A Guide to the Common App

The Common App is the most widely used application portal by colleges, and while College Board does put out their own guide, this guide is mostly about implementation, and not best practices. The purpose of this article, in contrast, is to give you advice on the best ways to fill out your Common App: what colleges want to see in it, and how to make the best use of what is given to you.

The process of applying to colleges can be stressful, but the existence of the Common App is one of the aspects which actively seeks to reduce the overall stress of students in the process. Our hope is that this guide will help with stress reduction as well, and make the college application process a smooth one for you.

Getting Started

When setting up your account, take your time and avoid careless errors. Aside from avoiding typos in your name, make sure your email address is appropriate. The ever popular fistnamelastname@webservice.com might be something you need to set up now, as colleges will see your email address, and may question your readiness for college if it is obviously inappropriate. 

When providing a phone number, make sure it is one you are able to check regularly, with a voicemail set up. Colleges will use this number to get in contact with you if they need to urgently, so be careful about answering calls from unknown numbers after you have provided the phone number. If using a voicemail, make sure it is accurate  as well.

We suggest allowing the Common App to share your information with colleges. While you will get a deluge of emails from colleges, these can be helpful. While you may not want to read everything you get, be careful to look over emails from the colleges you’re most interested in: you might learn something!

College Search

Don’t feel pressured to add colleges until you have finalized your college list. While finalizing your list earlier is better than later, there’s no harm in taking the time to be sure of your choices. Most students begin by filling out the general section before working on college-specific questions. 

One note: be careful with the names of schools. There are Columbias in both Chicago and New York, but they are not the same school. Some schools also begin their name with “the” and others differ in St. vs. Saint. Keep this in mind when you do add your schools.

Common App

The tab labeled Common App is, unsurprisingly, the main section of the application. This will go out to every school you apply to; we will give you advice on how to fill out each section in turn. 

Profile

Much of this section will populate from the information you entered while creating your account, which is another reason to be careful when doing so. Check over it to make sure there weren’t any typos or missteps.

The demographics section is a contested one, as recent lawsuits have questioned the place of race in college admissions. As this section is optional, if you are concerned about a possible negative impact it may have on your admissions, you are within your rights to leave it blank. While many colleges take ethnicity into account, it is rarely a deciding factor, which you can learn more about in our article on how colleges judge applications

The section on Geography doesn’t have to be exact, you can approximate to within the year.

The language section asks for all languages you are proficient in. This includes English. Only list other languages if you are truly proficient; if you aren’t comfortable holding a conversation in the language, do not include it.

For the citizenship question, US citizens will need to enter their social security number. Undocumented and DACA students should select “Other (Non-US)” and then choose the country in which they have citizenship, before selecting “No” for “Do you have a valid US visa?” Listing a social security number is necessary for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), otherwise your financial aid application will not be tied to your college application.

Check with your counselor to see if you qualify for the Common App Fee Waiver; if you do, select yes and then choose the financial circumstances which allow you to qualify.

Family

Parents marital status (relative to each other) should match what is on your FAFSA paperwork. Try to be as accurate as possible with dates for widowing or divorce, as these may provide context for an academic record. 

If you do not live with either of your parents, select “Other” and you will be given a 100-character field to explain your living situation, you can expand further in the additional information section if necessary.

It doesn’t matter which parent you select as 1 or 2, but you should consult with your parents directly while filling out this section. If you don’t live with a parent or are otherwise not in contact, you can select “I have limited information about this parent” and explain further in additional information should it prove necessary.

Do not inflate or downplay your parents accomplishments for careers or education. If you aren’t certain about what to put, ask your parents what their careers are.

Siblings exist to give colleges context about you. They want to know if your siblings attend the same school, or if they went to college when your parents didn’t. The number of siblings you have in college can also impact financial aid decisions.

Education

Enter your current school, as well as when you entered and plan to graduate. For graduation date, inquire with your school’s counselor. The normal time of entry to a school is the beginning of freshman year. This may be different for students who went to schools which cover more than the traditional four years of high school. Enter the year when you began taking classes at a school.

Students who are finishing high school in something other than the standard four-year progression should select the appropriate option. This will provide a 250 word limit to explain why you took more than four years to graduate from high school. Be honest; schools understand that some students struggle with academics or need to take time off from school to help support their family. 

When entering your counselor’s information, verify it is all correct, as colleges seeking more information about you or your high school environment or experience will often turn to your counselor, and aren’t under any obligation to track them down if the information you provided is incorrect. 

The section on other secondary schools only matters if you have attended more than one high school, if not the answer is 0. If you have, you have 250 words to explain why you left. Here, honesty is again the best policy. It is also fine to be simple: “My family moved to this city for work.” is entirely acceptable. If you left your last school purposefully, state the reasons why simply without being overly negative or hyperbolic. 

The section on college coursework does not cover dual enrollment. If you have ever received credit from a college course, online or on campus, enter that information here. (include accredited summer programs). You should fill out this section even if you did poorly in the course; honesty is always the best policy. 

Fill out the section on grades with a current transcript next to you. For class size, they do only want an approximation, but ask your counselor to be sure you are in the right ballpark. Do not guess for GPA, scale, or weighting; instead check with your counselor to make sure all the information you report is accurate.

Your senior-year courses should also be filled out with a transcript next to you. Don’t bother reporting courses which don’t award credit, schools don’t care about those. 

For the honors section, start with the most significant awards you have won. Don’t worry if you haven’t achieved any, you will have chances to show off in other sections. Awards which use uncommon acronyms should be spelled out, especially for local recognition; don’t assume schools know what an award is.

Community based organizations are services which provide free academic support to students in high school or who are applying to colleges. If you have received any such support, report that information here.

Your future plans are allowed to be undecided, although if you do have interests, indicate as much. Schools with strong pre-professional programs will be interested to see what you want to explore. Tell the truth for the highest degree you intend to earn; if you intend to be a doctor, for example, select “medicine”.

Testing

Some schools want you to report all of your scores, others only care about your best. You will have to send official score reports to all of the colleges to verify the scores you report; these will include all of the tests you have taken.

As most schools have gone test optional this year, you don’t have to report your scores if you don’t want to. International applicants will still have to submit exams, indicating their proficiency with English.

Remember when reporting scores, the Common App says that you only need to submit the scores you wish to report. Check and see if the schools you are applying to care about receiving all of your scores. This applies not just to the SAT and ACT, but to AP and IB exams as well.

Activities

This is one of the trickiest sections, and can often trip-up students. Do not use it and the additional information section interchangeably; all information reported on the Common App should be unique by section. 

Here you have limited space; use it well. Don’t repeat information from the title of the activity in the body, and use abbreviations if you can. List your most impressive activities first, and, thereafter, group by type: all activities related to coding, for instance, should be sequential, from most to least impressive. 

Ten spaces are provided, but don’t feel pressured to fill them all. Colleges often want to see students who have explored their passions deeply over those who have spread themselves thin over disparate activities.

As always, honesty is key. Don’t inflate your hours or give yourself titles or accomplishments which you do not actually possess. If discovered, these white lies are grounds for automatic rejection.

Be honest when denoting whether you will continue participating in an activity while at college. Schools are trying to build a class of individuals, and will judge by your activities how you will engage with the campus at their school.

Writing

We advise taking the time to write, edit and revise your personal statement in a separate document before copying it and pasting it into the application. We provide  additional information on the art of writing a personal statement here.

Disciplinary History

Note that you do not need to list detentions, but most other punishments are mentioned by name. Not all crimes are the same; a one-day suspension for something stupid you did as a freshman will not weigh on your application too heavily–unless you fail to report it.

If you select yes, you will be given 400 words to explain what happened, and any punishment you received. Be honest and take responsibility for your mistakes. Colleges will be looking for evidence you have grown or matured since the incidents took place; blaming all your problems on others will not provide that.

Additional Information

As stated previously, information you cannot fit in elsewhere should be relayed here. Information which is conveyed elsewhere should not be repeated. Ths space should also not be used as a continuation of the personal statement, or a place to include an additional essay. Information provided here should be brief, factual, and serve to provide any context necessary to understand your application.

Courses and Grades

This section will only appear if one of the colleges you have selected under My Colleges requires the information. Self-reported grades do not take the place of a transcript. In order to be eligible to submit this section, you must:

  • Have your transcript in front of you
  • Have a transcript which includes grades instead of qualitative or narrative assessments
  • Have courses divided by quarters, trimesters, semesters, or block scheduling

Select appropriate years, grading scale, and grades based on the information on your transcript. Only fill this section out with your transcript in front of you.

My Colleges

After you complete the main common app, you will have to answer the various specific questions that the schools you are applying to ask. These will vary greatly, from those that want almost no information to ones which ask numerous additional questions and want multiple essays completed. Begin answering these questions once you’ve added schools here using the college search.

General

Here, as everywhere in this section, the questions will vary. We will discuss some which many students find confusing, or which have nuances in their answers.

For Preferred Admission Plan, you should investigate the specific requirements each school has for each plan on their website. The general options are Early Decision, Early Action, and Regular Decision. If you select Early Decision, a separate agreement will appear, stating that you have read and agreed to the school’s Early Decision policies. As each school has different requirements and restrictions, research these carefully before deciding.

The box asking if you are planning to apply for need-based financial aid is not the same as an application for financial aid. Check with your parents before clicking no on this box. Colleges differ as to whether or not they are need blind, but most won’t reject candidates simply for selecting this box.

If you are intending to apply for merit-based scholarships, indicate as much using the box. For some schools, that is all that is required to apply. For others, merit scholarships require a separate application or even essays. Check each school’s website to be sure.

Clicking the box saying you intend to live in college housing will cause the college to send you housing sign-up materials if you are accepted. 

Academics

Some colleges will be more particular than others in this section; some merely want to know your interests, while others admit by major. For some colleges, the essay questions you will answer will directly depend on which college or major you select here. 

It is fine to select majors you are merely interested in, or which you believe complement your interests. While it is fine to put undecided as a major, you should not put undecided for interests generally. Colleges want to see what excites you, but saying undecided does not do that.

The future plans section should be customised to individual schools. While most every school has some form of program for pre meds, many don’t have any dedicated undergraduate business program, and some have pre-law tracks whereas others do not. Tailor your responses in this section to each school, based on what they offer. 

Recommenders and FERPA

The Family Education Rights Privacy Act (FERPA) covers almost all educational information. Here, the Common App wants to make sure your high school sends the right information to colleges. You will have to fill out the FERPA release form a single time for your entire application, not once for each college.

Taking care of this is also important for linking Naviance to your Common App account if your school uses Naviance. 

Waiving your right to access here means that once a letter is written and sent off you’ll never be able to see it. While this may seem a risky proposition, you should always waive your FERPA rights in this case.

Not waiving your right to read the letter signals to the teachers you have asked to write them that you do not trust them, and is likely to result in letters which are factually accurate but terribly bland, which is the exact opposite of what you want from these letters. The college will also wonder why you did not waive the right, and whether you suspected your teachers would have nothing positive to say.

In the end, you should remember that teachers and counselors have nothing but your best interests at heart, and the ones who are not comfortable writing you a positive letter will generally decline to write you one at all. 

When inviting recommenders, Common App and highschools usually partner with third-party sites, such as Naviance. Ask your counselor for the specific ways to use these sites. The Common App will allow you to add recommenders and request letters directly through their system if it is linked with one of these services. 

Make sure you ask your teachers in person if they’d be willing to write you a letter of recommendation before sending them a request. Some teachers will already be writing many letters, so show respect for their time by asking them for permission first. Always make sure your teacher’s names and email addresses are spelled correctly when sending these requests. 

Writing Supplements

Not every school asks for writing beyond the personal statement, but for the ones which do, the questions are found here. In some cases wextra writing questions are hidden within the broader Questions section, so make sure you read that carefully to ensure you aren’t missing any prompts which will sneak up on you at the last minute. 

See our blog article here for advice on answering the various forms of supplemental essay questions. 

Some colleges have sections or questions which are marked “optional.” These fall into two general categories; sections where colleges inquire as to whether there’s anything else you think they should know, and essay prompts which are marked optional.

Sections where colleges inquire as to whether you have anything else relevant to tell them should be treated like the additional information section: truly optional, and filled out only if you do have something to say. Optional essay prompts should be answered, as these will give colleges additional perspectives on you, and allow them to better judge you as a person and an applicant.

Submitting and Final Notes

When you go to submit your application, you will be given a chance to review your entire application as a pdf. Go over it carefully; this form is akin to what admissions officers will see when they review it, so check it carefully for grammar and other mistakes.

After reviewing, pay your application fee (if you didn’t ask for or qualify for a fee waiver), sign, and press submit. Congratulations, your application is away, and in the hands of the college now!

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