The neuronal immediate early gene Arc/Arg-3.1 is widely used as one of the most reliable molecular markers for intense synaptic activity in vivo. However, the cis-acting elements responsible for such stringent activity dependence have not been firmly identified. Here we combined luciferase reporter assays in cultured cortical neurons and comparative genome mapping to identify the critical synaptic activity-responsive elements (SARE) of the Arc/Arg-3.1 gene. A major SARE was found as a unique approximately 100-bp element located at >5 kb upstream of the Arc/Arg-3.1 transcription initiation site in the mouse genome. This single element, when positioned immediately upstream of a minimal promoter, was necessary and sufficient to replicate crucial properties of endogenous Arc/Arg-3.1's transcriptional regulation, including rapid onset of transcription triggered by synaptic activity and low basal expression during synaptic inactivity. We identified the major determinants of SARE as a unique cluster of neuronal activity-dependent cis-regulatory elements consisting of closely localized binding sites for CREB, MEF2, and SRF. Consistently, a SARE reporter could readily trace and mark an ensemble of cells that have experienced intense activity in the recent past in vivo. Taken together, our work uncovers a novel transcriptional mechanism by which a critical 100-bp element, SARE, mediates a predominant component of the synapse-to-nucleus signaling in ensembles of Arc/Arg-3.1-positive activated neurons.