The Common App: What You Need to Know

The Common App (short for “Common Application”) is an online portal where you can apply to a bunch of colleges at once, which helps ensure that you won't duplicate your hard work or waste your precious college-process time on busywork. Currently, there are 620 colleges that accept the Common App, so it’s quite possible that this might be the only application you end up doing!

That said, the streamlined process the Common App provides DOES make it easier for more students to apply to more schools…which means your competition will be fiercer than ever! Your insurance policy against that? Make sure you create an impeccable application that showcases who you are, what you bring to the table, your passion, initiative, and transformations!

I teach workshops on how to do exactly that, and when I do, I start by familiarizing my students with just what the Common App is going to ask them to do. So let’s just break up the process, shall we? As you’re about to see, most of this Common App stuff is fairly straightforward. There are only a few sections that require creativity and deep thought on your part.


Section 1) Profile

What this section contains:

·       Contacts: Email address, phone number, mailing address

·       Demographics: Religion, military service, race/ethnicity (all optional)

·       Geography: Birthplace, countries lived in, language proficiency, citizenship

Thoughts: Not much to think about, right? Straightforward. Fill in the information the app is asking for. Nothing more, nothing less.


Section 2) Family

What this section contains:

·       Household: Parents' marital status, parent(s) with whom you reside

·       Parent and/or Guardian: Name, birthplace, occupation, education, stepparent information

·       Siblings: Age, grade, education

Thoughts: If you have a dozen siblings and they don’t all fit, you can always put them in the “Additional Information” section at the end. Also, don’t exaggerate your parents’ occupations by making them seem more high-powered than they are: it doesn’t help you. After all, if it appears like you are incredibly privileged, more may be expected of you! (Don't try to make them seem less high-powered than they are either! The people who read these things have seen it all before.)


Section 3) Education

What this section contains:

·       School: Current school, dates attended; counselor name, phone, and email

·       History: Previous schools, dates attended, past/pending education interruptions (e.g. time off, early graduation, gap year, etc.), college courses, college assistance programs

·       Academic Information: GPA, class rank, current year courses, honors and awards

Thoughts: Some schools do not provide a class rank or GPA, or may have scheduling systems (like trimesters) that don’t fit into the drop-down menus. Unless you'll be taking one of my workshops (in which case, we'll discuss it more specifically), you should discuss with your school counselor how to input this information. If explanations are required (because your school does things very differently), you can always use the “Additional Information” section at the end AND make sure your college counselor’s reference letter mentions it.



Section 4) Testing

What this section contains:

·       College Entrance: ACT and SAT 

·       English For Non-Native Speakers: TOEFL, IELTS, PTE Academic

·       Academic Subjects: AP, IB, SAT Subject Tests, A-Levels

·       Other: Optional reporting for other relevant 9-12 testing

Thoughts: This is straightforward. You're being asked for test scores and dates. Just fill it out! And don’t even think of fudging anything. 


Section 5) Activities

What this section contains:

·       Principal Activities/Work (10 activities maximum)

·       50 characters to convey: Years of participation, hours per week, weeks per year, position/leadership held

·       150 characters to write a brief description.

Thoughts: This section actually requires a little thought and creativity, so here are a few tips! Order your activities from most important/recent/relevant to your main passion down to the least important/relevant/recent. Get as much information in the 50 character title of the activity as you can. Use the brief description to focus on action verbs and the impact of what you do. It’s okay to not use complete sentences here and just list your action items/tasks.


Section 6) Writing

What this section contains:

·       Personal Essay: Select one of seven available prompts, 650 words maximum

·       Disciplinary History: Explanations regarding school discipline and misdemeanor or felony convictions

·       Additional Information: Relevant circumstances or qualifications not reflected elsewhere in the application

Thoughts: This is where you’re going to spend the most of your time writing the dreaded “Common App Essay” (formerly known as a “Personal Statement”)!  Do not skimp on time for this one. Start early and try to have a draft done before school starts. The Additional Information is completely optional! If you find that you really do have information that didn’t fit into the other sections, or you need to explain a special circumstance, this is your place. Keep it short, FACTUAL, and concise. No stories or excuses, just facts and explanations.


Section 7) College-Specific Questions

What this section contains:

·       General: Entry term, degree status, housing preference, test-optional preference, scholarship and financial aid preference

·       Academics: Academic interest, program(s) applying to

·       Some colleges may also ask additional questions about your family, state of residence, activities, and general interests.

Thoughts: Don’t put “Undecided” as your academic interest or future major! Put something that correlates to your main passion that you’re marketing yourself as in your application. It’s not binding, and you can always change it later. Also, when they ask what degree you hope to attain, pick something higher than a BA. It shows you have high aspirations, and besides, how can you possibly know now what level of education you will eventually get?

Section 8) College Writing Supplements

What this Section Contains:

·       Writing Supplement: Additional short answer or essay responses if requested by the institution

Thoughts: PLEASE look at these FIRST! Even if only to anticipate how many days/hours you need to set aside for writing. Some colleges ask supplemental essay questions that are longer and more involved than your Common App Essay! Others ask up to 10 different short or medium essays as writing supplements. In my experience helping students manage their college applications, the supplements tend to take the longest amount of time. Get organized, make a list of all the different essays you need to write, and complete them, little by little.


And that's it. The Common App, explained.

So, as you can see, the Common App isn’t as scary as you may have been fearing it would be. With a little planning and organization, you can get it done in a way that reflects the true you, your passion and accomplishments. And if you need help, remember that my workshops are a resource that can get you from the starting gate to the finish line on a Common App essay in one weekend, and put you ahead on every other part of the application as well. Get in touch if you'd like to discuss joining one.