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College Apps: Guide to the Common Application

8 min readseptember 10, 2021

fiveable-dylan

Dylan Black


If you’re just getting started with your college application process, you’re probably getting bombarded 🙀 with a whole new dictionary of terms. One of the most important parts of your process is the CommonApp or Common Application. This is the system ⚙️ by which many schools accept applications for their undergraduate programs. In this blog, we’ll dive deep into what the CommonApp is, how to use it, and how to make the most of every section.

What Is The CommonApp?

Founded in 1975, the Common Application is an admissions application in which applicants fill out a single application, and that same application is then sent to numerous partner schools 🏫. Note that not every college accepts the CommonApp, but most do! The CommonApp was formed out of a dilemma in which most applications generally required the same information: test scores, demographics, extracurriculars, grades, etc., but students still had to fill out a million applications with the same information. With this tool, students only have to fill out one application to apply to many colleges at once.
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Image from CommonApp

Breaking Down The Pieces of the Application

Profile and Family

The most straightforward sections of the CommonApp are those about your demographics and background. These sections generally ask questions that you don’t even really need to think to answer. You’ll find questions like your address, school, name, languages, citizenship, etc., as well as a family 👩‍👩‍👧‍👦 section about your parents and siblings.
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Image from CommonApp

Education

The education 📚 section of the CommonApp is the first section that concerns actual academics! This is the time for you to take all the hard work you’ve done in high school and brag away. This section can seem intimidating, but the majority of it is just inserting data. If you have an untraditional high school path, this is the place to explain it. Whether you switched schools due to a parents’ job, pursued a specialized education, or have taken courses away from your primary school it is helpful to provide context to your admissions counselor. 
For each honor/award 🏆 you enter, you’ll also be able to specify the scope of the prize (basically whether it’s a school award, an international award, or anywhere in between). If you are a member of a college-prep CBO, you’ll want to mention that here too. Some colleges like to note CBO relationships and trends and you’ll want to be sure to be tagged as a member. 
Finally, you’ll select your future plans; you can put down a career field and what degree that you hope to attain in the future, such as a master’s or doctorate. Undecided is also an option and totally okay to select. Nobody will be holding you to the answers you give and it’s normal for your interests to change. It’s just for colleges to get an idea!
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Image from CommonApp

Testing

The testing section is again relatively simple. In this section, you’ll self-report your standardized test scores 📝. All you have to do is specify which tests you took and write down your score. You may be wondering, what keeps you from lying on the application? Well, in theory, nothing. Up until your colleges require official reports, they’ll take your word for it. However, most if not every college requires you to send official score reports to complete your application. Keep in mind that many schools have test-optional/test-flexible policies that you may want to consider using rather than sending a test score. Every school is a bit unique so check in with the admissions office or website to ensure you have everything you need if you decide to not include scores with your application. Check out this page if you're unsure if you should take a college admissions test despite some schools being test-optional. Additionally, there is a practice called ‘test-blind’ admissions where schools will not look at your score even if it is submitted and something you should ask about at all of your potential colleges.
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Image From US News and World Report

Activities

The activities section is one of the more work-heavy aspects of your application. This section, outside of the CommonApp essay, is the most likely to be the most stressful and time-intensive. The activities section is exactly what it sounds like: the place for you to brag 😎 about all of the fantastic extracurricular activities you’ve done in and out of school over the last four years. Because you are limited on how long your descriptions can be, make sure to make your words count! Describe your accomplishments in the role you’re discussing and be specific. Instead of saying something like “Led the debate team and competed in multiple debate competitions” be specific and say “Led a team of 7 members to 3 state titles, ran team practices, and critiqued written arguments”. This is just an example, but it can be applied to anything. Just about anything you’ve done can count as an activity. Had a job? Put it down! Looked after siblings? It counts 💪! That being said, you can only include 10 activities, so sometimes you can’t put everything you did throughout high school. Our recommendation is to think about two questions: what is most important to you and what makes you stand out the most?
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Image from CommonApp

Writing

The essay section is the section where you get to tell your admissions officers about yourself. You’ll be given a few prompts to pick from to write a personal essay. You also have the option of choosing none of the prompts and just writing ✍️ about something, and by something we mean just about anything. For this essay, you’ll have to write between 250 and 650 words. The prompts typically focus on something you did in high school or some sort of growth you had. The idea behind this essay is to allow you to show your personality and achievements 🙌 on a qualitative level and to discuss anything you may not have been able to put anywhere else. You generally have a full range in this section.
This guide includes example common app essays that you can take a look at to get your creative juices flowing!
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Image from CommonApp

College Info and Supplementals

Finally, when you submit your CommonApp to colleges, they may ask you for additional college-specific information to accompany your application. This information varies but usually includes the application cycle you’re applying to, any programs within the school you want to apply to, your prospective major, and any extra essays aka “supplements” admissions offices want to read. Supplements are a place in which you can write specifically about that school and mention what makes it unique in your eyes. Supplements range from being mandatory to a highly suggested optional, make sure you know which ones are absolutely essential so your application does not get marked as incomplete. 

Top Tips For Killing the CommonApp

Get Started Early!

Filling out the CommonApp is a reasonably painless process when you break it down section by section. This is why it’s useful to get the easy stuff done as soon as possible. For most of the application, you simply enter information about yourself. This means you can usually just sit down for a while and knock out much of the more “tedious” parts of the CommonApp. By doing so, you’ll already be miles 🏃 ahead of everyone else. It’s important to note that your CommonApp won’t officially begin until August 1st, but you can transfer information when that day comes. However, you can also just wait until August 
More importantly, however, you also want to start thinking about your CommonApp essay the summer before senior year. You absolutely do NOT have to have anything written when you return to school in the fall, but it’s good to plan, outline, and think 💭 about what you’re going to write about. This makes your first draft easy because you’ve already done most of the mental legwork. If you’re reading this, you may even already have an idea or two for what you may want to show off to the admissions officers. Spend some time meditating on important parts of your life. How have you changed? What struggles have you worked through? How did they change you? What have you accomplished? These questions and others can spark 💡 ideas on possible essay topics. You may also want to think about what you’re passionate about or what you want your essay to accomplish. Some of the choices are focused on change and growth, but others simply ask you to talk about something you’re passionate about, so it’s entirely up to you! Your actual choice of essay isn’t as important as the essay itself. All of the prompts are more than able to be made into amazing essays.
For more advice about college essays and the rest of your college application, check out these top 10 tiktoks about the college application experience.

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Be Yourself And Brag!

If there’s any time to be utterly braggy about how totally amazing you are, this is the time! The CommonApp is your opportunity to brag about all of the cool stuff you’ve accomplished and how much of an exceptional and unique person you are. Many people try being humble on the CommonApp and downplay their achievements 🏅, but you should do the opposite! Never think something is “too small” to be put on an application. You are a special individual and have tons of accomplishments that others only dream of. When writing about your awards and activities 🎭, don’t be afraid to be your authentic self! Schools actively want to see you! They care about your passions, your prospects, and what makes you special. You will find the perfect school no matter what. Find out more about what colleges are looking for and how to best showcase yourself as an applicant.

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Watch Your Deadlines and Stay Organized

When dealing with the CommonApp you’ll be juggling 🤹 every application at once. Because of this, you’ll have early action applications mixed in with regular applications mixed in with rolling applications–it can become very unorganized very quickly. The CommonApp does have a dashboard that shows some info, but it’s important to keep track of what applications are due when and what you have done for each of them. This can be as simple as a spreadsheet or Notion database with all of your colleges and checklists ✅ but is incredibly helpful, especially if you’re applying to many colleges.
Here is a great example of a college application checklist!

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Conclusion

The CommonApp is an integral part of any college admissions process. As you progress, you will become intimately associated with the CommonApp and your CommonApp essay. By following the tips outlined in this blog, you’ll be sure to put together a fabulous application 🎉!
If you need some help with the application, make sure to check out this comprehensive guide to submitting the common app!

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