The Common Application: Tips from the Best in the Field

The Common Application: Tips from the Best in the Field

We asked three experts in the college counseling field to give us their best advice to students when it comes time for the all-important college application.

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Pay close attention to the Activities Section on the Common Application.

Many students look at the Activities section of the Common App and think it's less important simply because the character count is so limited and the grid looks so simplistic. In fact, it's the opposite. This is the primary space for you to communicate information about your extracurricular activities. It's your job as the applicant to distill down the most important things you've done, as well as your contributions and accomplishments...all in that tiny space. Make sure the focus stays on you!

Customize Those Supplementary Essays.

Many schools ask for supplementary essays on top of the personal essay included in the Common Application. It's tempting to only slightly adjust the supplemental essays for schools that ask the same (or very similar) questions. But if you really want your essay to work for you, you'll need to do more than just swap out the specific names of classes, professors, and campus groups. Get to know each school well and think about how you fit with each school-- and then frame your story accordingly. Those supplemental essays can make all the difference.

Think Outside the Box on Community Service.

Many students think they're required to do traditional community service, but this isn't the case. Most important is that you pursue activities that you care about and that you will engage in (and that you'll be able to truly talk about in an essay or interview!). Students can and do serve their communities in many different ways, and colleges need all different kinds of people. So follow your interests, not the crowd!

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Make Sure You Know What Extracurricular Activities “Count.”

Your extracurriculars don't have to take place at school or be traditional clubs or activities in order to be valid. Include any commitments you have in your church or temple, as well as any care you give to family members (Do you pick your sister up from school? Care for a grandparent in your home?) as well as self-taught activities (Guitar? Jewelry-making? Music production?). Think about how you spend your time and what you are most proud of achieving.

Demonstrate Interest in those “Target” & “Safety” Schools, (but use your time wisely).

Some schools track demonstrated interest and others don’t. Don't waste your limited time visiting colleges that don't track demonstrated interest. You can get back to those later when admitted. Do any necessary research for them online, but don’t make the mistake of taking your likely colleges for granted. If they track demonstrated interest and you haven't bothered to visit (or attend a local event or request an interview or chat with the representative when they visit your high school) you are actively sharing your lack of interest with them.

Be Thoughtful About Intended Majors.

If the application asks what you want to study don't choose "undecided." Unless you are applying to a specific division or school in the institution, you are rarely bound by your response and giving a specific answer reads as much more self-aware than settling for "undecided." Sometimes admissions will interpret "undecided" as meaning that you must want to pursue their most selective major and that could work against you.

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Care about Tone and Keep it Real.

Tone can play a surprising role in the application process. Most young writers know that the tone needs to match the subject, but matching tone with the personality of the applicant is more nuanced. Applications are most successful when the narrative voice and energy of the main essay is a clear match with the personality of the student. If you wouldn't break into a poetic analysis of philosophical ideas while hanging out with your friends, then you probably shouldn't do that in your application. It's also very okay to sound like a teenager: you can have questions that you're looking to answer, and you can speak colloquially when appropriate in your main essay.

Overwrite and then Cut.

Yes, your main essay will need to be 650 words or fewer. That is a fact, but if you put too much focus on that limitation, you can severely stunt the creative possibilities of your essay. The common application essay wants you to pack a whole lot of punch (and world view) into a petite piece of writing. Ironically, overwriting in early drafts can make it significantly easier to find the ideal structure for your final 650 words. Rather than getting hung up on trying to stick within that limitation early on, it's best to overwrite--and, ideally, even try for more than one topic. After you've overwritten, you'll be able to excavate the best anecdote and concepts from your free write and shift them into a structured draft (when you can start to think about word count).

Don’t Wait for August...or for December.

The Common Application essay benefits from low-impact brainstorming and free writing (which means lazy beach days are ideal for writing it). It's a lot easier to get the creative aspects completed before you're worried about pre-season and the start to your semester. July is a great time to start workshopping the main essay; August is ideal for honing in on school lists, completing school specific research, and, ideally, completing 1-3 school supplements.

The golden rule of college applications: do not apply to ONE early decision school on the first of November and then wait for winter break to complete TEN additional applications. You will be sad. You will be very, very sad. Your essays will suffer. Even if you are a mega-procrastinator, Thanksgiving Break is a great option to finish up those final apps before it's the eleventh hour.

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At Tutor Associates, we are focused on getting your children the skills, grades, and test scores they need to have a shot at the best schools for them, but we think it’s best for your family if we connect you to these experts (and others) if you’d like your child to have extra support on the application process.

Don't Forget What's In Your Tutor Tote

Don't Forget What's In Your Tutor Tote

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