Just like Dorothy and Toto, let’s take the long winding yellow brick road down to the Emerald City, where hopefully the Wizards of Oz known as college admissions officers will grant our wish to take us back home (to Princeton University).
I finished my Common App (mostly) a couple weeks ago, (I know, I did it really early, overachiever, blah blah blah) and thought it’d be helpful to share my experience filling it out, along with things I found trouble with or took me some time to understand.
This is how I filled out my Common App, and features screenshots from my account and application. Some of the pics have my info, some don’t, depending on if I remembered to take the screenshot before I filled it out or not (whoops XD). I’ll also be going through what I decided to write in most of the sections and how I determined my wording and small decisions like that.
*Note: If you become motivated by this post (!) and decide to start your own Common App earlier than most, be aware that the entire platform resets on August 1st for the next application cycle, so if you’re filling out your application early, some dates won’t be available (2018 dates) and some information you put in might not rollover. Don’t worry though, if you decide to start early, almost all of your account information and Common App information will rollover to the next application cycle. (For more information on rollover: http://www.commonapp.org/whats-appening/application-updates/account-rollover-faqs)
So without further ado, let’s dive right in.
When you first make a CommonApp account and log in, you’ll open up to your dashboard, which lists each of the colleges you have added and provides important information like deadlines and writing requirements, as well as a mini drop down information section on specific requirements for each college.
To add colleges to this list, go to the College Search tab at the top of the dashboard. Add as many colleges as you want (well, as many as 20) and don’t feel like you’re constrained by the colleges you have on there - you can delete them and add others as you wish.
As for me, I only have 9 colleges on there right now (2 others I want to apply to - Rutgers and Georgetown - don’t accept the Common App). I’ll probably end up adding 2ish more, I honestly have no idea, I might delete a couple, but currently this is what my dashboard looks like.
I’m only EAing (Restrictive Early Action) to one school (Princeton) and regular decisioning to the rest.
The My Colleges Tab
The second tab at the top of your home page is the My Colleges tab. This has in depth information and requirements for each specific college that you have added to your list. It goes through contact info, deadlines, and everything that is required to submit a completed application. On the left-hand side, there is also a menu of different college-specific questions and writing supplements that you can fill out right on the CommonApp. **Word of caution: these college-specific answers do not rollover when the Common App resets, so I would get these questions from the specific college’s website, in case they have decided to change their questions from one year to the next, and you can start writing responses on a different document and transfer them after the rollover period.**
This tab is also where you select the recommenders for each specific college (in case you want to change your recommenders for a certain college).
The Common App Tab
Now, this is where the real meat and potatoes are. This is the actual “Common App” part of your application, where they ask for everything from the year your parents graduated college to your disciplinary history. The different sections of the Common App are displayed in a menu on the left, and you can then toggle between the different drop down sub sections.
As you finish each sub section, there’s a handy-dandy check mark that pops up which makes it easy to see which parts of the Common App you’ve finished. But beware, the check mark gets activated when you finish all the required questions, if you wanted to come back to an optional question that you did not complete, it will still show up with a check mark, so make sure to keep track if there were any other questions you didn’t fill in and wanted to.
Each page also has video tutorials explaining the exact process of entering your information and has an option for you to review the information you put into that section in the way that a college admissions officer would see it. I definitely recommend going through this preview - it will help you catch mistakes and any misinformation by looking at the information all together and in a different medium.
This section is the general info part, where you put all your personal and demographic info, and takes like 3 seconds to complete.
This subsection is super straightforward, unless for some reason you forget your name or birthday. The Common App also gives a field where you can expand on your gender identity if you choose - way to be one of the few standardized platforms that recognize it’s finally the 21st century, Common App!
Address and Contact Details
This speaks for itself.
Now, this section may seem straightforward to begin with, but there’s actually a lot of controversy and opinions surrounding its inclusion. This entire subsection is completely optional, meaning you don’t have to provide any info regarding your race, religion, or ethnicity if you don’t want to.
Colleges use this section for a couple reasons. One, it’s to have diversity data for information for prospective students (something I consider when looking at colleges). The more controversial other reason is for the purposes of affirmative action and similar services. For those who don’t know, affirmative action is defined as “an action or policy favoring those who tend to suffer from discrimination, especially in relation to employment or education”. It gives an advantage to URMs, or underrepresented minorities, mostly Hispanics, Native Americans, and African Americans, as well as others. Besides being a majority population, Caucasian, which doesn’t confer any advantage (and some say confers a disadvantage), there are also ORMs, or overrepresented minorities, namely Asian Americans, among others (a category I fall into). Some say that being an ORM gives you an advantage, some say it becomes a disadvantage, and others say it doesn’t matter. There are actually a bunch (and I mean a whole lot of bunch) of lawsuits concerning discrimination against Asians during the college admissions process, especially in top ranked universities. In fact, a 2009 Princeton study (Pton being one of the colleges where there are many many lawsuits active) found that Asians have to score about 140 points higher on the 2400 SAT to have the same chance of admissions as a Caucasian individual. This score difference becomes 270 points and 450 points in regards to Hispanic and African American populations respectively. Of course, this is just one study, and this topic is still very controversial.
But my main point out of all of this is several people choose not to include their demographics data, which is perfectly okay. Honestly, in my opinion, I would put it regardless, especially if you are a URM. If you (as a majority or ORM) think that it might be a disadvantage, realize your name, parents’ names, citizenship, or parents’ colleges are going to most likely give it away anyway. I wouldn’t stress too much about this, so much of college admissions at this point is ridiculous and up to chance anyway, and trying to figure out whether your race gives you a slight disadvantage is not worth the time.
As for me, I filled everything out. In case you want to know, I’m an atheist Asian of Indian origin and have completed this section to my satisfaction.
Also pretty self-explanatory, unless you weren’t born in the US (like me). It asks for the number of years you’ve lived in the US, and I am sad to admit it took me literally 5 minutes to do the math. (I couldn’t get it to add up to 17.) Honestly, I doubt anyone cares about this section, I just felt the need to be accurate because I feel like my experiences living elsewhere is a large part of me. (And I might expand on it in the Additional Info Section - I haven’t decided yet.)
Remember, taking 4 years of high school Spanish does not necessarily mean you can consider it a language. The Common App defines proficiency in a language (on the right side of the page) as “Proficiency in a language is about how comfortable you are using another language as a form of communication. In order to be proficient, you must be able to communicate effectively and converse comfortably.” As much as I would like to consider myself proficient in several languages, I can only really converse in English and Hindi. And for me, Hindi was my first language, even if I can’t speak it as well as English anymore.
If, like me, you are not a citizen of the United States, this section is going to be annoying. Okay, maybe not that annoying, but I had to physically scan and upload my green card, which was more complicated than it should have been.
I just said yes. Even if I end up getting annoying emails.
Common App Fee Waiver
Nope, I don’t qualify. But if you do, make sure to take full advantage of it.
Generally self-explanatory, but they really want to know about your family.
Simple and self-explanatory.
Parent (1 & 2)
This is also pretty simple to fill out, it’s mostly general info. A lot of it is not required (like country of birth or preferred phone number), so I just didn’t bother filling it out. The occupation part is the only part that slowed me down a little. My mom’s a realtor, and I didn’t really know if that fit any of the categories, so I just listed it as other. As for my dad, I’m not even 100% sure of what he does, but we decided to go with Business Executive. I also couldn’t find my parent’s undergrad (they went to IIT Roorkee) and my dad’s grad school (IIM Calcutta), so I had to go through the whole process of entering it in manually. It’s a pain, but luckily the address and other info are not required. I also had no idea what years they graduated college, and man it was a long time ago. I honestly never realized how old my parents were. Talk to your parents about this one.
I have a little brother :) The only time this section is complicated is if your sibling(s) are in college/have passed out of college, in which case you’ll have to include their college info as well.
Ugh, this section took so much longer than I thought it would, mostly because of filling out classes and honors. But it’s generally straightforward, even if some parts can get a little confusing.
Current or Most Recent School
Once again, completely straightforward, unless your school does not happen to automatically show up, in which case you’ll just have to manually enter the information. The only thing in this section that you have some control over is who you list as your counselor. The counselor that you list here provides your administrative recommendation to the Common App, and I know some students who receive recommendations from their principal or assistant principal in place of their counselor. (Funny story, this was my plan, before my principal got fired…? Not sure exactly what happened to him. But in any case, I love my counselor and have a great relationship with her, so it turned out okay for me in the end.) But yes, this is where some students decide to switch out their counselor for someone else, which is why you see the field “Counselor’s job title” in this section of the Common App. But if you decide to do this, I definitely recommend talking it over with your counselor and your principal, preferably together, so everyone is on the same page. Realize that there are usually certain things the counselor puts in your recommendation, like the strength of schedule, general class rank (even if your school doesn’t rank), and particularly difficult classes you have taken over the years, and you want to make sure your principal with either include that info himself or that the counselor will put it in a supplementary document or school report.
This gets more complicated if you went to more than one high school (I did not) but follows much of the same protocol as the section above.
I honestly have no idea what colleges use this information for. But this section asks you for the number and names of programs that have provided you with free assistance in the application process. This includes programs like College Horizons, Prep for Prep, KIPP, and others. I guess if you were a part of these, you might have a better idea of what colleges might do with this info (maybe it’s for funding reasons?) but as for me, I am a one man show, struggling through this application myself. :)
Very self-explanatory, check off the option that applies to you. If you were anything other than “no interruption to report”, you will get 250 words to explain the interruption or break in schooling as needed.
College and Universities
This section only applies to those that have taken outside college courses during high school, whether this be through Community Colleges, dual enrollment classes, or pre-college programs. It’s structured like the Current School section and requires a few details regarding the course types and overall dates.
As for me, my school is almost centered around providing its students with dual enrollment college credit in the Rutgers School of Health Professions, so a lot of my classes are joint with Rutgers which I received Rutgers credit for. In senior year in my school, we also have the option of taking a free block/independent study/Middlesex County College course, but me being me, I decided to take the hard way out and instead took all three possible electives. Yay. I hope I don’t die. But I digress. So yeah, just one college for me, 9 dual enrollment classes in total, according to my transcript.
Almost this entire section is optional, so for right now I have only filled out the required field (graduating class size). My school does not report rank, but I will ask my counselor come September if I can fill out a decile rank (cause I am 100% sure I am in the top 10% - I actually think I know exactly what rank I am (we’re a small school, everyone knows everyone’s GPA, plus I’m NHS Pres, which in my school is based on rank) but I don’t know if I can put that on the application because technically my school doesn’t rank. But hopefully if I’m in the running to be valedictorian or something my counselor will mention it in her recommendation). And lastly, my school’s GPA scale is completely whack, so for other applications and stuff I’ve been using my unweighted GPA (4.11) rather than my weighted GPA (which is somehow 5.9 - side note: I used a normal GPA calculator to calculate my weighted GPA on a normal 4.0 scale that other schools use, but that also seems mysteriously high (4.7) so I honestly have no idea what my GPA is). But I will clarify my GPA and everything with my counselor, and of course, even if I don’t self report it on here, it will be on my transcript, which will also be sent with an explanation of the grading system.
Current or Most Recent Year Courses
This entire section is just putting all of the courses you are taking in your senior year. Pro tip: make sure you know the number of courses first, cause each time you change the number you have to go back and re-fill-out some of the fields for all the courses.
In case you’re curious, these are the courses I’m taking senior year:
AP Spanish - Full Year (FY)
AP Calc AB - FY
AP Literature - FY
Honors Sociology - Sem 1
Honors Economics - Sem 2
Biomedical Innovations (Dual College Credit - DCC) - FY
Anatomy and Physiology I (DCC) - Sem 1
Anatomy and Physiology II (DCC) - Sem 2
Scientific Principles of Nutrition (DCC) - Sem 1
Nutrition and the Lifespan (DCC) - Sem 2
Phys. Ed. - FY
And FYI to all you kids in normal public schools, my school only offers 4 APs (all of which I am taking over junior and senior year) so this is why my schedule may look puny compared to some others, but it’s actually the toughest possible senior schedule in my school. That being said, if your school only offers a few APs, try taking as many of them as possible, because colleges will see the number you took over all that are offered.
Finally! We get to the real stuff. This is the first real part of your application. The part that is more than just personal information and compulsory form filling. In this section, you get to choose up to 5 “Academic Honors” that represent your academic achievements in high school. These are important. Think hard about what you decide to include. Remember, order matters. It goes without saying that first include all of your International honors, such as representing USA in the International Biology Olympiad. (Remember, this section is for academic honors, so even though you might be an Olympian - the athletic kind - there’ll be plenty of time to show that off later.) Once you run out of International honors, move on to National. This can include being a USA Biology Olympiad Finalist or Semi-finalist, reaching the national level of the AMC 10/12 (American Mathematics Competition), or if you were a National Merit Finalist. Once you run out of those, move on to regional/state. This can include individual plaques in Science Leagues, medalling at either the State or Regional level of Science Olympiad, and if you were a National Merit Commended Student or Semi-finalist. (Note: Keep in mind, the examples I am giving are the ones that pop into my head, mostly science based, but there are sooooo many out there - like writing competitions and art competitions - check with your counselor if you are ever unsure what level they fall into, or even whether it counts as an academic honor.) After you’ve exhausted all of those, your school achievements get a place for themselves. These can include being a part of Academic Honor Societies, or National Honor Societies, or Best in Class Awards (if your school does that - mine does). Keep in mind though, that these school awards are generally useless, they almost have no real value in relation to the larger level awards. But definitely, definitely, definitely include them if they’re all you have. They still show your level of caliber in relation to the entirety of your school, which even if it is small, means more than nothing.
And the most important thing! Corroborate, corroborate, corroborate! Admissions officers have read more than enough applications to know that people majorly lie on these parts of the Common App (it’s a sad world, I know) and do not be one of those people that lives through a lie. Also, karma. But aside from that, it’s important to be able to corroborate the honors and activities section of your Common App so you don’t appear as if you are just writing whatever you want. Have your recommenders corroborate your info (this is the best way to show yourself off). Use a central theme in your activities as your essay topic. I would even recommend having documentation of these honors, if possible, just in case. If it’s important to you, don’t just offhandedly list it in the honors or activities, make it a central part of your application, otherwise it can run the risk of being offhandedly discarded by the admissions committee.
*Important Note!* Do not, do not, do not, I repeat DO NOT, feel bad if you do not have academic honors, or if you only have a few at the school level. This is just one part of your application and you will have many many other places to let your achievements shine through. When I filled out this section I was disappointed when I realized I have a lot fewer honors than I thought but realized that I made the ones I have count. So don’t feel discouraged early on if you find out you only have one honor to list or even none at all.
I was going to include all of the honors that I currently have on my Common App, but a very wise friend made me realize that not all intentions are pure. Plus, it’s still a Work in Progress, so I might change stuff up before I submit my application. That being said, once this entire application cycle is over I’ll have everything up in a different post, along with commentary on what I think were both the successful and unsuccessful parts, so those applying next year get a feel for my possible mistakes.
This section is just some general info on what career you plan to pursue and the highest degree you intend to earn. Totally fair to put undecided, but I generally recommend putting something - I feel like having even a little sense of direction is better than none - but again, completely not required to pick one.
As for me, Physician and Medical Degree is the plan.
How exciting! Listing all the standardized tests you have paid hundreds and hundreds of dollars for, only to fail miserably! Just kidding. Tests are important. (IMO). But in this section, you are just self-reporting all of the test scores you wish to report, keep in mind that colleges will need an official report anyway (Yay! More money I’m paying to Collegeboard!).
This is where you choose which scores you would like to report, easy and straightforward. You can choose between ACT, SAT/SAT Subject, AP, IB, TOEFL, PTE Academic, and IELTS, but I’ll only be talking about SAT/SAT Subject and AP sections because those are the only ones I took (and ACT cause that’s another common one).
**Oh, and just a general disclaimer, I am really really really sorry if the way I am acting about my test scores offends you in any way, that is sincerely not my intention. I just really get frustrated when I don’t score as well as I know I can, and that can come off the wrong way. So I apologize. Don’t compare yourself to any one person, least of all me, cause I am only one person and you are competing against (technically) the whole world to get into college, not just me. You are amazing regardless of what some stupid standardized test decides.
SAT (March 2016 or after)
Again, super straightforward, just input your scores where it says to put in your scores. If you scored higher on one of your SATs you can choose to only self-report scores for one. I took two and my superscore ended up being higher than each individual so I reported both - but turns out they only want you to report the highest scores in each section and which testing date you achieved them on, along with your highest essay score.
For me, I got 790 in English the first time I took the SAT in November, and then a 790 in Math my second time in March (so 1580 superscore) and a 22 on my essay in November. I am so incredibly pissed at myself for not getting a full score either of the times I took it on either of the sections cause I know, I knowwww I am capable, but whatever. I’m still really hung up on it and I thought about taking the SAT again and like actually studying this time, but I know I’m not going to end up studying anyway so what’s the point of wasting the $50ish to take it again. But ugh. 20 fricking points. 2 questions. So close.
SAT Subject Tests
Similar to the section above, just listing the tests and your scores.
So… I had initially planned to report all 4 subject tests I took over the course of high school (Bio, Chem, Math, and Physics), but I only got an 800 on Bio and Chem, so those are the only ones on the list right now. And unless a college requires more than 2 tests (or requires a Math one) I’m only officially submitting these two. If I have to, I’ll submit my Math Level 2 which was a 790 (poop). I don’t even want to look at my Physics one again (750 - double poop).
AP Subject Tests
Once again, a very similar section, just inputting dates and scores. Remember, you don’t have to self-report all of your scores, but be aware that there is no Score Choice for AP like there is for SAT, so you have either send in all of your scores or pay extra to withhold some scores (or actually there’s also the option of erasing one forever for free). I also added the AP tests I plan to take in senior year, but because the Common App is still on the old application cycle it doesn’t have 2018 testing dates yet, which I will come back and fill out after the rollover.
I chose to report all 10 of my AP tests (7 of which I’ve already taken). These (with their scores if applicable) are:
Biology - 5, Chemistry - 4, Physics 1 - 5, Psychology - 5, Statistics - 4, United States History - 5, Music Theory Nonaural Subscore - 5, Calculus AB, Spanish Language and Culture, English Literature and Composition.
For my AP Music Theory score, I was given the option to either report my general combined score, my aural subscore, or my nonaural subscore. Now, I know they’re going to get all three scores anyway in the score report, but putting down a 5 as my nonaural looks better than a combined 4 or *shudders* aural 3. I’m honestly still shocked I even managed to pass that test, so being able to put down a 5 for Music Theory is huge.
This is almost the exact same procedure as the SAT section, where you only report your highest composite and highest per section score, along with the date for each. If you took ACT with writing you will report that score as well.
I did not take the ACT, mostly cause I did well enough on the SAT not to (for some reason, especially in New Jersey or the East Coast in general, a lot of people do the SAT first and then move on to ACT if they’re not happy with their score, generally because it’s easier or easier to study for or something like that I dunno - not to take away from the people who do well on it, it’s still not an easy test). And also I suck at math (in my opinion).
Oh my god. Here it is. The real Common App. Every little nuance matters in this part. Every field gives you a limited opportunity (150 characters) to squish your numerous hours of dedication into. Here is where order really matters. You have the option of entering up to 10 different activities ranging from all sorts of areas, like Research, School Spirit, Student Government, Paid Work, Family Responsibilities, you name it. I ended up using all 10 slots (I actually have way more than 10 activities and I sorta crammed some together) but I might end up removing some of them or separating some combined ones. I also might change the order of what I have on there.
And for those reasons (and the reasons I put in my Honors section) I am not going to list every single activity I put on here. But once again, after this application cycle, I will release alllll of my info. And this one will come with very detailed commentary on why I chose what I did, why I ranked my activities as such, and every little thing I can think of.
This is where you get to truly be yourself. A whole 250-650 words to bare your soul. :) Really reflect on yourself and your qualities as a human being and student before you write this essay, and make sure it reflects the truest parts of yourself. This is where you can let your personality shine through, however weird it may be. This is also the most daunting part of the application process. The rest of the Common App took me maybe 3 or 4 hours to fill out, and it’s taken me a couple of weeks just to write a few rough drafts of different essay ideas. I won’t go into the crux of essay writing here, although I might do another blog post on it (probably).
I also won’t put my actual essay on this post, 1) because it’s nowhere close to being done by the time I post this, 2) it’s really personal and I don’t necessarily feel comfortable sharing it with the internet until I am used to it myself and 3) for the several reasons I mentioned in earlier sections. That being said, once the application cycle is complete I will release all of my essays (including my final draft for my personal statement, my final drafts for any college specific supplementary essays, along with rough drafts of the essays I rejected with commentaries on why I chose not to include them) on my blog under the category of Personal Statements in the Blog Archive. Other essays are a resource I used a lot to begin writing my own, and it can feel overwhelming when the only essays you find online are those that are of an extremely high caliber, hopefully my essays will be easier to relate to and compare yourself with, depending on which of my schools I end up getting into.
If you answer yes to either of the questions, you will be given a space to explain yourself. Take advantage of it and make sure to put the event/incident in context.
This can literally be about anything that you think was either skipped over in the Common App, not stressed enough, or just literally anything else. I would recommend structuring it in some way, and not writing tooo much - it’s a sort of supplement to your Common App, an explanation of sorts, you don’t need to write another essay. This is my resource for deciding what to put in my Additional Information, and really tells you if you even need to use it or not. http://www.collegeessayguy.com/blog/2014/11/23/common-app-additional-info
I used this section mostly to explain the competitiveness of some of the programs I was a part of, what my piano awards mean, and like what SHS and NHS stood for.
There it is folks. The entire Common App. (More or less). In one incredibly long post. If you’ve made it this far, wow. If I was reading this I don’t even think I could’ve.
And if any of you reading have any questions, you can leave a comment, or reach out to me personally, and I will try to answer them as well as I can; I am by no means an expert on the topic.
Also, if you have any advice for me, that would be totally amazing! Please give it to me.
And if you are a recent (or not so recent) applicant that wants to share your college application journey, please write something and let me know, I would love to put it on this blog :)
And as always, thanks for reading!