10 Things You Need To Know To Successfully Navigate The Common App


By Lauren Gensler
November 17, 2014

If you’re a college-bound high school senior, chances are pretty good that you’ll be logging onto the Common App to apply to school this fall. Over 800,000 students submitted 3.4 million applications through the online system last year. Between test scores, the personal statement and recommendations, there’s a lot to keep track of. Plus, there’s the chance of technical troubles like the ones that ensnared the site last year. Here are some tips for nailing the Common App and avoiding unnecessary trip-ups.

1. Many schools use the Common App, but not all. Out of the thousands of colleges in the United States and abroad, a little over 500 of them use the Common App. Check out the full list here. If any of the schools you want to apply to aren’t on here, you’ll need to submit a separate application directly with them.

2. It’s worth double checking important application info. The Common App has an application requirements grid with a bunch of information all in one place from its participating schools. This can be immensely helpful, but it’s worth noting that info on here has been wrong in the past, like last year when they reported wrong deadlines for schools such as University of Colorado-Boulder and Colgate. This isn’t the type of thing you want to get wrong. So once you’ve narrowed down your list, go line by line and check info against the school’s website. Also, stay on top of your email since colleges might send updates and reminders about upcoming deadlines, says Anna Takahashi, Director of College Counseling at Eastside College Preparatory School and a previous Stanford admissions director.

3. Fill out application questions slowly and deliberately.

“Relevant questions will pop up based on your answers to previous questions,” says Katherine Cohen, founder of New York-based college admissions consultancy IvyWise. For instance, once you select your intended major or program, a certain essay prompt might appear. “If you plan to apply to the engineering department, make sure you’re not accidentally answering the college of arts and sciences prompt,” says Cohen.

4. Prepare longer answers ahead of time. For the activities section, personal statement and any writing supplements, you’re best off writing and editing offline. One good reason: There isn’t spellcheck on the Common App (although some browsers will provide this).

Plus, when it comes to the activities section, you have to enter answers one by one and will be less likely to catch repetitive language or accidental duplicates then if you prepared your answers together. Remember, you’re allowed 50 characters for your position/leadership description and organization name and 150 characters for details, honors won and accomplishments. Use varied, powerful action verbs and make the most of the space.

“Many times students don’t give themselves enough credit when filling out the activities section. Make sure to provide detailed descriptions about the activities you participated in, any leadership positions, and how you made an impact,” says Cohen.

For the personal statement, you’re only allowed up to 650 words and three edits (as opposed to unlimited edits on the rest of the application). This means that if you submit an application to College #1 and then find a mistake, you can go back and edit your essay and submit it to College #2. If you find another mistake or want to add something, you can go back and edit your essay and submit it to College #3, but then you’re locked out of editing your essay.

“Ideally, you’d only use one essay for your Common App,” says Cohen, “so make sure your Common App essay accurately reflects the information that you want to convey to the majority of colleges you’re applying to.”

The prompts are as follows:

  • Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
  • Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?
  • Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?
  • Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?
  • Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.

While a second or third set of eyes can be helpful in focusing and fine-tuning your essay, “I advise students not to allow too many significant others to tamper with their essays,” says Chat Leonard, Director of College Counseling at St. Louis’ Metro Academic & Classical High School.

“Colleges want to read essays that sound like a 17 or 18 year old voice. Too often the voice in the essay sounds too mature. Keep the voice fresh, keep it yours and own it!”

5. List your most impressive classes and activities first. Instead of entering classes and extracurriculars in the order you attend them each day, put the most impressive and relevant ones up top.

You have 10 spaces, but “colleges want to see sustained, deep involvement in your extracurricular activities, so don’t include small, one-off activities that didn’t mean much to you,” says Cohen.

6. Report your highest test scores where you can. The Common App will ask which test scores you wish to report, giving you the freedom to put your best foot forward and choose your best scores. But remember that each school has different requirements that you need to meet — some colleges want all your scores, some want your best score, and some superscore multiple scores. Since you submit applications one at a time, edit the testing page each time so it satisfies the requirement of the respective college while shedding the best light on your scores. For instance, if you’re applying to Stanford, which requires you report all test scores, you can load them up and submit to Stanford. For your next application to Wake Forest, which doesn’t require any scores, you can wipe this page clean or add your very best score(s). Don’t forget to send official score reports to colleges, too.

7. Add recommenders. If your school uses Naviance, ask your high school counselor for instructions on submitting letters of recommendation to colleges. If it doesn’t use Naviance, you can assign recommenders on the Common App and have them submit their letter of recommendation online, or print out the forms and submit them in the mail. You’ll know the recommendation has been submitted when it says “submitted” on your dashboard.

8. Review, pay and submit. Submitting your application is a three-step process. First, review the application. “I encourage students to carefully review the PDF of their Common Application and supplements to make sure everything looks the way it should,” says Takahashi. Be on the lookout for things like formatting issues on the essay or cut-off descriptions in the extracurricular section, she says. If you’re seeing strange things after copy/pasting from Word, try transferring it into a text editor (like NotePad) and then into the Common App. This might help remove invisible, stray formatting.

Next, you’ll pay the application fee, either with a credit card, bank account routing numbers or a fee waiver. Finally, you’ll sign the affirmation and submit. You’ll see a green check that confirms your application has been submitted, but should also check your dashboard.

9. Submit supplements separately from the application. If your school asks for a writing or arts supplement, you’ll submit it after you’ve submitted your application materials.

10. Don’t be caught off guard by technical glitches. Last year the Common App crashed during the height of early application season, causing mass panic as many students found they were unable to login to the site and prompting some colleges to push back deadlines. While the Common App says it has worked to address these issues, don’t wait until the last minute to fill out your application.

“You don’t want to be scrambling in the zero hour,” says Cohen. “The students least affected by the Common App’s technical troubles were those who started early and had plenty of time to troubleshoot issues before the application deadlines.”

To stay on top of site glitches, subscribe to email alerts about issues they’re having and what you can do as a temporary workaround.