5 Tips to Tackle the Common App

By Adela Penagos, PhD, President

It is that time of the year again, when rising high school seniors looking to apply to College are getting to the finish line: the application process.  My hope is that by this point, you have spent the past two or three years working with your high school counselor or an independent consultant getting ready for a process that can be fun if planned and prepared in advance.  As you know, this exercise allows you to give Admissions Officers the opportunity to get to know you beyond your GPA and test scores.  Thus, spending time to carefully complete the application is a key ingredient for submitting the best possible product.  Here are 5 things that will help you stand out from all the other applicants:

1.     Know the deadlines: 

You are a unique applicant–something that needs to come through in your application—and each school has unique requirements and deadlines.  Make sure that before you start working on your application you have determined, with the assistant of your counselor or independent consultant, which schools you are applying to and have researched all of their requirements and deadlines to avoid mishaps.  It helps greatly to keep an organized list, either through an on-line system or in an Excel spreadsheet. 

2.     Write meaningful essays: 

As someone who has reviewed many applications for admissions at the undergraduate and graduate levels, I cannot underscore how important it is that your voice and personal story comes through in whichever of the five prompts you select to answer in the general essay.  Thus this exercise takes time, self-reflection, and motivation, but can be very enjoyable for you as a writer, as it is an opportunity to let your reader get to know you.

A well-conceived essay helps the reader get into the writer’s world.  This principle also applies to the additional questions and writing supplements required by some universities.  Those reading your essays are very detailed oriented individuals and can tell when you simply cut and paste.  Moreover, in the writing supplement, most institutions want to know how you will contribute to their campuses.  Hence, research the institution and make a clear link between yourself and the place you are hoping to be at for the next four years.  Avoid using essays that other applicants have used before.  You might be surprised but your essay could end up in the hands of a person who read that other person’s application previously and your chances of being accepted will end right there and then, as you are submitting someone else’s work as your own.

3.     Create a résumé: 

While the Common App itself does not require you to submit a résumé–a written document listing your background and skills—some universities require that you upload it to their own page as a PDF.  Other universities might have a place for additional materials or writing samples in the writing supplement section of the Common App; thereby allowing you to upload your résumé.  The résumé is as valuable as the information it contains.  Do not repeat a list of awards, activities, and other information already included elsewhere in the Common App.  Use this opportunity highlight the skills and abilities you have developed through your academics, a specific activity, job, or leadership position you have held.  Additionally, résumés are the most valuable documents to give to your recommenders when asking them to write a letter on your behalf, as that will allow them to have a clear picture of all of your accomplishments.  Remember that your résumé should be very well organized and kept to one page.  It will also come in handy if you were to apply for a job or a research position during your first semester in College.

4.     Choose your recommenders wisely: 

Your letters of recommendation are the other documents that will set you apart.  The most important piece when deciding whom to ask for a letter is to select a teacher who knows you best, regardless of his or her title at your school.  Ideally, you should pick someone who is able to provide the best picture of yourself as a student, a leader, and a member of your school’s community.  Please note that some universities require letters from a teacher in a particular subject area.  Hopefully, by the time you ask your teachers to write a recommendation on your behalf you have invested time and effort into building a relationship with them.  If the relationship is not solid and your teacher does not know you well, it will come across in the letter.

5.     Review, review, and review before submission:

An application with typos reflects very poorly on any candidate.  It tends to indicate that you did not take the necessary time and care in completing the various sections before submission.  Therefore, do not submit your application until you, your high school counselor, and/or an independent consultant have read it several times to avoid mistakes.  This cannot be accomplished the day before any deadline.  Hence, plan ahead.  This will reduce the stress and make a process that can be daunting, very manageable.

Please note that there are over 4, 000 universities and colleges in the United States.  As I mentioned before, just as you are unique, each institution is unique as well.  Only over 500 universities and colleges in the United States accept the Common App.  Some universities accept the Universal ApplicationHarvard, for example, accepts both.  Other universities, such as MIT, have their own systems and will instruct you on their sites what they want you to submit.  Please follow their specific instructions. To understand the peculiarities of each institution, you must be willing to devote time to the entire process, but writing the essays and showing all the things you have done and accomplished to date can be fun.  Enjoy!