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8 Tips to Ace Your Application on Common App

The Common Application is by far the most common application system that high school seniors use to apply to colleges and universities in the United States. More than one million high school seniors apply to over 1,000 schools that use the Common App every single year. This is why it’s important to understand the intricate ins and outs of the Common App application process. The interface is simple and easy to navigate, but there are several ways of presenting yourself in the best light throughout the entire application and this is important because you want to stand out and make a lasting, positive impression in the eyes of the admissions officers. 

1. Leverage the features of the Common App interface

It’s no secret that a key part of a successful admissions process is building a list of schools to apply to with strategic goals in mind. Creating an account on the Common App early on and browsing schools to apply to on the platform can be helpful during this process in a number of ways. For instance, the Common App can be a good way to compile and compare school requirements: a centralized way to view application fees, essay requirements, word counts, and various deadlines from early decision to regular decision (and everything in between) is critical when you’re planning the workload of different applications, which can sometimes be rigorous! Even prior to the school selection process itself, just browsing through the list of schools can be a useful indicator. For instance, if you’re intending to apply to schools which don’t go through the Common App, that’s important to know well in advance of the deadline. 

Note in particular that The Common Application only allows applications to up to 20 schools. Although it’s not advisable to apply to more than 20 schools in general, this is also useful information to keep in mind should you be browsing many schools in-depth simultaneously. 

2. Take stock of the application requirements early on

By using the Common App, you can efficiently note the materials and requirements for each school in one place. Some supplemental materials can be very straightforward, such as a “Why this school?” essay or expanding on an extracurricular activity. Others can be a little more complex or time-consuming — for example, Princeton requires a graded paper with comments from your instructor, and Yale has a litany of short-response essays that probe into specific facets of who you are as a person. Review individual schools’ essay requirements early on, as their length can vary substantially, as can their required subject matter.

Look out for changes as well — though some schools will keep (some of) the same essay questions, it is very common for supplemental prompts to vary from year to year. Updated prompts are typically released in late-Summer, so keep an eye out for what you’ll be writing — you don’t want to carefully write an essay that you can’t submit!

Don’t delay in securing all of the external materials that are required on your Common App, such as graded papers or letters of recommendation. There are few things more unpleasant than having to follow up with admissions officers after the submission deadline to supplement your application — or worse, to have to toss it out entirely because of one missing component. 

Pro tip: Though the Common App is helpful for viewing and comparing application materials, having an external document to track your progress is a great strategy. Some great resources for this can be found through AI software — one option using OpenAI can generate a spreadsheet that automatically pulls data for each school, saving time from copying over material from the Common App!

3. Carefully consider admission rounds 

As you decide on the list of schools you’ll apply to, oftentimes a “Dream School” will stand out. If that’s the case for you, look into options for Early Decision (ED), Early Action (EA), and Restrictive/Single-Choice Early Action (REA). These application rounds often have a higher acceptance rate than the Regular Decision (RD) pool, giving you an advantage at your top choice schools. You’ll also receive an admissions decision sooner, typically submitting at the beginning of November and receiving a decision in December.

Applying ED means that you’re committed to attend if accepted — you’ll sign a binding agreement that you’ll withdraw applications from all other schools and immediately accept your offer. Under ED policies, you may apply EA to other schools, but you can only submit one ED application. 

If you’d like an admission decision sooner but aren’t willing to commit just yet, you can consider applying EA, a non-restrictive early round. Oftentimes the acceptance rate is higher than RD, but the advantage is typically lower than for ED applications. 

The final early-round option is Restrictive Early Action. Applying REA is not a binding agreement to attend, but there are some limitations. You won’t be allowed to apply ED to another college, and can only submit EA applications to state schools or private institutions with earlier deadlines for scholarship applications. REA is by far the least common of the three, and it is used only by Princeton, Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Georgetown, and Notre Dame. (Note: Georgetown does not accept the Common Application).

Another detail to keep in mind is differences in schools’ due dates. Although the vast majority of colleges have similar deadlines — most early-round deadlines are in early November, while most regular-round deadlines are in early January. However, there is a degree of variation within this general range, so check carefully that you don’t accidentally miss a deadline or rush to finish an application when you have extra time to complete it. 

4. Manage your time wisely

It can be tempting to take a break after submitting your (R)EA or ED applications, but be careful not to delay your work for too long! If you need some rest from weeks of frantic writing, you can take a step back, but ideally keep chipping away at your remaining applications consistently. 

Consistent work is particularly important for highly-competitive schools, which typically have extensive supplemental essays that require massive amounts of planning. For example, Cornell requires up to 1,200 words within three supplemental essays, asking about specific facets Cornell that appeal to you — this means you’ll need to carefully research the school before you start writing. On the other hand, CalTech requires up to 1,550 words across 7 essays, often demanding technical discussion of your achievements and passions in STEM. 

For schools with lengthy supplements (and where any shortcoming in your application can take you out of the running), crafting a strong draft should be completed over several days at minimum, and should undergo multiple rounds of revision.  

5. Be strategic in reporting your test scores

The Common Application gives you a lot of liberty to report test scores from the SAT, ACT, or AP examinations in as much or as little detail as you see fit. You can leverage this feature in order to report test scores as strategically as possible. For instance, if you’re applying to a school that has a test-optional policy and you’d rather the school not see your standardized test scores, it’s very easy to not report them. Moreover, you can report a longer history of standardized testing if you so choose — the Common App can handle multiple dates of standardized tests, and it even superscores your test scores internally such that admissions officers will see the combination of your highest section scores in addition to your scoring history. 

It should be mentioned: one important feature of the Common Application is that even the features specific to particular colleges can be customized to reflect the different requirements of different schools. Although it’s more tedious, you can handle different scores to different applications by simply making sure that your application reads correctly prior to submission. For example, applicants could omit test scores in their application to the University of Chicago and re-add them prior to submitting their application to Princeton University, or similar.  

6. Let your best self shine in the Common App essay

There is a lot of ink to be spilled about the Common App essay, and since that isn’t the main focus of this piece, I’ll keep it brief. One factor well worth your consideration is this: the Common App comes out with prompts every year to guide your essay-writing process. However, there’s only a limited degree to which these prompts should shape the essay a priori. What I mean is that, if you take a look at the recent prompts over the last few years, you can notice a few things. First of all, the prompts change infrequently. Second, many of them — to some degree — involve a similar principle: describing a moment of change, transformation, or evolution in your life or thought process. Third, the last prompt is always a free prompt. 

I more or less want your takeaway to be this: how your essay conforms to the given prompts is not critical. The important thing about the Common App essay is how it demonstrates your dynamism — both as a human being and as a student. If you can demonstrate, through your essay, the depth of your intellectual curiosity, your empathy, and your voice, the essay is a success. 

7. Carefully craft your activities list

It’s an underappreciated point that the activities list, if done right, can be one of the most important parts of your entire college application. Let’s walk through the components to make sure you’re doing them right. 

First of all, note that you can select up to ten activities to include. If you have more than ten possibilities on the table, consider carefully the question of which activities might be more appealing to colleges. This could involve considerations of the intended major for which you’re applying, your accomplishments or officer positions, or your time commitment. (Notice that, here and elsewhere, you can tailor your activities list by school if you would find it helpful to differentiate your activities by application.)

Then, put a lot of thought into how you want to characterize these activities. You have a shocking amount of detail to work with — you get to tell admissions officers about what you did, the level of your time commitment, and a brief description. Take these 150 characters seriously. Try to hit the limit, or come close to it, if you can. Some questions to ask yourself include the following: Did you impact other people in any way throughout the process? Are there quantitative metrics that you can share with the admissions committee to measure your impact? Did you achieve particularly remarkable things in the course of carrying out this activity? 

Finally, as you’re completing your activities list, think outside the box a little regarding what constitutes an activity. You should of course include your extracurricular involvements over the course of the school year. However, you should also consider adding your summer activities (particularly if they include organized camps or otherwise). Consider even adding preparation for/participation in a competition. 

8. Take advantage of the “Additional Information” field 

It should be emphasized that the “additional information” essay shouldn’t be treated as just another place to list academic accomplishments or activities; you should only use it when absolutely necessary. This decision is more discretionary based on your life experiences. However, it can be utilized for explaining relevant life circumstances if they have significantly impacted your application profile. If you had to work a job in high school or otherwise contribute to your family, faced some significant adversity that led to poor academic performance, this can be worth discussing. If this information could paint a more holistic picture that contextualizes your academic profile within your life experiences, this can be beneficial for Admissions Officers to know as they review your application. 

9. Consider colleges’ supplements in tandem with each other 

Using The Common Application can be a good way to easily flip back and forth between different colleges’ application processes, and their supplemental essays in particular. When you’re applying to schools, there are so many essays to write that it’s important to save as much labor as possible — if two colleges call for supplemental essays that are rather similar and have similar word counts, don’t hesitate to slightly modify existing essays to make the overall application process easier. It’s rare that there will be a perfect overlap, but this process can oftentimes consist of taking similar ideas, phrase structures, and particularly good sentences and adapting them to different schools’ supplemental essays where possible. 

This suggestion does not apply in all cases. Do not copy-paste or similarly adapt “why [school]?” essays from others. Although the temptation can often be strong, it is critical to highlight the unique features of each school in your applications that would support you and to which you can contribute as an individual. 

10. Read through your application in its entirety before submitting

It might seem like a no-brainer, but being detailed and precise about your college applications becomes a lot more difficult when there’s a fair number of schools on your docket and deadlines are fast approaching. Thankfully, the Common App makes this process very easy for you. Before you submit, you can export your entire application as a PDF, where it’s much easier to scroll through and view the application as a whole. 

Sometimes, doing this can be helpful in your applications even earlier prior to submission to confirm that you’re truly giving application committees a holistic sense of you as an individual and as a student. If you find in your read-through that things have veered off from this path — if you find that you’re skewing too much on a particular extracurricular activity or not grounding your intended major as much as you’d hoped, for example — then it’s easier to course-correct earlier on in the process. 

Applying to college can be a daunting process with a lot of stress and anxiety involved. By using The Common Application and taking advantage of the ins and outs of the platform’s features, you can minimize your stress and focus on getting into the school of your dreams. 

One other option – Lumiere Research Scholar Program

If you are interested in doing university-level research, then you could also consider applying to the Lumiere Research Scholar Program, a selective online high school program for students that I founded with researchers at Harvard and Oxford. Last year, we had over 4000 students apply for 500 spots in the program! You can find the application form here.

Also check out the Lumiere Research Inclusion Foundation, a non-profit research program for talented, low-income students.

Stephen is one of the founders of Lumiere and a Harvard College graduate. He founded Lumiere as a Ph.D. student at Harvard Business School. Lumiere is a selective research program where students work 1-1 with a research mentor to develop an independent research paper.

Image Source: Common App logo



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