Update: Read the latest tips for the 2017-18 Common App.
Late on July 31st, the 2013-14 Common Application went live, enabling thousands of eager students to get a head start on completing their college applications. And while the newly touted design is supposed to provide a more intuitive user-friendly experience, many students are running into unexpected and understandably frustrating difficulties. Common Application officials assure us that they are hard at work trying to fix a host of glitches and errors, especially those revolving around college specific supplements. In the meantime, however, we’ve put together ten tips and suggestions to help you successfully navigate and make the most of the new Common Application.
Our first five tips are listed below; stay tuned for the remaining five later this week. Have a question about strategies around the new Common Application? Post it below, and one of our College Coach admissions experts will answer it!
1. Test scores: to post or not to post?
Earlier this fall, when the Common Application asked students to list all standardized test scores, we recommended that students leave the self-reporting testing section of the application blank. Now that the Common Application has adjusted their language, we feel it is in the best interest of students to complete this page. For students who answer, “Yes,” to the prompt, “Do you wish to self-report standardized test scores,” the Common Application now asks, “Indicate all tests you wish to report.” This means that students who have taken both the SAT and ACT have a clear conscious when reporting one test over the other. This change in the Common Application actually makes it easier for students to personalize the “Testing” page of their application. When applying to colleges that accept Score Choice, students can list their best score results. Then, when applying to schools that require all SAT and ACT scores be submitted (such as Carnegie Mellon, Georgetown, and Stanford), students can edit the “Testing” page to include this information.
2. Résumé tips
Participated in…led…managed…contributed to. When completing the “Activities” portion of the application, it’s always best to use a variety of “action verbs” to describe your extra-curricular involvement. On the new Common Application, applicants no longer have the benefit of seeing all of their activities on the same page, making it difficult to know if your descriptions sound a bit monotonous. Our suggestion? Draft your activity details in a Word document, and then cut and paste them into the Common Application. This way you can ensure that you’re using a range of colorful verbs. Don’t forget that you have 50 characters to list your position/leadership and 150 characters to describe your details, honors, and accomplishments.
3. Formatting your essay
Gone are days of uploading your personal statement to the body of the Common Application. Now students are simply required to cut and paste their essay into a text box. There are two very important features you should know about this text box. The first is that it will not allow you to enter more than 650 words or fewer than 250 words. This word limit is new for the Common Application. So, too, is the block formatting of paragraphs. New paragraphs will no longer appear indented. Rather, they show up as isolated blocks of text, with one empty line between each paragraph. The new formatting won’t bother colleges, so there’s no need to fret that your once indented paragraphs are now showing up a little differently in the print preview.
If you are having difficulty formatting your essay, and are experiencing odd word counts or no paragraph breaks when viewing the print preview of your application, try cutting and pasting your essay from MS Word (or your word processor of choice) into Notepad (for Windows users) or TextEdit (for Mac users). Then cut and paste your essay again into the “Personal Essay” text box. Notepad and TextEdit will strip your essay of all formatting and make most formatting issues disappear.
Which leads us to:
4. Where is the print preview button?
Alas, it’s gone! I do hope they bring it back, but for now, there’s only one way to see a print preview of your application. And you have to jump through three hoops to get there. First, you need to complete every required field of the Common Application itself. This means you see six green check marks when you’re on the “Common App” tab. Second, any school-specific questions or essays need to be completed. When you’re looking at a school on the “My Colleges” tab, do you see a green check mark next to “Questions” as well as “Writing Supplement”? If not, go back and fill out those sections. Finally, you need to complete the FERPA Release Authorization and assign required recommenders (found on the “Assign Recommenders” link from either the “Dashboard” or “My Colleges” tab). Then, and only then, will you see the “Submit” button from the “Dashboard,” or the “Start Submission” button from the “My Colleges” page. Once you’re looking at the print preview – which, incidentally, looks exactly the way colleges will see it, minus the watermark – you can right click with your mouse to save the PDF to your computer.
5. College requirements grid
Are you looking for an easy way to see college application deadlines and testing requirements all in a simple glance? Enter the Application Requirements Grid! This year, you physically have to log out of your Common Application account in order to find it. From the Common Application homepage, mouse over “Member Colleges” at the top of the screen; then select “Application Requirements”.
UPDATE: It has recently come to our attention that the Common Application had incorrectly reported some of the statistics on their Applications Requirement grid. The University of Colorado–Boulder has an EA deadline of 11/15 (not 12/1), and Colgate’s ED2 deadline is actually 1/15 (not 3/1). As we use this information for AppView, which provides deadlines and essay prompts for the top 200 schools College Coach students apply to, we’ve immediately updated our data. While this chart is still a helpful organization tool, it’s definitely a good idea to double check school-specific information on each college’s website, or on the Common Application’s “My Colleges” tab.
For updated tips for the 2015-16 Common Application, take a look at our latest posts:
For all of our 2013-14 Common App tips, be sure to check out the rest of the posts in this series:
What else might go here?
Acronyms. You may know what the NC MAC Conference is, but I don’t. Make it easy for me.
Special Awards or Certifications. You may know how ridiculously hard you worked to earn a Level 8 Certification in Violin, but if you don’t explain it to me, I won’t have a clue.
You tell me. Anything that may give the reader a more full understanding of who you are.
10. Stuff that’s made it hard for you to get more involved in extracurriculars.
I have students, for example, who take two buses, plus the Metro to get to school, commuting almost 2 hrs each way. Others have their parents drive them that far. This means extracurriculars have been tougher for them than for others. But how would the colleges know that unless you told them? In the additional info section.
My thanks to counselor and former UC Berkeley reader, Randolf Arguelles, for reminding me of the next three:
11. Any physical or learning disabilities
Note: These should be diagnosed by a health professional. Specify what and how long.
12. Parents’ disability or unemployment
Again, specify what and how long.
13. Significant work hours while in HS
Note that this is particularly important if you contributed to family income to help pay bills and (see #10) it impacted your ability to be more involved with extracurriculars.
The following details are important to include in your application somewhere, but I’d recommend trying to work them (and their impact on you) into your main essay:
Low income family or large family with many dependents, straining family income
If the language spoken at home is other than English
If you will be the first generation in your family to attend college
14. ambiguous Acronyms, awards and any missing grades
Don't just write "Active Member, AMBT" or "Treasurer, CMBE Club" in your Activities List without explaining what those acronyms mean.
Don't just write "Recognition in Biology" or "Commendation for Writing" in your awards section without giving some context: how many given, out of how many students? In short: what does your award mean? If there's not room in your Awards section, this is a good place to explain.
My math grade for second semester of 10th grade is missing because I enrolled in an online course when the class was discontinued at my school.
In short, don’t be afraid to use this section!
Finally, what if I feel like I’m struggling to come up with stuff to add?
It’s your call, but if it starts to feel like you’re scraping the bottom of the barrel with your Activities (stuff you kinda’ did, or just did once), stop. Take a breath. Remember what I said at the start: you do not have to use the Additional Info section. In fact, see if you can be really succinct and fit all your information into the areas provided by the Common App. It’s possible! And your college reps will thank you.