By: Susanna Cerasuolo, M.Ed.
Figuring out the Common App can be very confusing, especially with the new version this year. Lucky for you we’ve got some fun (not really) little notes on each of the 6 main sections of the actual Common App.
For an overview of the 2013 Common App check out our post: https://www.collegemapper.com/2013/08/the-ultimate-step-by-step-guide-to-the-new-common-app-v4/
1. Profile (8 parts)
Personal Info, Address, Contact Details: these are all pretty straightforward. Be sure to change your birth year when you register or the CA4 won’t deal with you if it thinks you are 13!
Demographics: This section on the new Common App is optional, but if you are bringing diversity, completing this section can help you in the admissions process, so I would do it.
Religious Preference: (a sub-section of Demographics) If you want to list your faith, do. If you are a Christian and you are applying to Christian schools, you should. If you are from a diverse faith background, then listing this will also be an asset. (I do think Jewish kids are viewed as bringing diversity on many campuses.)
Geography: Also pretty straightforward. It doesn’t seem to want to know where you have lived outside of the US, if you have.
Languages: DO list the one/s you have studied in school, and of course list all languages you speak at home (Klingon is not an option on CAv4, sadly. Maybe next year.)
Citizenship: You do need to list your social security number if you would like to receive federal financial aid. Should you apply for financial aid? If you need it, absolutely. You won’t get it if you don’t apply. Does it help you to get in if you don’t apply for financial aid? Colleges don’t have unlimited supplies of money, so yes it does.
Common App Fee Waiver: This is a fabulous section on the new Common App v4. Here’s why: it can cost $40-60 on average to apply for each college. If you are enrolled in Free and Reduced Lunch, if you live in government subsidized housing, if you are enrolled in a federally funded program like Trio, if you are an orphan, or other situations like these, then you can get fee waivers for the application fees (the other criteria are nicely listed). Talk to your school counselor about this and if you still have questions, call the college directly to get help. Do not let application fees keep you from applying to college. People will help you—just ask!
2. Family: (5 parts)
Household/Parent 1/Parent 2/Step Parents: This section of CAv4 allows you to describe with whom you primarily live and also up to 2 step parents. I think one of the main tips for this section is to truly list your parents’ actual education level. I would list whatever level your parent FINISHED. There’s no option here for “some college” so if you check “College” it will look as if your parent is a college graduate, which may not be the case. Don’t be embarrassed if you are the first person from your family to go to college because that actually helps you. Colleges want to help people get out of poverty, so tell them your actual situation. On the other hand, if both of your parents have college degrees, that is good also, because the college knows you are likely to finish college yourself. Tell your story here because it will only help you. List the level of education your parent *completed*.
Siblings: Here list the grade your sib is currently in, if it’s K-12. For the last three options, if your sibling only finished high school and then went on to work, check High School. If your sibling got a GED, check that. But if your sibling is currently in college or graduated from college, check College. I would not check College if your sibling attended some college but did not graduate. This section is so that colleges know what role models you have had on the education path, and if you will be the first one to graduate college, you want them to know that. Similarly, if all of your sibs are in college or have graduated, then that makes it clear that you will likely finish college, so state that, too.
3. Education: 9 parts (ugh.)
School: In this section on the new Common App v4, search for your school and if you need to change it, it’s easy to do so, so no worries. Date of entry for you Seniors is most likely September of 2010 if you’ve been there all 4 years, but if you’ve moved or if your school is only a 3 year upper school, do the math. You can approximate your graduation date, likely in June of 2014 (month and year are most important)… For those of you returning to college now, try to guess the date of your graduation, but again the month and year are the most important. Date of entry for you would be when you started high school. If your counselor doesn’t have an official title, you can use Guidance Counselor (but spell it correctly). Remember that all items with a red asterisk are required. If you are no longer in school then call the school and get the current counselor’s information, because that person will probably have to help you get your transcript.
Other School: This section on the new Common App is pretty slick and easy, and a nice improvement. Tell the truth here, so the colleges can know your story and whatever obstacles you’ve faced.
Education Interruption: If you check one of these boxes you will be asked to explain it, on the Writing page, under Required Explanation (word limit 650). I am not sure that I would check the option for Gap Year, as the current stance in the industry is that you apply to college regularly, as a Senior, and then ask your college for a deferral (which you checked beforehand to make sure they offered—heads up). I think the colleges are starting to want to know if kids are choosing this option, since it is becoming more popular. For now, I wouldn’t check it, because it could perhaps negatively affect your chances of admission, though gap years are certainly *very* cool. (Stand by on this topic. Post questions in the CollegeMapper Forum and we’ll explore it.)
Colleges and Universities: Again, this section on Common App v4 is pretty slick. I particularly like it that they allow you to list Online Courses because I am a fan (who doesn’t like learning cool new things while wearing bunny slippers and a mud mask?). Be sure NOT to list AP or IB classes here. That comes later. Degree Earned is not required, so if you didn’t get a degree from the course, leave this blank.
CBO: CBO means Community Based Organization. CBO’s do great things in our communities. This section would like to know if any free organization helped you prepare for college. By Counselor, they mean the person in charge there—your mentor. Declaring that one of these organizations helped you will allow the colleges to know whom they should stay in contact with and get new information to. It is good for you to state if one of these groups guided you. No worries if you are on your own, too!
(Unrelated note: the new CA4 is a slow loader, y’all. Patience and a side project not required but helpful.)
Grades: Oh, brother. Class rank. Here we go. So, you have some options and kids *never* understand them because it’s complete counselor-speak. I shall translate, for the eleventy-billionth time, until they take this off of the kid forms and leave it on the counselor forms. (Sigh). This question wants to know how your school tells you where you fall among your class; if they break the class into groups, which group are you in? The terms used are:
Exact—your school tells you your rank number (like 13 of 227)
Decile—your school tells you which tenth you fall into (top 10%, top 50%, etc)
Quintile—your school breaks kids into 5 groups by 20’s (top 20%, 40%, etc)
Quartile—your school breaks kids into 4 groups by 25 (top 25%, 50%, 75%, 100%)
None—your school doesn’t tell kids their class rank (this is awesome for your sanity but not stellar in the world of admissions because companies that do college “rankings” (badly) use class rank of incoming freshmen to give colleges higher rankings, so colleges like to get kids in one of these top categories, so if you can report a top category that helps you and if you can’t well then that’s something you don’t have that some kids do. It is completely beyond your control, but until people stop buying the comical college “rankings”, this will continue to hurt most of you, and the colleges.)
You will need to know if your GPA is weighted or unweighted and if your class rank (if you have one to report) is weighted or unweighted. If you don’t know your class rank, list None. For GPA, you can report your weighted GPA if you know it or if you calculate it; just list whether you are reporting weighted or unweighted. Your high school transcript will report what the school wants the official choice to be. Colleges can use whichever they like in admissions, and they each have their own policy. For most of you, your GPA is calculated on a 4 point scale. Ask a teacher or counselor if you are unsure.
Current Year Courses: How many courses would you like to report? (Odd question.) Your answer: all of them, thanks! Report every class you will be taking Senior year, including extra ones before school, classes you will audit by just sitting in, independent study courses, college courses, and online courses. Use the same title your school uses, capitalize AP and IB, and do not abbreviate. Give the course credit value in numbers that will show on your transcript, probably 0, .5, 1, 1.5, or 2. Ask a teacher or counselor for help.
Honors: Here you can list your top 5 awards or honors that you have received. I would list the most impressive ones. Make sure the title is spelled correctly, and perhaps add a few words to explain it if the name doesn’t get the message across. The reader will not always be familiar with your school and so he or she will not know what the Pride of the Pioneers Award is for. Keep any added words very brief. These people are speed-reading!
PG=post grad (extra year of high school after high school), FY=freshman year, SO=sophomore year, JR=junior year.
In the section Highest Level of Recognition, if you have International or National recognition, make sure you have at least one super reach school on your list!
Future Plans: In the new CA4 you have only 2 sections here: Career Interest and Highest Degree you Intend to Earn.
For Career Interest, yes I believe that you should at least list something and no, no one is going to make you become an accountant. Just list what you are currently interested in, to give the colleges an honest idea of what you might like to do and a little better idea of who you are. To that end, I firmly believe that checking Undecided makes you look Unexcited. Be interested in something!
For Highest Degree Intended, the question wants to know how much college you see yourself doing in the future. Obviously, you see yourself doing 4 years of college and getting a BA (Bachelors) degree, but I really think that most kids in your generation are going to need to consider going to school even beyond that. School beyond a BA is called “Graduate School”, and some people like it so much they just keep doing it (I know, Mom. I’ll finish someday…) Your options for Graduate School (called Grad School) are listed after Bachelors in this pull down on the Common App. They include:
MA—this is a Masters degree and can take 1-4 years after your BA
MBA—a Masters in Business Administration
JD—Juris Doctorate, a law degree
MD/DO/DVM/DDS—Medical, veterinary and dental degrees
PhD—Doctorate (the Ph.D. comes after an MA and can be in nearly any subject.)
Other—things like DPT (Doctorate of Physical Therapy)
4. Testing: (1-10 sections possible, but I bet most of you will have around 3)
Unless you are applying to only Test Score Optional colleges, then you will need to report your test scores on the ACT or the SAT. You may also report your scores on AP, IB, SAT Subject Tests, TOEFL, PTE or IELTS. Except for the ACT and SAT, if you’ve never heard of it by now, it probably doesn’t apply to you (general rule of thumb). For optional scores, I recommend reporting only scores that make you look good.
The second question on this page is new to CA4 and means: do you need to take a test in order to graduate? If yes, then you will need to list your Senior Secondary Leaving Examinations (though this page is currently crashing like crazy).
Well, now for some interesting news. The new CA4 asks you how many times you have taken each test. For those of you who have done the normal thing and taken the test 2 or 3 times only, this poses no odd scenario. But when you do enter the number of times you have taken it, then CA4 creates boxes for you to report the scores from each time, so if there is a date that you do not want to report, then it seems that you are forced to state you took the test fewer times than you actually did. Not all colleges require that you submit all test scores, so you are not obligated by the colleges to disclose all dates. (Interesting software development.)
5. Activities: (up to 10 Activities possible)
YOU SHOULD NOT LEAVE THIS SECTION BLANK, even though it is not required and even though it automatically gives you the happy green check mark. You can list up to 10 activities, and you do want to show your colleges how you have spent your time when you are not in school. Family Responsibilities and Work are options here, as are Cultural and Religious activities, and even Other, where you could list hobbies you are passionate about. If you research some subject on your own, I would list that as Academic, unless your research is a hobby, like making duck calls or blowing glass, then I would list it as Other. Also, if you are a fan of reading, then list that as Academic and describe what you read and how much.
For this section, you are going to have to spell everything very carefully and have someone proofread it with you. Be brief in your explanations, but do be clear. I also suggest that you state which activities you would be interested in continuing; the colleges understand that you mean “if something similar is available at your school”. If you don’t intend to do anything at the college, then that’s not very exciting for them, is it?
Hours spent per week and weeks spent per year can only be entered as numbers, so do your best, be honest and estimate. The details, honors and accomplishments section allows you ONLY 150 characters (not words) WITH spaces. Remember, you can list up to 10 Activities. Choose your faves. This is your time to shine!
6. Writing (3-4 sections; most of you will have 3)
Personal Essay: 650 word limit. Here you will copy/paste in your main essay after you have made it a thing of beauty as a word doc for many weeks.
Disciplinary History: Here you will answer two questions: have you ever been in trouble at school, and have you ever been in trouble with the law. The first question about school does not want you to list detentions and tardies. This is for more serious infractions where the Principal or VP had to get involved. If your counselor is reporting it, then you need to, so find out what the administration wants you to do. If you are reporting something, then you will need to complete the Required Explanation section.
For the second question about the law, this one is asking about arrests and convictions, even for misdemeanors. If the court has expunged or annulled (etc) the case, then you don’t need to list it. If they haven’t, you do. If you are reporting something, then you will need to complete the Required Explanation section.
Additional Information: 650 word limit. This is where you can explain a situation that you feel the colleges need to know about, like maybe you had an illness in your family, or maybe you were ill. Maybe you moved a lot, or care for your siblings every day, or switched schools and were really far behind in the curriculum and it affected your grades. Maybe your city isn’t safe and it’s hard to study, or maybe your family doesn’t want you to go to school. If this information is important to your story, and it hasn’t been addressed anywhere in the application so far, then do state the info here.
You might also explain the happy news like maybe you have written two books, or maybe you study bugs in your free time so much that it keeps you up late at night. Maybe you’ve been recording CD’s for years, or you ride the pro rodeo circuit and missed 35 days of school last year becoming a star. If it’s important to your story, and if it hasn’t been addressed elsewhere, then this is the place where you can be sure to let the colleges know. Everyone loves happy news.
This section is NOT for: you to repeat yourself by saying what the main essay or the Activities page already said, or to add extra words to your main essay, or to put your resume, or (God, forbid) for your parents to write something (AWFUL idea.) Keep to the point, stay in the parameters of the application, do your own work, remember to stay within the 650-word limit and use this space if there is something else that you need to say.
Required Explanation: This section gives you a 650-word total limit if you need to explain disciplinary infractions, legal infractions, changing schools, or any interruptions in your education. If you have to do several of those explanations, you still only get 650 words total.
If you are reporting a disciplinary or legal infraction, then in the Required Explanation section you will have 650 words max to explain what you learned from the experience (no blaming or whining!). This is where you show that you are a changed person. Don’t be afraid. Teenagers make lots of mistakes and some of you get caught; the important thing is always—what did you learn? To that end, I would discuss your hopes and plans for the future also.
Do this in a word doc, edit it well, and then paste it into the box.
And, kids, that’s the low-down on the new Common App, fancy cat version c4 (I just made that up). I hope admissions season 2013 treats you well, and that you write only very polite service ticket reports to the Common App if you do have any technical issues because as anyone with two computer keys to click can tell you, software is a buggy business.
Knock ‘em dead, kid, break a leg, and all that jazz…but most importantly, young Skywalker, Yay, college!
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By: Susanna Cerasuolo, M.Ed.