The Common Application (also called the “Common App”) offers a platform to apply for colleges but it also seems to stir up a plethora of confusion. You can use this online application to apply to member colleges and universities in all fifty states and the District of Columbia, as well as colleges outside of the country.

It sounds so easy to build an online profile to apply to over 975 participating colleges, doesn’t it?  In reality, your profile must represent perfection in numerous areas. Once you submit the application to a college, you cannot resubmit it. In other words, you do not want to make a mistake or inadvertently leave something out on the Common App.   

Read these tips to ensure you have a polished Common App.

Tip 1: Open your account early.

You can sign up for your free Common App account at any time during high school. It is important to get comfortable with the platform well ahead of your application deadlines. In some cases, you will apply to every single college on your list through the Common App! 

One of the Best Common App Tips is to Create Your Profile Early

You can begin to explore the participating colleges using the “College Search” tab, which gives you a quick snapshot of things to know, such as application deadlines, test-optional policies, and required letters of recommendation. 

Juniors, why not start completing certain sections of the Common App in the spring to alleviate stress in the fall? The Common App generally closes access for all users the last week of July for maintenance and updating college supplemental essays. When it reopens on August 1, all of your information will remain in your account. (You can always take screenshot images or save it in a PDF form to alleviate any nervousness about losing information.)

Tip 2: Pay attention to deadlines. 

Use the Common App Dashboard tab to understand and track all deadlines. Once you add a college to your “My College” tab, it shows up in the Dashboard tab as well. You can set your application deadlines ahead of time to help you prioritize your tasks.

You can have twenty colleges saved in your Common App profile at one time.

Deadlines are not suggestions — you must have your full application completed by that date. Do not wait until the day before the deadline to start your application! Once you complete your application at each college and university, you will typically receive an identification number and an online portal account at each institution to track the status of your application throughout the process. 

The Common App Dashboard Can Help You Manage Application Deadlines

As you get other portions submitted, such as your transcript and recommendation letters, they get added to your existing file.

Tip 3: Have a parent help you.

… when you get to the family section, that is. You need to fill out a lot of parent information in this section, such as your parents’ majors and years of graduation. You must enter the precise college information for your parents, especially if you apply to a college as a legacy student. (This means that one of your family members attended a particular college.) Admissions officials will also want to know if an older sibling graduated from a college to which you apply. 

Tip 3: Get a copy of your high school transcript.

Some colleges prefer and allow self-reporting. Self-reporting means that you can input your grades yourself on the Common App, without having to send in an official copy of your transcript. You will need to list all the classes you’ve taken so far in high school and the final grade for each.

You can list your senior year classes, too. When you submit a Regular Decision app, you will report some grades. Early Action applications, on the other hand, do not contain senior year grades. Colleges make admissions decisions from this information, so make sure you self-report your exact grades. (By the way, don’t even think about fudging your grades, not even a smidge. Colleges will ask for your final official transcript and can rescind your acceptance if they realize you’ve provided faulty information.)

Tip 4: Add to the “Additional Information” section.

The writing section of your Common App Profile also includes additional prompts for disciplinary history and additional information.

The additional information section allows you to include 650 words (the same maximum word count as your Common App main essay) to “explain but not complain,” as I tell clients. For example, maybe you changed high schools, and the transition impacted your GPA. Maybe you experienced trouble with virtual learning, experienced home life issues, suffered an extended illness, etc. 

You can also add anything unique about you not reflected in other areas of your application. Did you travel a lot and that limited your in-school activities? Admissions officials want to learn new information, not read the same information over and over, so offer unique additional information to this section. Think of it as offering a new angle or dimension about you or highlighting a key achievement in your overall application. 

Tip 5: Beef up your activities.

Colleges want to know you as a person — beyond your GPA and standardized test scores (if you elect to submit your test scores). They want to know as much as possible about your activities in high school.

The activities section allows you to input 150 characters (including spaces and punctuation) about your key successes. You can list up to ten activities in chronological order. Only listing one or two activities or using 60-character descriptions may hurt your overall application. However, most students have trouble fitting it all into the 150-character limit, which isn’t a lot of space at all.

You can also add leadership examples in the activities section. For example, if you served as the president of a club at your college, you can note that in the position/leadership section.   

I enjoy helping students hit the 150-character limit because it’s like a fun word puzzle. Most students tend to veer toward modesty but I always encourage them to highlight their accomplishments.  

Tip 6: Add to the University Member page.

The University Member page, a specific page added to the Common App for each university to which you apply, includes: 

  • Questions that each institution wants to know about you, such as your potential major(s). 
  • Supplemental writing questions, if the institution requires them. Just like the Additional Information section, these questions will give admissions officers the opportunity to get to know you better.

Tip 7: Look for additional essays.

You may need to write supplemental essays for each college or university application. You might think this sounds easy, but depending on how many schools to which you apply, that could mean you have to write ten, fifteen, or twenty additional essays. Colleges require specific prompts and you cannot repurpose these. Check out the University of Michigan’s supplemental essays to understand the type of questions you may get asked. 

You Have to Ace the Supplemental Essays at the University of Michigan

The majority of supplemental essays change each year and do not release until August 1. Avoid writing your essays prior to August 1 of the year you apply for college! You want to wait until after that date so you have the most recent essay topics for that application cycle.

Tip 8: Add in academic awards.

Did you know that you can list up to five academic award achievements on your Common Application? You want to bolster this section, so go beyond “I’m on the honor roll” if you can! This can help you really distinguish yourself from other applicants in this section. The honors section lets you fill up a 100-character count limit (spaces and punctuation count). It offers you the opportunity to explain the significance or background details of the academic award.

Tip 9: Use the “preview” button.

Think of the “preview” button as your new best friend. Check for the preview button in the upper right-hand corner as you complete information in your profile. The preview button offers you a clear view of all the information you enter. Double and triple-check everything until you feel that each section looks perfect. 

The Preview Button is Essential

If you want to go an extra step, look for the “print” button in the bottom right corner. You might want to use this button if you feel more comfortable editing from a sheet of paper. 

Tip 10: Look for the green checkmarks.

If you feel nervous before you submit the Common App (especially with my warning that you can’t undo items on the Common App!), do not stress. You will know when you complete all aspects of a specific college’s application because green check marks appear next to each section of the Common App. 

Right before you enter any credit card information to pay for an application, you will have the option to preview your entire application. You can view your complete application the way admissions officials will receive it. 

Review all the instructions and submit all pages. After you do so, you cannot edit any sections of the application. However, if you realize you made an error, you can contact each admissions office individually and staff members may make edits for you.

Tip 11: Check each individual college portal.

Think you’re done once you see the Common App confetti fly on the final screen? 

Common App Confetti After You Hit the Submit Button

Not so fast. 

You should receive an email from the colleges to which you applied with application portal instructions. It is your responsibility to check the college portal to ensure that colleges receive every required application item (letters of recommendation, transcript, SAT or ACT scores) in order to make an admissions decision.  

Contact Campus to Career Crossroads for Help

Does this feels like a lot of work to you? Well, it is.

We constantly face change in the world of college admissions, and that’s why college planning experts like Campus to Career Crossroads exist. For example, a Covid essay prompt was added in the Common App for the 2020-2021 application cycle. This provided another opportunity for applicants to message their unique abilities and demonstrated how they preserved during a pandemic. I stay on top of all changes and details so you end up with a perfect, polished Common App profile each year.

Interested in learning more Common App additional information and tips? Contact Campus to Career Crossroads. I am always happy to discuss these and other details about how to plan for college and can help you launch your successful journey.

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