Bulletproof Your Common App

The best tips and tricks for the Common AppTips and tricks to give your Common Application the ultimate edge. Read on to discover things you didn’t know (but should) about applying to college with the Common App.
 
By Susanna Cerasuolo, M.Ed.
 
Apply Early Action or Early Decision
 
It usually helps.  (See Tip #2 for the exceptions).  EA makes you look on your game and more interested than the average student.  ED makes you really attractive because the college knows they can count on you to enroll, which protects their “yield” rate at the end of the application season. Write to me on the Forum if you want to know more about “yield”.
 
If your GPA or test scores are low, think before you apply Early Action/Decision
 
Call your admissions rep at that college and ask very politely if you should apply Early.  Tell them your exact GPA and scores. At some schools, applying Early with low scores can help you because you are showing strong interest.  At some schools, it can hurt you because it can put you in a stronger pool of applicants.  I recently heard a panel of Admissions Deans say the early pool is NOT always stronger, so call and ask what you should do. If the school is your top choice, be sure to tell them that. Do not say that if it’s not the case. (Be honest!)
 
Should I check the box for “Financial Aid”?
 
If you need it, yes.  This is how you get it.  Review the school’s policy; if they are need-blind, checking this box will not hurt you. If the school is need-aware, then it will be easier for them to admit students who do not need aid.  Kids with high GPA’s and test scores are the kids who get merit money, typically, though many schools will offer you something if they are trying to attract you because, for instance, you are an out-of-state kid for them and would be bringing diversity, or if you are an athlete who can play on one of their sports teams.  If you really want to go to a certain “need-aware” school and you don’t really need the aid (or if you don’t mind loans) then you might not want to check the box for financial aid.
 
Should I check the box for “Merit-Based Scholarships”?
 
YES.  EVERYBODY.  No matter WHAT your GPA and test scores are.  Merit-based scholarships go to students the college wants to attract, for whatever reason.  Merit means “you deserve it”.  You need to let the colleges decide who gets this or not.  Don’t take yourself out of the running for free money (always a bad idea…)
 
Avoid checking “Undecided” for a major
 
It just looks “unexcited”.  No one is going to hold you to the majors you express an interest in on your applications, so this is a chance for you to tell about some things that might intrigue you.
 
Don’t be afraid to pick just one major if your mind is totally made up.
 
When you know, you know, and that’s great.  Be sure to write about this major in some available essay spot, and if none is offered, try to be sure to mention your sincere interest to your admissions rep.
 
Don’t be afraid to pick 2-3 really different majors if they really interest you; the majors don’t have to be similar. 
 
For a lot of schools these days, interdisciplinary learning is really attractive, so having widely disparate interests that you will somehow tie together in your career is a plus.  Everyone likes a creative thinker who sees solutions and possibilities across disciplines. Think outside the box!
 
Make sure the college offers those majors
 
Check the college’s website to see if they have the major before you choose it on the Common App. And, if the drop-down list from the Common App doesn’t display the EXACT name of the major, then check “other” and write the exact name of the major in the box that pops up.  This shows that you did your homework and it makes you look like you really do care about that college.
 
Should I check the religion box on the Common App?
 
This is totally your call.  If your religion is not well known, then I certainly would declare it because you will be looked at as someone who will bring diversity. If you are applying to a school that has any sort of religious affiliation then it is usually good for you to check the box if you share that same affiliation. If you are applying to a very liberal place and you check a conservative Christian faith, then you might be viewed as someone who would bring diversity. The one religious caution I would offer is for the very actively Christian kid: be sure that your essays make it clear that you get along with and respect all types of people, and for non-Christian colleges, avoid talking about personal, spiritual matters in essays. You have no idea who will be reading these, and religion and politics are typically not safe topics for college essays. You don’t want to seem one-dimensional to colleges who have to think about roommate happiness and classroom discussions. Think of this as a job interview and be professional.
 
Enter the truth about your parent dataEnter the truth about your parent data
 
If your situation is tough or untraditional or even maybe embarrassing, it’s ok.  You don’t need to be shy on college applications because college admissions personnel are just like high school teachers: they love working with teenagers. These people are here to help place you in the right college, the place where you will be happy and successful. They understand that students come from all sorts of backgrounds, so it’s ok if yours needs some explaining.  You don’t need to be shy about your family situation.  And if your parents did not graduate from college–that helps you!  You are what’s known as a “first-generation college student” and everyone will be interested in helping you get to college.
 
If you have a special situation, like a disciplinary action or a change of schools, attach an explanation
 
Make it brief and well-written, and have a trusted teacher or counselor look at it for you.  Tell the truth about the situation, and focus on what you learned.  Teenagers sometimes have situations that are beyond their control, or sometimes they make dumb choices–admissions officers understand that. Be brief in your explanation, don’t whine, don’t blame, and don’t tell every gory detail.  Keep it professional, and don’t skip this opportunity to state your side of the situation.
 
Don’t enter low/bad test scores if you don’t have to
 
If it isn’t required, and if it doesn’t help you, then leave it out.
 
The Honors section is for academic awards, not athletic or community service
 
Most kids don’t have much to put here because many high schools don’t give awards and those that do often give them out at the end of Senior year.  So don’t panic if you don’t have things to put here.  Most kids don’t either.  Things you can put here include: Honor Roll, Scholar Athlete, Student of the Month, NHS, National Merit, AP Scholar, etc.
 
DO list tests that you plan to take this year
 
Just leave the score part blank and then send the official scores when you have them.
 
You may list up to 10 activities on the Activities page
 
Don’t be shy about listing hobbies and jobs. Jobs are awesome!
 
Print Preview the Activities Page
 
This page cuts text off no matter what it lets you put in the boxes, so print preview it. And when you do print it, look at all that white space!  Fill it up!!  You will need to edit this page at least 5 times before submitting it because it needs to look good and wow, is it a beast.
Soccer is a great activity to list on your activities pageDon’t forget to put your activities in order of their importance to you
 
This is part of the instructions, so the colleges can see your priorities. Use the arrows to move things up and down, and feel really sorry for the kids even two years ago who did not have the luxury of the cool new arrows for moving entries up and down if they changed their minds…
 
Check that you DO plan to participate for at least some things in college
 
Kids often forget this one. Colleges want to know what you’ll want to do when you get to their campus, so clue them in.
 
Do NOT compose your small activity essay right in the box.
 
Do this as a Word doc that you will start working on NOW, and edit it many times before you copy and paste the final version into that little box.
 
1000 characters maximum ALWAYS means WITH spaces  🙂
 
Character limits are different from word limits.  A character is a letter, a space and a punctuation mark.  Words are words… For college essays with character limits, always count the number of characters WITH spaces.
 
The Additional Info section is a great place for your resume
 
You can also upload a response here if you have a special situation that you need to share with the colleges.  If you would like to upload both your resume and a special explanation, then attach one to the other in one Word doc and upload that.
 
Should I check the box for a disciplinary violation on the Common App?
 
If you have one, yep. Check it.  Be honest. If it was minor or dweebie, then explain it and tell what you learned. Kids make mistakes. That is always forgivable if you are humble and you learned your lesson (like not to start food-fights, not to toilet paper the school, etc etc). Your counselor or teachers might mention this in their letters, so you should, too. Honesty is always in style.
 
Print Preview each supplement before you submit it
 
Sometimes info is cut off, even though the boxes allowed you to type it in.  Beware.
 
Select teachers for EACH collegeon the School Forms pages
 
First you “Invite” your two teachers and one counselor on the School Forms page, but then on that same page you have to go college by college and manually “Select” which teachers’ letters you would like each college to receive. If you are applying to 6 Common App schools then you will need to do this step 6 times, etc. Some colleges accept one letter, some accept two, and a few accept three.  Some don’t want any!  And *always* check the college’s policy on extra letters before sending one in the mail…
 
You have to do THREE things to apply to EACH college
 
Each time you are ready to submit an application you have to submit the Supplement page for that college (if required), then the Signature page for that college, and the Payment for that college. Some colleges want you to pay before submitting the Signature page, some allow you to pay after submitting the Signature page (it would be easier if they would all standardize this!).  The Signature page is where you submit the actual Common App.  The Supplement page is just one page that goes to that particular college when you submit it.  Many students make the mistake of submitting the Supplement page and then thinking they have applied to that college, which they have not. 
 
Remember: you must submit all three for each college:
1.  Supplement (if required)
2.  Signature
3. Payment (post in the Forum for info on fee waivers if you need them)
There you have it folks! 10 years of Common App experience at your disposal, use it wisely.Best of luck to you!
 
For more Tips head to CollegeMapper.com !

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