High School 2 College

August 1, 2017

Before You Click Submit: Everything You Need to Know About the Common App

Every year on August 1st, the Common App opens for business.  The new essay topics are posted and all the site improvements are completed.  The Common App stands ready for your application.

What is the Common App?

Back in the old days, when you wanted to apply to ten schools, you had to complete — by hand or by typewriter! — ten different applications with ten different essays.  On some of the applications, they asked for your name above the line.  Some asked for your name below the line.  Some wanted your name written last name first.  Others wanted first name first.  Others asked for your social security number first.  Each application was a major project.

The Common App was designed to streamline that part of the college application process.  The student has to fill out only one application, and with one click he or she can submit an application to any of a few thousand colleges.  Of course, students soon began submitting dozens and dozens of applications because they could.  It became a game, and colleges had no idea which students were sincerely interested in attending their school. Many colleges, then, began requiring supplements (see below).  Now the Common App isn’t as “one-click” easy as it used to be, but more and more colleges prefer the Common App to their own application, and many have even dropped their own application and only accept the Common App.

What is the best way to complete the Common App without going crazy?

It’s a long, long application.  Every year, it gets fine-tuned and a little easier to manage, but it’s still overwhelming to many students.  You’ll have a much easier time of it if you gather this information and have it all in front of you before you even begin:

  • your social security number
  • your parents’ email addresses and cell phone numbers
  • where your parents work
  • what your parents’ job title and profession are (I’m always surprised how many kids don’t know)
  • where your parents went to college (all schools if more than one), what degree(s) they got, what year they got those degrees
  • your guidance counselor’s name, phone number, fax number and email address (Look on your school’s website under the guidance department. Look for something called “school profile.”  That should have everything you need.  Print it out if you can.)
  • when your graduation date will be
  • your SAT/ACT scores and when you took each test (exact date — look online at act.org or collegeboard.org if you don’t remember)
  • your resume

Why do I need a resume before I start the Common App and how do I create one?

A resume lists your activities in an organized, polished way.  There are dozens of ways to format a resume (try Googling “high school resume images” and you’ll see many excellent examples), but they all list your activities in reverse chronological order — from most recent to oldest, back to 9th grade.  Don’t include anything older than 9th grade unless you still are doing that activity.  For example, if you started Taekwondo or dance when you were 11 and still do it, fine, but don’t list soccer if you stopped in 8th grade. Break your activities into 3 categories if you can:  academic achievements, community service, athletics, and/or paid employment are groupings many students use.  Once you’ve got all of your achievements and activities listed with locations and dates on your resume, you’ll fly through the hardest part of the Common App:  the “interests” page.  You’ll also have a professional-looking document to bring with you when you go on college admissions interviews (or summer job or internship interviews once you start college).  You can also give your resume to teachers who promised to write recommendations for you as a way of reminding them of your interests and activities so they can include some in your recommendation.

Any advice about the Common App essay?

Many students begin filling in the Common App before they’ve written the essay.  Why?  I have no idea.  I think they just can’t face the essay and so start the Common App before the essay is done just to feel productive.  They’re not fooling anyone, especially me. Students, finish your essay.  Make sure you’ve shown it to your parents, your tutor, me, or anyone else you think can help you polish it.  It doesn’t have to sound like a 45-year-old dad wrote it — in fact, it shouldn’t — but it should make sense, be engaging, and be spelling- and grammar-error free.  The Common App has brought back the “topic of your choice” topic so there really aren’t any excuses.

When they say the maximum is 650 words, they mean it.  If you write an essay of 651 words, the last word won’t be sent to the colleges.  And you’ll look like a student who either can’t follow the rules or doesn’t care about the rules.  So you’re aiming for an essay that’s between 500 and 600 words, which is about one page to a page-and-a-half typed in size 12 font.  That’s shorter than you might think.

Don’t repeat what’s on your resume or transcript.  The colleges already know that stuff. Write about what makes you different from the kid who sits next to you in math class or the kid on your team.  Think about it this way:  if you dropped your essay in the hallway of your school without your name on it and the principal read it over the loudspeaker, would everyone know it’s yours because the essay is so “you”?  That’s one way good way to come up with a topic.

The other way to think about an essay topic is if that same scenario occurred and the principal read it over the loudspeaker, no one would think it was yours because it reveals something about yourself that’s not obvious.  Maybe you secretly love to iron, or maybe you adore your middle name.  Whatever it is, if you can’t wait to write about it, you’ve found the right topic.

Is there anything else I should do before I start the Common App?

Yes!  Glad you asked.  Many colleges require a supplement to the Common App in which you tell the college what your intended major is and whether any of your relatives attended that school.  Unfortunately, many of those supplements include an essay.  They’re usually shorter than the Common App essay, but there can be more than one supplement essay per school!

Don’t leave the supplement essays till the end.  Colleges care about those essays as much as they care about the Common App essay — or more so.  Go on each school’s website or on the Common App website and print out the essay topic for each supplement essay you have to write.  With just a little adjusting of each essay, you may find that one essay will suffice for more than one school.  For example, more than one school may ask why you want to go to that school or why you’ve chosen that major or what your favorite activity is.  Or you may decide that a particular school’s supplement essay is so odd that you’d rather drop that school from your list in favor of a similar school with an easier supplement.  It’s better to make that decision before you pay the application fee!

Any last words of advice before I begin to apply to college?

Based on more than 30 years of helping students apply to colleges, I have this advice. Not everyone follows it. Some who don’t forever regret not listening to me.  Here it is:

Don’t apply to your favorite school first!  

Have you ever sent an email and THEN realized you spelled something wrong or sent it to the wrong person?  Well, the same happens all the time with college applications.  I can’t tell you how often students find mistakes in their applications or realize they should have written something differently AFTER they hit “submit.”  So wise students send applications to their safest safety school first (they’ll take you even if you mess up), then a middle-difficulty school, and only then to their dream school.  Another benefit of following this method is that your safety school is likely to send an acceptance sooner, and once you get even one “yes,” the rest of your senior year should be a breeze.

Feel free to check out my website for more information and advice:  www.wendysegaltutoring.com .

Good luck!

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