantifiable impact by answering questions like these: How many people did I work with? How many members did I recruit to a club? How much money did I raise? As such, “Increased membership from 5 to 30” is more impactful than “Grew club membership.” “Led 30 students” communicates much more than “Led students…”
- Cut articles. Often, words like “a” and “the” can be trimmed without compromising clarity. For example, whittle “Planned the meetings” to “Planned meetings.”
- Don’t spell out numbers. Although you should typically spell out numbers under ten, avoid doing so on your activities list. You’ll save space.
- Use fragments. In creative genres, fragments are used to create paragraphic rhythm and convey emphasis. As such, they’re absolutely perfect to use for resumes and activities lists since they emphasize what you did. Moreover, fragments are excellent character savers. Compare Julia’s “I come up with the experiments…” to “Develop and research experiments…”
- Be selective. If space is a concern, do not feel the need to include minor tasks. In this case, Julia might choose to eliminate note-taking and lab cleaning.
- Avoid repeating information. Each entry will give you an opportunity to mark your years of participation. For that reason, within the description, you typically don’t need to mention when you started an activity unless you started it prior to high school. This is most often the case for instruments and sports.
- Be mindful of tense. Use present tense if it’s something you still do. However, use past if it isn’t.
UC Activities List Example: Final Draft
Grew club membership from 2 to 20. Develop and research experiments to conduct during weekly meetings. Lead group discussions about experiment results and future adjustments. Lead monthly demonstrations for over 40 students at a local middle school. (254 characters)
One more UC activities list example…
I was responsible for leading a group of 15 girls on weekly hikes. I planned the routes, collected essential supplies, and was responsible for safety measures.
Based on the tips above, let’s add quantifiable detail. Where and how long were the hikes? What concrete verb could we exchange for “was responsible”? In this context, what are safety measures?
I led a group of 15 girls on monthly 7-mile hikes at Yosemite National Park. I planned the routes, collected essential supplies, and performed safety checks, such as monitoring drinking water and overall hiker health status. I’m certified in CPR and first aid.
Finally, fragmentize, eliminate articles, and check tenses.
Lead group of 15 girls on monthly 7-mile hikes at Yosemite National Park. Plan routes, collect essential supplies, and perform safety checks, such as monitoring drinking water and overall hiker health status. Certified in CPR and first aid. (247 characters)
A cautionary note: don’t go wild.
Like Brennan Huff dubbing ketchup + mayonnaise “fancy sauce,” there’s no need to make straightforward stuff sound overly impressive. At best, you’ll sound whimsical; at worst, deranged. Remember, like most humans, admissions officers know the basics of playing instruments, participating in sports, and working at Starbucks.
Compare these barista descriptions:
Artfully combine steaming liquid with multiple milks and syrups. Well-versed in new employee management. Earn profits for a multi-billion-dollar company.
Fulfill drink orders, manage cash register, provide courteous customer service. Serve 50+ customers per shift. Trained five new employees.
Stick to simple yet detailed–we promise it’s fine. In this vein, do not feel the need to use all twenty slots by including that one time you volunteered at a church picnic and the single meeting you attended for Chemistry Club. Instead, focus on meaningful activities from which you’ve gained true value.
What if I’ve already completed the Common App activities list? Can I use the same descriptions?
In general, you do not need to bulk up your Common App activities descriptions if you feel that you’ve already communicated all pertinent information. However, an exception would be if you needed to use the additional information section to expand on one or more of your Common App activities or awards. In that case, we recommend maximizing the UC activities list word count before utilizing the additional information section.
Does the order of UC activities matter?
Yes. Consequently, you’ll go about this process just like you would the Common App activities list. Check out a detailed how-to guide here. In addition, your answer to the aforementioned “why?” questions should help. If an activity is your passion and you want to continue it in college (like Julia and the Science Club), it should go toward the top of the list. If you’re not sure why you do it, it should go toward the bottom (if it appears at all).
Final Thoughts – UC Activities List
Admissions officers want to hear about the activities that you find most valuable and personally fulfilling. As such, the trick is to spend the requisite time distilling your responsibilities and accomplishments into an application-friendly format. For each activity, focus on collecting and crafting salient information into information-loaded sentences to account for the UC activities list word count limits. You’ll be well on your way to a stand-out activities list.
Kelsea holds a BA in English with a concentration in Creative Writing from Tufts University, a graduate certificate in College Counseling from UCLA, and is currently pursuing graduate work in writing instruction at Johns Hopkins University.