More than 900 colleges and universities accept the Common Application, including at least one in every state and some outside the U.S. So, you’ll probably have at least one school on your list that asks you to fill out the Common App. At first glance, it can seem overwhelming. There are many sections to fill out, and individual schools often request supplemental materials, too. It’s a good idea to start early – yes even in May or June because you’ll probably have more time to work on it once school wraps up for the spring. Keep reading to learn what to expect, how to stay organized, and where to begin.
What’s on the Common App?
- Profile – your personal information like name, date of birth, contact info
- Family – your parents’ contact information, educational history, and listing any siblings
- Education – where you’ve gone to school, your grades, most recent courses
- Testing – standardized test scores you want to report. Note that many schools have gone test-optional since the start of the pandemic (see our list here).
- Activities – brief (150-character) descriptions of your extracurricular activities
- Personal Essay – up to 650 words to give colleges a better sense of who you are. Prompts are provided, including topic of your choice.
- Additional Information – an optional section usually used to explain something significant that isn’t addressed in other parts of your application, such as non-traditional grading systems, a sudden drop in grades, or any responsibilities, physical, or mental health conditions that may have impacted you.
- “Covid Essay” – an optional short essay where students who were significantly impacted by the pandemic can share extraordinary challenges they faced. Most students likely should not fill out this section.
- School-specific supplemental questions – these questions might be as simple as checking off residency information, or they could be as complex as extra essays. Common supplemental essay questions ask you to elaborate on an extracurricular activity, a community you’re a part of, or why you want to attend a specific school.
- Disciplinary Information – beginning in the 2021-2022 school year, the Common App will not require students to disclose whether they’ve been subject to disciplinary action at their schools (read the announcement here). Colleges can choose to ask about disciplinary action in their supplemental questions, but it’s too early to tell whether that will be a common practice.
Where Should I Start?
First thing’s first – create an account! Go to commonapp.org and click “Start your application” to set up your login information. Be sure to use the email address where you want to receive correspondence from colleges, including updates on missing materials and admissions decisions. Some students create a new email address just for this purpose.
Start with the easy sections, like your personal information, education history, etc. This might not seem as crucial as writing your personal essay, but you can’t submit applications without it. The last thing you want is to forget about these sections until you have to rush to fill them in for your first deadline. Knock out the tedious sections while you’re watching TV, and thank yourself later.
It’s also important to keep careful track of deadlines and extra materials required by each school. Set up a spreadsheet or calendar to plan out when you will complete each application, including steps like requesting test scores and transcripts and completing supplemental essays. It’s a good idea to get the main essay finished early so you can move onto supplements and complete them as individual deadlines come up. Even better, set up a summer schedule for tackling applications so that you have everything finished by the time your first deadline rolls around!
The Activities Section
Once you’ve set up your Common App account and gotten organized, a great first project is the Activities section. This is where you’ll list your extracurricular activities. Some activities will come to mind right away, like music, theater, athletics, or academic competitions. Others might not be so obvious, but can reveal a lot about you, like taking on a recurring role in your family such as babysitting a sibling or serving as a translator. You’ll notice that the Common App provides a dropdown menu for each activity type. You can use that to help jog your memory about what you’re involved in. It’s also worth having a family member look over your list to make sure you haven’t missed anything.
Once you’ve brainstormed your list, you can start on the Common App Activities section – even if you’re still unsure of what you’ll be doing in your senior year. Fill out what you can to get a head start, and make a note to come back to it later. You’ll be asked to list your title or position (50 characters) and to describe each activity in 150 characters. To make the most of your Activities section, consider these quick tips:
- List your activities in order of their importance to you.
- Don’t describe the activity or organization; describe your role within it.
- Highlight leadership, commitment, and accomplishment.
- You don’t need to use complete sentences.
Once you’ve completed your Activities section, you’ll be ready to think about your essays. Stay tuned to the blog this summer because we’ll be walking beside you through the application process with advice on personal essays and supplements.
Tailored advice on the application process, including personalized attention to your Common Application, is available through our services at Expert Admissions.