High School 2 College

June 29, 2016

Applying to College: Common App Tips That Make a Difference

For the last several years – and for the foreseeable future – most students apply to college using the Common App.

When I was a student back in the days of Plato, if I wanted to apply to a college, I wrote to get their application, when I received it I filled it out in blue or black ink, I attached all my documentation in the order requested including my parents’ check, I mailed it back to the college, and I waited.

When I first started helping students with the application process over 25 years ago, the student would request an application online, receive a link to that application, print it out at home, fill it out, and mail it in.

Now nearly everyone uses the Common App.  You complete one application, enter a dozen or more college names, and click send. Within a day or two, you get a confirmation from each college that your application has been received, and you get periodic updates with invitations to visit, notices about parts of the application received, and, when the spring comes, a link to find out whether you got in or not.  The “fat envelope” or “thin envelope” metaphor is an anachronism.

Beware!  Don’t let the deceptively simple format fool you into believing you can just dash off the application without much effort required.  Each part of the Common App requires a deft hand and a certain technique.

Here are some of my best tips:

  1. Buy manilla folders and plenty of printer paper before you begin.  You’ll save the trees next year.  This year, you’ll be doing a ton of printing.  BEST TIP:  Print out every page you do, every essay you write, every confirmation you get.  Use one folder for your Common App copy, and a different folder for each college you apply to.  On the outside of each folder, list the name of the college, your user name, and your password.  (No one is going to break into your bedroom to find out your college application password.)  Each school asks for (or assigns) a different user name, and each has different rules about length of password and what it has to include.  You’ll never remember in May which one required a symbol and which one required a capital letter.  Write it down now.  Believe me.  You’ll thank me.
  2. Be honest.  If you lie about any part of the application, someone is bound to find out — and colleges talk to each other.  It’s not worth it to lie on the Common App.  If you can’t get into a certain school without stretching the truth, you probably don’t belong there.
  3. Wait until August 15 before Senior year to begin completing the Common App.  The new class’ application is online each year on August 1st, but very often there are corrections and glitches to be fixed so wait a week or two to prevent having to enter everything again. The Common App now allows students to “roll over” basic information from year to year, but your life might change and you could forget to update that piece.  Why not wait until the application is available for the year you intend to apply?
  4. Enter your name the way it is on your passport or school records.  If you’re James on your school records but you enter Jimmy, colleges won’t be able to match up your application with your transcript.  Stay consistent.
  5. After you enter your name, collect the information you need before you enter anything else.  The Common App website will time you out if you’re not careful.  While you’re texting your mother to find out what her college degree was in, you’ve been timed out of the website.  Collect this info before you begin:
    • Name of address of place where each parent works
    • What your parents’ job titles are
    • What college (if any) your parent graduated from (if he/she didn’t graduate, you can leave that blank on the Common App — it will boost your chances of getting into college if neither of your parents graduated from college)
    • When each parent graduated, what degree he or she received (AA/BA/BS/MBA and so on), and in what year
    • The name of your guidance counselor (correct spelling), his or her phone number with extension, and email address
    • Your SAT and ACT and Subject Test scores so far – and the dates you took each (if you forgot your user name or password, NOW is the time to get a new one)
  6. Next, select all of the colleges you might apply to.  Go ahead and choose way more than you think you might eventually apply to.  When you add a college name, that college gets notified of your interest, which helps if you decide you do want to apply to that school.  (See my blog post last month on demonstrated interest.)
  7.  Make a resume before you enter any activities on the Common App.  It’s a good idea to make a formal resume.  You  might need it when you get called into a college interview.  The teachers whom you’ve asked to write a recommendation for you might ask for it.  You can use it for summer jobs while you’re in college.  But most of all, writing a resume helps you to collect and organize your activities.  I usually prefer three categories in reverse chronological order (most recent to oldest — but nothing older than 9th grade).  Categories might be:  academic honors, extra-curricular activities, volunteer activities, athletics.  If you get stuck writing a resume, there are lots of samples online.  Google “student resumes” and you’ll have plenty to choose from.
  8. Have an honest conversation with your parents about financial aid.  Will they be applying for loans or financial aid?  You’ve got a better chance of getting into nearly every college if you click “no” for the “are you going to apply for financial aid” question (there are many articles that say so, like this one), but if you need help, you need help — and you won’t be alone.  Most families need some financial assistance to send their children to college.  On the one hand, if you don’t think you’ll get any aid, you might want to put “no aid” to boost your chances of getting in.  On the other hand, don’t decide you wouldn’t qualify because you live in a nice house or because your parents both work.  If you need financial aid, ask for it.
  9. Print out all of the supplementary essays of all of the schools you might apply to before you begin writing.  Of course you’ve heard of the Common App essay.  But many schools also ask for a supplementary essay or two.  They’re not throw-away statements.  They count.  Spend time on them.  But very often, you can make one essay work for several schools with a bit of tweaking, so print out all of the topics before you begin.  You’ll see which ones ask “Why do you want to go here,” “Why do you want the major you want,” “What can you add to our school,” and which are quirkier.
  10. Begin your Common App essay.  Try a few of the topics to see which is easiest to write.  It’s perfectly okay – even recommended – to start one, put it aside, come back to it in a week, then start a different one.  While the maximum number of words is 650 (about half as long as this blog post is so far), you should aim at 500 – 600.  It’s fine to write a much longer essay initially as long as you edit it down to 500 – 600 words.  I’ve helped dozens, maybe scores of kids write college essays, and I always find the more I edit them down, the better they get.  They’re less repetitive, they highlight important information, they choose words more wisely.

You should aim to complete the Common App including the essay by October 15th at the latest, whether you’ll be applying to any schools early decision, early action, or just regular decision.  An application sent in October shows the college you’re eager, organized, and serious, and it gives your guidance department time to make sure all of the parts have been submitted well before the deadline.

Good luck, and you know where to find me if you have questions!

 

Wendy Segal

http://www.wendysegaltutoring.com

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