It’s about that time again—you know, the one when you start to think seriously about submitting your first college applications. And if you’re not thinking seriously about it yet, I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news, buuuuuut…you really should be. You might be clinging to the last days of sandal weather, but Early Decision and Early Action deadlines are only a few weeks away. Then it’s just a short (and crazy busy) stretch until regular decision applications come due. And you know what? In the decade that I’ve been managing test prep and application processes for families targeting the most selective colleges, I’ve yet to see the pressure of waiting until the last minute improve anyone’s ability to turn in their best work. (Amazing, right?)
So if you’re already hard at work on your Common App, good for you! Give yourself a big pat on the back. And if not, don’t panic—just gear up and get going.
To help you out wherever you are in the process of writing your applications, I’m rounding up all the expertise, strategy, and coaching I’ve dished out on this blog into a complete and updated Common App Resource Library. No matter what section or challenge you’re facing right now, I’m here for you! Use this guide to find what you need for where you are right now, or let me walk you through it step by step.
1) Familiarize yourself with the Common App.
Before you start the journey, you should familiarize yourself with the terrain. That way you’ll know how the parts of the application fit together, where you can expect to spend your time and effort, and where you want to put particular pieces of information. To get started making your plan of attack, check out my thorough overview of the Common App. This should help demystify each section and steer you clear of the most common mistakes! It should also fight freakouts—only a few sections need serious thought on your end, and I’ll tell you where to focus your effort. Don't need all that detail? Go for this quick overview of the Common App instead. It'll give you a sense of where you are in the overall process and get you in the right mindset.
2) Learn how to make the most of every Common App section.
Your Activities List is more than a résumé: it’s a chance to show your dream school who you are. My six steps to a winning Activities List will help you maximize the opportunity it offers. And sometimes people tend to leave the Why This School essay until last or try to write something universal, but it’s a section that absolutely cannot be shortchanged. Here’s how to write the Why This School essay that gets you in.
3) Your essay is the star of the Common App show.
Your main 650-word essay is the centerpiece of your application…the part where you let who you are shine through. Think of it like the part of a conversation that goes beyond making a good impression and into seeing whether there’s a real connection. So how do you show that dream school you’re relationship material? To start with, check out my post on how to pick a college essay topic. This will clue you in to the post important elements that need to come through in every part of your application, but especially in your main essay. Pretty much any topic you want to write about can be linked to the Common App questions, but don’t forget to check out the Common App essay prompts before you get started. (That link goes to last year’s, but only to save you a step—it’s a two-year cycle, so this year’s Common App essay prompts are exactly the same.)
4) Power through writer’s block.
Writer’s block happens especially when you’re asked to encapsulate your entire personality, plus all your values, goals, and experiences into a single 650-word essay with very high stakes. If you're feeling like you can't move forward, I wrote about how to beat college essay writer's block. That piece gives you lots of questions you can ask yourself to bust out of paralysis and get going on that essay—and not just THAT essay, but ANY of the sections of the Common App (or the college-specific supplements!) that ask you to write. You won’t be stuck for long!
5) Avoid some obvious (and not-so-obvious) pitfalls!
Make sure that while you’re piecing together your application, you don’t fall into any traps that not only make you look cliché, but cast doubt onto your authenticity as a person (and onto your accomplishments)! Definitely read up on these college-application mistakes to avoid as you're trying to tell colleges who you are and why they want you.
Let me leave you with this final thought: writing the Common Application doesn’t have to be hell.
Just start as soon as possible, get organized, and stay true to yourself. My next post is about how to put the finishing touches on your completed Common App so that you can feel truly confident when you hit “submit,” so visualize yourself calmly checking your application before sending it off with plenty of time to spare. Feels good, right? I thought so. Now go take these resources and get at that application!
I’m here for personal help if you want an expert in your corner. I also want this guide to be as useful as it can possibly be for you, so if you’ve got any lingering questions about the Common App, let me know. Until then, happy writing!