How to Ace Your Common App
The Common Application (often known as The Common App) is an undergraduate college admission application that students can use to apply to more than 800 colleges and universities across the United States. While the Common Application focuses on college options in the U.S., it also includes some colleges in Canada, China, Japan, and several countries in Europe.
Why submit a Common App?
The college application process can feel overwhelming and time consuming for many students. The Common App simplifies applying to college by allowing students to streamline important aspects of the application process. While every college’s application requirements may be a little different and many colleges require school-specific supplements, the Common App allows a student to complete demographic information (such as address, parents’ names, etc.) and extracurricular information one time only. This information will be submitted to all of the student’s chosen schools in one simple click.
Which colleges are on the Common App?
Here is a sampling of the U.S. colleges and universities represented on the Common Application:
- More than 100 public state universities (University of Michigan, University of North Carolina, and University of Virginia, just to name a few)
- All eight Ivy League institutions (Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, Princeton, University of Pennsylvania, and Yale.)
- Numerous highly selective institutions (Stanford, University of Chicago, Boston University, New York University, Vanderbilt, and many more.)
It is important to note that some popular universities are not on the Common App. For example, the University of California system.
The Common Application: Pre-work and Planning
Each year, the Common App opens on August 1 for the upcoming college application cycle. The first step in completing your Common App is several important pre-work and planning steps before that date.
First, it is important to gather a number of materials, which will allow for the smooth transfer of information from your personal documents onto the Common App.
What items do I need to collect prior to starting my Common App?
Completing the Common App requires time, so the more preparation you’ve done in advance, the more smoothly the application process will go! It is best to have access to all required documents in advance, so you don’t have to disrupt your application process to find documents that you need to proceed. Here is a list of items that you’ll want to collect, prior to starting your Common App:
- A copy of your high school transcript. This does not need to be an “official transcript.” You can request an unofficial transcript from your high school guidance office for your own personal use. Depending on where you attend high school, you also may have access to log on to a virtual student platform that records all of your courses, grades, and grade point average. If this is the case, you may be able to print your unofficial transcript directly from this platform. Your transcript will be used to enter courses and grades in the Education section on the Common App.
- Test scores and dates from your college entrance exams. This includes the SAT, ACT, and the TOFEL. These scores will be recorded in the Testing section on the Common App. It is important to note that every college will have different testing requirements. Some colleges will request that your self-report your scores on the Common App, while other colleges have a test-optional policy. In the aftermath of COVID-19, many competitive universities that formerly required the SAT are now experimenting with SAT optional admissions; this list includes the University of California system, Boston University, Tufts University, Davidson College, and many more.
- Basic demographic information about your parents or legal guardians. Many colleges request family demographic information on the Family section of the Common App. You will be asked to report your parents’ occupation, employment status, and highest level of education completed. If your parents attended college, you’ll need to report the name of the college(s) they attended and the number of degrees they’ve earned.
- A list of your extracurricular activities (this includes paid employment and family responsibilities, in addition to sports, clubs, volunteer service, and hobbies.) Prior to beginning the Common App, brainstorm a list of your high school extracurricular activities, with the aim of listing as many as possible. Ask a parent, friend, or someone else who knows you well to read over the list, just in case you’ve missed something.
- A list of your academic achievements (this include academic honors, awards, and any academic clubs or organizations that you’ve participated in.) Some examples of academic achievements are Honor Roll, 9th Grade Spelling Bee Champion, and Vice President of the Sunshine High School’s Honor Society.
Use the easy checklist below to organize your pre-work prior to beginning the Common App.
Common App Planning Checklist
- A copy of my high school transcript
- A copy of my SAT, ACT, and TOFEL scores
- Date(s) of SAT, ACT, and TOFEL scores
- Parent #1: Name, occupation, employment status, education level, college attended, degree(s) obtained
- Parent #2: Name, occupation, employment status, education level
- List of my extracurricular activities from all four years of high school (include clubs, sports, volunteer service, paid employment, family responsibilities, and hobbies.)
- Academic honors and achievements
Creating a Common App Account
To create a Common App account, follow these steps:
- Type www.commonapp.org into the search engine of your laptop, tablet, phone, or other electronic device.
- In the top right corner of the Common App website, click on Create Account.
- You’ll reach a page with the header “Let’s get started!” Click on the First-year student tab if you’re applying to college for the first time. Click on the transfer student tab if you are already enrolled in college and are seeking to transfer schools.
Now, complete the following steps:
- Enter your email address, checking for accuracy before continuing. You’ll want to make sure that you use an email address that sounds professional (for example: some combination of your first and/or last name and numbers, if necessary.) This needs to be an email address that you’ll be checking often, as you will use this same email address for everything related to your college application process. Ideally, you should set up a Gmail address that can be downloaded as an app onto your phone, so there are no delays in receiving important information regarding your college applications.
- Next, you’ll create a password that is easy for you to remember. Just in case, you should store a back-up of your password in a safe space. The Password Padlock app is a good virtual option for safekeeping. Your password needs to be 10-32 characters, with at least one upper case letter, one lower case letter, one number, and one special character (!2#$_%^&*.) Your password cannot contain a space. Here is a sample password meeting this basic criterion: Everybody_wins1.
- Next, you’ll enter your first name, last name, phone number with Country Code, date of birth, and address.
- Enter the year you plan to attend college.
- If you wish, click on the box requesting your permission for Common App to share your information with colleges and universities that you are considering applying to. This step is optional but will allow colleges you are interested in to contact you directly with information and other promotional materials.
- If you wish, click on the box allowing Common App to communicate with you by phone, email, or text message with updates regarding your account. This is optional but suggested.
Components of the Common App
After creating a Common App account and logging in, you will see five tabs:
- My Colleges
- Common App
- College Search
- Financial Aid Resources.
- Dashboard serves as a personalized home page, or landing page. Once you add colleges to your profile (which can be done using the College Search tab,) you can easily monitor your progress on each application. Here is an example of how your Dashboard might look:
If you click on Show more details, you’ll be given an overview of that specific college’s application and exactly what needs to be submitted. This is especially useful when managing multiple applications, some of which may require college-specific questions or writing supplements. Here is an example of the requirements for New York University:
The Dashboard is a great way to stay organized and have access to the status of every application in just a few quick clicks!
- The My Colleges tab is used to complete college-specific supplements for each school you’re applying to. Some colleges require letters of recommendation for admission; this is also where you’ll invite and manage recommenders. In the My Colleges tab, you can click on any individual school you’ve added and view their admissions deadlines (including Early Action, Early Decision, Regular Decision,) application fees, standardized test policy, recommendations required, writing requirements, and any additional information. Because each college’s admissions requirements are a little different, this is the best place to go to make sure that you have up-to-date specific information for every institution you’re applying to.
- The Common App tab is where you’ll input the majority of information. This section includes a basic demographic profile, family information, education, standardized testing, activities, writing/personal essay, and courses and grades. We will be covering more specifics about completing the Common App in the next section. It is important to note that the information that you enter in this section will be automatically populated into every Common App college or university that you apply to. While some schools may require additional information (such as a writing supplement or college-specific essay question,) this basic information is transferable and will be included in every application you submit. This is a major benefit of the Common App; you can complete important information only once and use it to apply to ten (or more) colleges, rather than inputting the same information ten times.
- The College Search tab is what you’ll use to search for colleges of interest, which will then be added to your Dashboard. You can use this search engine to locate any college available on the Common App. You can start a school search based on school name, location, deadline, or application requirements. For example, if you are searching for schools specifically for schools in the state of New York or schools that have a January deadline, you can use these options in your search in order to create a comprehensive list. When you locate a school that interests you, you will click Add to My Colleges.
If you later decide you no longer want to apply to that college, you can easily delete it from your Dashboard.
- The Financial Aid Resources tab provides additional details about the financial aid requirements for each of the colleges that you’ve added to your Dashboard. Some colleges require only a FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) while others require a CSS profile, in addition to the FAFSA. The Financial Aid Resources tab provides links to both the FAFSA and CSS Profile, as well as information about scholarships and overall planning for college costs.
A Step-by-Step Guide to the Common App Tab
The third tab, labeled Common App, is where you will input the majority of your information; this section will automatically be transferred to the application of every individual college you choose to apply to, saving you time. There are seven major sections in the Common App tab: Profile, Family, Education, Testing, Activities, and Writing.
Here is a step-by-step guide to inform you on each individual section within the Common App tab.
In the Profile section, you will be given space to enter the information below. Please note that the items in bold are required; all other demographic items are optional.
- First/given name (required)
- Middle name
- Last/family/surname (required)
- Suffix (such as Jr., IV, Sr., etc.)
- Preferred name/nickname (it is best to include this if you want admissions officers to address you by your preferred name, rather than your legal name.)
- Have you ever used any other names? (This question requires a yes/no answer.)
- Sex (This question refers to your sex assigned at birth requires a response of male or female. There is additional space provided to share more about your gender identity,
- Date of birth: month, day, year (required)
- Permanent home address (required)
- Do you have an alternative address where mail is sent, for example, a boarding school? (A yes/no response is required)
- Preferred phone number, including the country code (required)
- Religious preference
- U.S. armed forces status (currently serving, previously served, dependent of someone currently serving)
- Are you Hispanic or Latino? (Yes/No)
- Regardless of your answer to the prior question, how do you identify yourself? You can select one or more of the following: American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, Black or African American, Native Hawaiian or Another Pacific Islander, White
- Birth country/region/territory (required)
- City of birth (required)
- Number of years you have lived in the United States (required; 0 years is an answer option.)
- Number of years you have lived outside the United States (required; 0 years is an answer option.)
- Number of languages you are proficient in (required)
- Select your citizenship status: U.S. citizen or U.S. national, U.S. Dual Citizen, U.S. permeant resident, U.S. refugee or asylee, other/non-US (required.)
- Our member colleges want to make sure that application fees do not pose a barrier for any student who wishes to apply for admission. Do you feel that your financial circumstances might qualify you for an application fee waiver? (Yes/No required)
In the Family section, you’ll enter information about your household, your parents or guardians, and your siblings.
Parents’ marital status to each other: You will indicate your parents’ marital status to each other (married, separated, divorced, never married, widowed, or civil union domestic partners.)
With whom do you make your permanent home: You can select “parent 1” or “parent 2” if you live with only one parent, both parents, legal guardian, other, or ward of the court/state.
Parent 1 & Parent 2: You enter the following information (required information is in bold.)
- Parent type: mother, father, or I have limited information about this parent (required)
- Is parent 1/parent 2 living: yes/no (required)
- First/given name
- Middle initial
- Former last name/surname (if any)
- Birth country/region/territory
- Occupation or former occupation, if retired or deceased
- Education level
Sibling: Enter the number of siblings you have
In the Secondary School section, you will share demographic for your high school.
You will also enter your school counselor’s name and title, along with their contact information, if available. If you have attended more than one high school, you will enter information for every school attended, starting with the most recent.
Colleges & Universities
You will leave this section blank unless you have previously completed credits at a community college, college, or university. (If you’ve earned credits through dual enrollments, you’ll still leave this blank.)
This is where you’ll record your grades from high school course work. These details are likely available on an unofficial transcript. Note: many partner colleges on the Common App will also request an official transcript, in addition to these self-reported grades. Please double check your work here for accuracy before submitting.
Below is the information requested in the Grades section:
- Approximate size of graduating class (required)
- Class rank reporting (if available)
- GPA scale reporting (if available)
- Cumulative GPA
- GPA weighting
- List all classes that you are taking this academic year. If you are not currently enrolled, please list courses from your most recent academic year (required.)
- Select the course scheduling system your institution is using semester, trimester, or quarter (required)
This is where you’ll list the number of honors you’ve received during your years of high school. Note: this section requests the number only, with 0 honors being an option.
Include the number of community organizations that have provided free assistance with your application process. Note: This section requests the number only, with 0 community-based organizations being an option. If you paid a college consultant to support your application process, you will enter 0.
The Future Plans section has two questions: career interest and highest degree you intend to earn.
- Choose your future career interest from the drop-down menu. If you have more than one career interest, you can pick one on the drop-down menu and leave off the others. If your career interest is not listed on the drop down or you are unsure of your future career interests, you can select “other.”
- Choose the highest degree you plan to earn from the drop-down menu. Choose “Associate’s” if you plan to attend a two-year college or community college only, “Bachelor’s” if you plan to attend a four-year college or university, and “Master’s,” “Business,” “Law” or “Medicine” if you plan to pursue additional higher education beyond the scope of a four-year Bachelor’s degree.
In the Testing section, you’ll indicate whether you wish to self-report scores or future test dates for a number of different standardized tests. If you are an international student, you will indicate whether promotion within your education system is based upon standard learning examinations given by a state or nation leaving examinations board.
The Activities section is a very important section of the Common Application. This is where you’ll help admissions officers better understand your life outside of the classroom. Here are some examples of activities that you might include:
- Arts or music
- Community engagement
- Family responsibilities
- Hobbies & Sports
- Work or volunteering
- Other experiences that have been meaningful to you
You may have heard that college admissions officers are looking for a “well-rounded applicant.” Highlighting your activities allows colleges to see you who are holistically, beyond just your grades and SAT scores. The Activities section allows for listing up to ten activities; it is recommended that you share as many activities as possible, not exceeding ten. This may mean being creative and including an activity you had not previously considered as important. There is a 150-character limit for each activity. Below are two samples for formatting:
Common App Activities: Sample #1
- Art Club Executive Vice President - Led design and execution of graffiti mural project, fundraising $3,500 for its completion; advocated for additional art high school course offerings. \
- Spoken Word Poet - Performed 10+ original spoken word poems at three local festivals, a youth poetry slam, and a high school talent show.
- Orchard Trails Camp Counselor - Employed as camp counselor for three consecutive summers with increasing leadership; supervised 20+ day campers and taught hands-on art courses.
- Internship at J & L Legal Services - Completed an eight-week summer internship at J & L Legal Services, assisting with filing, answering telephones, organizing Excel documents, and providing administrative support
- Bollywood Dance Team Captain & Co-Founder - Choreograph Bollywood dances; teach 8 club members at weekly practices; create mashups for and perform at pep rallies; evaluate team performance
- The Lead-Free Project Team Leader - Constructed cost-effective water filter compliant with EPA regulations for Flint Water Crisis; led team research on activated carbon, nanotubes
- Associate, Jazzy Juice Bar - Worked 5-10 hours a week at Jazzy Juice Bar, providing exceptional customer service and making smoothies and fresh pressed juice.
- Varsity Cross Country - 4 years varsity track & cross country; 3-time cross-country district champions and regional qualifiers; competed in track 800-yard, 1600-yard events
- Varsity Swimming - Competed in 100-yard breaststroke, 50-yard freestyle, 100-yard individual medley, 200-yard medley relay, and 200-yard freestyle relay
- FBLA Executive President & Founder - Advertised first recruitment campaign with 33% student to membership conversion, manage daily communications, lead competition training sessions
Common App Activities: Sample #2
- Design Head - FIRST Robotics Competition Team
- Led design team that built competition robot per FRC specifications; provided training in design processes to 50 new team members
- Student Researcher at ABC University - Performed research with graduate students and professors; developed computational simulations to determine pricing strategies for service providers
- Peer Tutor - Volunteered to tutor IMSA students in computer science, mathematics, physics, chemistry, French, and biology
- Student Computing Support Team - Provided technical assistance to students to solve computer issues; responsible for setting up incoming student laptops for use on IMSA’s intranet
- Babysitter - Spent 5-10 hours per week babysitter niece and nephew
- Founder of Cybertutor - Learned Android Studio programming to develop an Android App, Cybertutor, which connects students with available tutors at their high school
- Teacher at Math Factor-E - Employed as a competition mathematics teacher for middle school students; taught students’ techniques to solve MATHCOUNTS problems
- Tutor at Kumon - Tutored 20 elementary and middle school students in mathematics and reading fundamentals
- Piano - Trained pianist; performed at multiple recitals
Your Turn to Practice!
Now it’s your turn to practice. Below, brainstorm the activities that you have engaged with during your high school year. For now, just down words and ideas; the 150-character formatting can come later. If a category does not pertain to you, feel free to leave it blank:
- Art, dance, theatre, or music:
- Community or civic engagement
- Family responsibilities
- Sports (team or recreational)
- Employment or paid internships
- Volunteering or unpaid internships
- Other meaningful experiences:
Once you jot down ideas for your activities section, it’s a good idea to have a parent or someone else who knows you well look it over. It’s easy to overlook including an activity that could be important!
For each activity you list, you’ll need to include the following information:
- Whether you held a leadership role (example: Vice President, Secretary)
- During which grades you participated in this activity (check the box for all that apply)
- Timing of activity (during the school year, during school breaks, or both)
- Hours per week spent on the activity
- Weeks per year when you participated in the activity
- Whether you’d be interested in participating in a similar activity in college (answering yes does not give you an advantage on your application, but it does alert colleges to share campus-specific information that may be of interest to you
Tips to Make Your Common App Stand Out
If you’re wondering how to make your Common App stand out, you’re not alone. Here are a few tips and tricks to keep in mind as you complete your Common App and prepare to submit it:
- Choose your list of schools wisely! The ease of a single application can create an illusion that applying to college is effortless. Because every application has its own requirements (as well as a cost associated) it is best to create a realistic list of reach, match, and safety schools that best meet your interests. A reach school is one where your academic credentials fall slightly below or significantly below that of the average admitted student. Some Common App partner colleges, such as all eight Ivy League schools and other highly competitive institutions, such as Stanford, Duke, and Northwestern, are truly a reach for every single applicant. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try! It just means you should also plan to have other options on your list. A match school (often referred to as a target school) is one where your academic credentials are in the same range as the average accepted student. A safety school is a college where your academic credentials significantly exceed the average admitted student; a college that accepts all applicants (such as a community college) can also be considered a safety school. The key to building a robust college list on Common App is to select institutions that meet reach, match, and safety criteria.
- Give yourself ample time. The strongest applications are those that are developed over a series of weeks, or even months. Set deadlines and pace yourself. The Common App should be completed as a one-weekend project! If you plan to apply for Early Action or Early Decision deadlines, this is even more critical.
- Pay special attention to the activities section and the writing section. This includes both the personal essay and any supplemental questions. Much of the information you’ll enter on the Common App (such as your demographic information, unofficial transcript, and test scores) is pretty static. However, the activities and writing section are both areas where you truly have the opportunity to make an impact on your application’s outcome.
- Choose your recommenders carefully. Exactly how a recommendation is weighed can vary from one partner college to another, but for most universities, a detailed, thoughtful recommendation letter can go a long way!
- Always double check your work. The Common App requests a lot of information, ranging from family information to academics to addresses. If you’re not careful, making a foolish mistake can happen easily. Always proofread your responses before hitting submit.
Enlist another trusted set of eyes before submitting your application. To confirm that your application is complete and error-free, have a parent, teacher, college counselor, or trusted peer look over your work for accuracy and detail before you submit your application.
The Personal Essay
The purpose of a personal essay is two fold: 1.) It gives admissions officers a peek into who you are in ways that cannot be translated to a transcript or a standardized test score. 2.) It gives admissions officers a glimpse into your writing style and ability.
While the personal essay can be a transformative aspect of a college application, not every Common App partner college requires it. Every institution will indicate whether the personal essay is required or not required. If a college partner does not require the essay, you still have the option of uploading it to your Common App.
Currently, the Common App offers seven different prompts to choose from (including one which allows the student to share an essay on any topic of their choosing. In most cases, a university does not have any preference about which prompt you respond to, so long as the writing you submit showcases your best work and allows the reader to learn more about you as a person.
Below are the seven Common App prompts:
How do I select a Common App prompt to response to?! It is natural to feel a bit overwhelmed by the writing section on the Common App. Here are a few important tips to keep in mind:
- Start small! The personal essay is 650 words maximum. Many students feel pressured to tell their entire life story in this space, and the word limit makes that simply impossible.
- Work backward. In other words, select the story you wish to tell (or a list of potential stories could potentially tell--you can always narrow down that list later!) Next, determine which prompt might best align with the content of that specific story. For example: an essay about what you learned.
- Write your essay before performing edits. Changes to grammar, sentence structure, and style can be made once your draft is complete.
- Stay away from clichés or overused expressions. Do you want to “follow your dreams?” Leave that out of your essay, unless you have a more creative way to express that sentiment.
- Ask yourself, “What do I want the reader to know about me?” Do you want to be seen as someone who’s innovative, compassionate, or an overachiever? What story can you tell to best illustrate this aspect of yourself?
Are any topics off limits? When selecting a topic, it is important to consider that admissions officers are reading hundreds, if not thousands, of essays in a typical admissions season. What will make your story memorable? Her are a few common essay topics, which most admissions officers would agree are overused:
- A sports injury
- Losing a grandparent
- A volunteer or service trip and how it changed you
- The most important person/place in your life
Here are a few additional topics that are not recommended (if you feel passionately about one of these topics, please think carefully about how you’re presenting the content and proceed with caution.)
- Behavior that is illegal or illicit (example: an essay that centers around sex, drugs, alcohol, shoplifting, etc. is discouraged, even if you’re able to show how you’ve overcome personal obstacles.) Admissions officers are only human. It is not advised to give them any them any reason to question your sound judgement or ability to be a successful and productive member of their campus community,
- Controversial or polarized topics. Passion is a valuable trait, but if you feel strongly about a potentially sensitive topic, consider that your reader may not feel similarly.
- Humor (a joke here or there might be successful, but an entire essay dedicated to humor may cause the reader to question your ability to embrace the serious aspects of pursuing post-secondary education.
- Mental health issues. Many high school students struggle with anxiety, depression, or other mental health issues, so this is certainly nothing to be ashamed of. However, if you do choose to share your mental health struggles in essay form, it’s important to also be able to share how you’ve coped or grown from your challenges. In some cases, an admissions officer might feel very empathetic but be worried about your ability to join the campus community and still receive the support you need.
- Tragedies. There may be a very sad circumstance which has significantly impacted your life and is appropriate to write about. However, recognize that the purpose of your personal essay is to show who you are and how life’s events have shaped you. If you write about the death of a loved one, for example, the essay should still center on you.
What if I’m having trouble getting started? Brainstorming and pre-writing are a valuable part of the essay process. Here are a few tips to consider getting you started:
- Jot down a list of ten important milestones that have occurred in your life. What were these events? How have they impacted you?
- Jot down five favorite memories, focusing on the senses (sight, touch, taste, smell, sound.)
- Jot down five objects that have sentimental value to you (example: the medal you won at a spelling bee or the autographed t-shirt from your first concert.)
- Read the following words aloud and jot down the first reaction or memory that comes to mind: Loyalty, friendship, perseverance, family, achievement, purpose, curiosity, talent, compassion, awareness.
What makes a personal statement compelling and unique? The best essays are not necessarily those with the most salacious or exciting subject matters. Instead, the best essays are thoughtful, well-written, and truly showcase your individuality and humanity. Several admissions officers from competitive U.S. universities were asked the subject matter of the best-written, most memorable essays they’d read lately. Their answers may surprise you:
- “The essay was about a Sunday family dinner. The vividness, the food, the closeness--I felt like I was right there with them.”
- “The essay was about an unexpected friendship that the student had forged with a cafeteria staff member at their high school.”
- “The essay was about the student learning to swim as a teenager.”
- “The essay was about creating pottery.”
The best writing is that which fully captures you!
I’ve written an essay draft. Now what? Writing is important, but finding a good editor is equally important. This might be one of your parents, a teacher, an older sibling, or a professional tutor or college admissions coach. Despite popular belief, it is not advised to have your writing edited multiple times or by multiple people, as tempting as this may feel. Often, when an essay is “over-edited” it loses its spark and sense of student voice. When editing your writing, it is important to focus on content, voice, and structure first. The minor details (such as grammar and spelling) should be the final edits made, even if English is your second language.
How important is my essay to the overall quality of my application? The personal statement can truly be the edge you need for your college application! Exactly how the essay is weighted within the application process generally varies from one institution to another and usually isn’t shared by admissions staff. However, dedicating time to your personal essay and submitting your very best work is one of the best ways that you can give yourself a competitive edge in the admissions process.
Disciplinary History & Additional Information
The Disciplinary History asks, “Have you ever been found responsible for a disciplinary violation at any educational institution you have attended from the 9th grade (or the international equivalent) forward, whether related to academic misconduct or behavioral misconduct, that resulted in a disciplinary action? These actions could include, but are not limited to: probation, suspension, removal, dismissal, or expulsion from the institution?”
If you check yes, you will have up to 400 words to explain the situation. Here are a few tips to keep in mind:
- While disclosing a prior disciplinary violation can feel overwhelming, it is very important to be honest about the nature of the infraction.
- Don’t overshare. A brief summary of the incident that occurred and the disciplinary measure is enough.
- Own your mistake but keep the tone positive. Focus on what you have learned and how you will be better going forward.
The Additional Information section asks, “Do you wish to provide details of circumstances or qualifications nor reflected in the application?” This section is essentially the Common App’s way of gently asking, “What else would you like us to know?” While this section is optional, you may wish to include a written statement here if you have encountered special circumstances that aren’t evident by reading your application materials. You will have a maximum of 650 words, but unlike the personal statement, you do not need to attempt to be close to your word count. Here are some examples of what might be included in the Additional Information section:
- Additional activities of significance that didn’t quite fit into the activities section.
- Health issues, disabilities, or learning differences. Do you have health issues or disabilities that have impacted your academics, activities, or other aspects of your life? Including a note about your health issues or a disability can feel like a risk, but it can also be critical to painting a full portrait of who you are as a student and individual.
- Unexpected dips or gaps in your transcript grades. Did you have a rough semester due to the loss of a family member, health issues, or other challenges? The Additional Information section is a good place to address this dip in academic achievement. Be cautious not to appear defensive; in other words, own your setbacks and show how you have grown from them.
- Circumstances that may have made it difficult to get involved in extracurricular activities. Is your activities section sparse? If you contribute to your family financially and/or engage in frequent family responsibilities, such as caring for young siblings or a chronically ill parent, this is the time to showcase the reasons why your activities may be scarce. Once again, tone is important! Even if your family circumstances are difficult or sad, it’s important to frame this in a way that showcases a growth mindset rather than “woe is me.”
- Unusual grading system or an unusual course on your transcript. If your high school participates in an unusual grading system (such as competency-based grading,) you may want to consider explaining this briefly in the Additional Information section, just to give your application a little more context. Similarly, if you have taken an exceptional course that is entirely unique in concept, you may want to provide a bit of insight into the content.
It’s important to remember that this section is not required, and your application is complete without it.
Some partner colleges on the Common Application require one or more writing supplements, in addition to the personal essay. Once you add a new college to your dashboard, you will be able to view the writing requirements, which vary a bit by each individual institution. For example, Boston College, is a private, Jesuit institution in Boston, Massachusetts. If you added Boston College to your dashboard, here are the writing requirements you would see:
So, it is evident that Boston College requires the personal essay, offers some additional college-specific questions which are optional, and requires a writing supplement. If you applied to Boston College, you could use the same personal essay that you had submitted to all other Common App partner colleges, but you’d want to pay special attention to Boston College’s specific optional writing supplement questions. Some Common App partner colleges require no writing supplements at all, some provide optional supplements, and some require more than one writing supplement. As a general rule of thumb, if a university offers an optional supplement, it is always in your best interest to create a thoughtfully written supplement and submit it! Writing supplements allow each university to home in on what they truly value in their student body. Is it inquisition? Creativity? A commitment to social impact? An interest in research? A university’s supplemental writing questions often give a glimpse into the institutional culture and values.
For example, here are the supplement writing questions for Boston College
Boston College offers several creative prompt selections, requiring applicants to answer only one question, for a maximum of 400 words. This word count requirement is fairly typical for supplemental essays, which usually range from 250 words-500 words.
One additional common question that is frequently asked by Common App partner colleges is, “Why do you want to attend X University?” Here are a few suggestions to keep in mind when answering this specific type of college-specific supplement question:
- Do your research! It’s important to understand what makes the college unique and what specific academic programs are offered. If you state an interest in chemical engineering and the college doesn’t offer engineering programs, you have likely just eliminated yourself from the potential accepted students list. A response like this leaves an admissions officer wondering, “Why did this student even apply here?”
- Stay focused on the campus itself, and not the surrounding city or geographical area. For example, if you state that you want to attend New York University because you can picture yourself thriving in a large metropolitan area, you have not answered the question.
- Whenever possible, weave in your own personal story and perspective. For example, if you are applying to the University of Virginal and you notice that they have a student-run fiction writing club on campus, this is a great time to share that you’re working on your first novel and while you won’t be pursuing creative writing as a career interest, you are excited about the potential to tap into this aspect of your creative self through a writing club. The best responses are those that include specific details that set you apart as an individual.
- As tempting as it may be, do not copy and paste one a university-specific supplement from one institution to another, changing only the names. Ask yourself, “Could this supplement have been writing for another university besides X College?” If the answer is yes, then you need to re-write it!
- Just like the personal essay, writing supplements can be an important aspect of your overall application package. Take your time, be thoughtful, and seek out a trusted editor whenever possible.
For many Common App college partners, recommendation letters are an important aspect of the overall application. Every partner college has slightly different requirements when it comes to recommenders, but the most universal recommendation is one from a guidance counselor, which is why you were asked to list your counselor’s name and contact information in the Education section. Other recommenders include teachers, advisors, or “other recommenders,” which might include a civic leader, youth group leader, employer, or someone else who can speak to your character and work ethic. Recommenders should always be professional in nature and should never be family or friends. It may feel daunting to ask a teacher or guidance counselor for a recommendation. Writing recommendations, however, is a key function of educators’ jobs, so there is no need to feel awkward about this request. In fact, most teachers and guidance counselors will be pleased to write a recommendation on your behalf. Here are a few suggestions to keep in mind when requesting a recommendation letter:
- Ask your recommenders if they’re willing to write a recommendation for you before you automatically add them to your Common App account. Once you add a recommender to your application, an email will be sent to them with a link so that they can create a recommender account.
- When requesting a recommendation, it’s best to give your recommender a completed brag sheet (a sample is included below.) Even if this individual knows you well, it is likely that they are also writing recommendations for many other students. In order to be able to include the most pertinent details about your accomplishments and career interests, it is helpful for your recommender to have a brag sheet to reference. Brag sheets are called brag sheets for a reason--this is your time to share your accomplishments fully, without being shy or humble!
- Make sure to give your recommenders ample time to complete your recommendation letters. It is best practice to request recommendations at least three weeks before they are due. This is especially important to remember if you are applying for Early Action/Early Decision deadlines.
- If the deadline is drawing near and your recommender hasn’t submitted their portion yet, feel free to gently reach out with a reminder.
- Once your recommender submits their portion, follow up with a thank-you note. A hand-written card is always a nice touch, although a thank you email is appropriate as well. A small token of appreciation, such as a box of chocolates is also a thoughtful touch. Saying “thank you” is important, as this individual has just dedicated their time to your success. In addition, it enhances your relationship, should you need to request an additional recommendation in the future, perhaps for a scholarship or internship.
- Keep your recommender updated on your college process! If you receive an acceptance letter, share the good news.
Student Brag Sheet (for Common App Recommenders)
- Student Name:
- Email Address:
- Cell phone number:
- I am planning to apply to the following colleges:
- I am considering the following majors and/or career paths:
- My proudest accomplishments are:
- Three or more words I use to describe myself are:
- The paid employment experience I’ve had is (if applicable):
- I contribute to my home and family in the following ways:
- As a student, I’d describe myself as:
- The extracurricular experiences that have impacted me most are:
- The honors and awards I’ve received are:
Thank you for completing my Common App recommendation!
Other Application Platforms
Although the Common Application is a widely universal college application platform with more than 800 partner colleges, there are a number of popular U.S. institutions that are not on the Common App. Luckily, much of the information in this guide (such as writing a personal essay and completing an activities section) can easily be translated into another application platform.
Here are a few additional popular platforms, and a few tips for each:
University of California (UC Application)
While the University of California is not on the Common App, the UC system does offer their own universal application, which allows students to apply to all nine UC campuses in one application. While the application materials are available to admissions officers on all nine campuses, no admissions office can see notes or decisions for any other office. Here are a few specific tips to keep in mind if you’re planning on applying to the UC system:
- Unlike the Common App, which requires a 650-word maximum personal essay, the UC application requires four shorter essays in response to Personal Insight questions. Each response should be 250-350 words. The application contains eight prompts, but applicants decide which four to respond to.
- Unlike the Common App, the UC application has a Scholarships & Programs section which allows applicants to apply directly for campus-specific scholarships and support programs.
The Coalition Application was designed as a direct competitor to the Common Application. Unlike the Common App, the Coalition Application is designed to provide My Coalition, an entire platform for college planning, including a location to store portfolio documents and tools for collaborating with others. Designed to provide transparency and extra support for first-generation, underrepresented students, the Coalition App was developed in 2015 and has seen slight gains in use since then. Currently, there are only 140 partner colleges on the Coalition App, compared to 800 on the Common App, but the list includes many prestigious institutions such as Harvard, Northwestern, Purdue, Rice, and Tufts. If you choose to use the Coalition App, here are a few tips to consider:
- If you intend to apply to a partner college that is available on both the Common App and the Coalition App, use whichever platform suits you better. There is no admissions advantage to one platform vs. another.
- The activities section is slightly different from the Common App. The Coalition App requests that applicants rank their top two activities, allowing for up to eight in total.
- The prompts for the Coalition essay are slightly different than the Common App.
The Coalition App offers only five prompt options, including the open-ended essay. Unlike the Common App, which allows for a maximum of 650 words, the Coalition app states that “there is no perfect length for a Coalition essay, but we suggest that you aim for 500 to 550 words,” which is slightly shorter than the Common App personal essay.
- Just like on Common App, the Coalition App activities, writing, and recommendation sections are very important. While the wording may be slightly different, the essence is the same. Admissions officers want to know who you are, what you’re passionate about, and why you’d be a good fit as a member of their campus community.
No matter what application platform you use, the college application process is an exciting journey and is truly the first step into creating your own educational success!