Filling Out Your Common Application

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The Road to Completeing the Common Application

Preliminary Preparation

Before beginning the Common Application, you will need to create a password and username. If you are still using that Hannah Montana-themed email address from middle school, now would be a great time to create a more professional email address (ideally using a combination of your first and last name). Once you have created an account, save the information somewhere secure.  You may also want to take some time to ensure that your social media accounts are private, and to remove any information that you do not wish to be available to admissions boards, which are increasingly running Internet searches on top candidates. Once you have your account, you will be ready to get started. The left-hand side of the Common Application will walk you through the six major categories: Profile, Family, Education, Testing, Activities, and Writing.  On the right hand side, you will find tips specific to each section. Take some time to read through the tips while you are completing your application.

Section One: Profile  

The first section of the Common Application will ask for various details about your personal information, including your full name, address, citizenship status, and demographics. Some of these sections, such as ‘Demographics,’ which pertains mainly to ethnicity and religion, are optional. However, you should strive to complete all sections that you feel comfortable answering. You will also be asked whether you feel you qualify for a fee waiver; this is an issue best discussed with your school counselor, as he or she will be asked to verify your response.

Section Two: Family

The Family section is brief, and will ask for details about your living situation. This section will also ask you to provide details about your parents’ level of education.

Section Three: Education

We start getting to the meat of the Common Application with the third category, which begins to paint a picture of you as a student and candidate. This section will first ask for your school counselor’s name and contact information, and will then ask if any community organizations (i.e. Boys and Girls Club) have offered you free assistance, such as mentoring or editing, with your application. If you transferred high schools, took time off between grades, or took any college-level courses while in high school, you will have to opportunity to disclose this information here. You will also be required to provide details about your current GPA and the courses you are currently enrolled in.

Extra tips:

Pay special attention to the final two sections of the Education category: “Honors” and “Future Plans.” The Honors section will ask you to list as many as five awards or honors, and will ask if these achievements were on the local, regional, national, or international level. As a general rule, you should list your achievements from most impressive to least, so if you have won any national or international awards, list these first.

The “Future Plans” section asks only two questions: your intended career, and the level of education you hope to attain (Masters, PhD, etc.). Remember that your response is not set in stone by any means, but try to avoid selecting “Undecided”. With options ranging from “Artist” to “Optometrist,” you should be able to find a potential profession that interests you. Admissions boards do not expect you to have a 10-year professional plan, but they are looking for candidates who are passionate about learning, and who hope to leverage their education into an interesting and fulfilling career. They know that your response will very likely change over the course of your college experience, but you will have an advantage if you demonstrate a concrete goal.

Section Four: Testing

You will be required to submit your official test sources, but the Common Application also gives you the option of self-reporting your scores. Most candidates choose to self-report in addition to sending official test scores, in the event that the official scores arrive late to the admissions office. If you have your final test scores when you are filling out the application, take a few minutes to input your scores.

Section Five: Activities

The Activities section will help colleges glean a better understanding of how you pursued your interests during high school. The Common Application allows you to input a maximum of ten activities. For each activity, you will be asked to describe your role in the organization, and to include any specific accomplishments or honors. This section will also measure the extent of time you spent doing each activity, with several questions geared towards the level of your participation. When filling out this section, it is important to recognize that readers are far more interested in activities in which you spent a significant amount of time. Also, remember that you do not need to fill out all ten slots; instead, focus on activities that display your passion, commitment, and impact. As with the Honors section, you should rank your activities from the most impressive to the least impressive and prioritize adding activities where you held a leadership role or long-term membership (over a year).

Section Six: Writing

The Common Application saves the best (and most important!) section for last. The final section to complete is your essay, with a word count requirement of 250-650 words. The application will provide you with five prompts to choose from. You should spend a considerable amount of time preparing your essay prior to submitting your application. If possible, you should also submit it to a school counselor for evaluation before you include it in your application. When choosing between prompts, try writing an outline for each prompt and seeing which essay seems the most interesting to write.

Outside of the Application

Besides filling out the Common Application, you will also be required to take additional steps in your college application journey. These include the following:

  • Letters of recommendation
    • Make sure to give your recommenders sufficient time to write you a letter (at least 3 months), but do not be shy about reminding them about upcoming deadlines. When you ask someone for a letter, you should come prepared with your list of schools, each school’s deadline, and each school’s preferred method of receiving letters. If schools prefer hard copy letters of recommendation, you should provide each of your recommenders with stamped, addressed envelopes as a courtesy.
  • Interviews
    • If you have the option to request an interview with a representative from a college, you should take the opportunity. While interviews are optional, they provide colleges with a more personal idea of who you are and what you will contribute to the campus community.
  • Additional Essays
    • Some colleges that use the Common Application will require supplemental essays. Some of these are tailored to the school, while others ask more creative questions. These supplemental essays are just as important as your Common App essay, and you should take the time to outline, draft, revise, and receive feedback on your responses.

The rest of this guide will help you break down each section of the Common Application and provide specific tips and strategies for making the most of your responses. But before you begin, look over the application and familiarize yourself with the different categories, as outlined above, and begin planning your responses. Make sure to give yourself sufficient time to understand the application, and to spend significantly more time on the most important sections (Activities, Honors, and Writing). With time, strategy, and effort, you will be able to submit a successful application.

Juan Hurtado
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