Back in my day (when dinosaurs roamed the earth) (also, get off my lawn!), most colleges had their own application. They were made of something called paper, and we filled them out using things we called “typewriters” and “pens.” As you can imagine, when it came time to write the application essay, lots of white-out and cursing was involved to make a good impression.
In 1975 (which was way before I went to college, just so we’re clear), several private colleges realized that most of the information on these various applications was repeated: contact information, gpa, how many years your father spent in college. (It was when I was filling out my applications that I discovered that while both my parents had attended college, neither had actually graduated. Horrors!) The Common Application was born (still on paper), making it easier for students to apply to college more efficiently, by chiseling info onto the stone tablets once and then photocopying them to mail to the member colleges. It wasn’t until 1998 that the Common Application joined the computer age.
Although it has a couple competitors, the Common Application (known to its friends as the Common App) is the Big Daddy of undergraduate college applications. Accepted by more than 600 member schools in the US and around the world, the Common App is meant to streamline your application process by allowing you to fill out one application for every school you apply to. Obviously there are more than 600 colleges in the US, so the App is not common to all of them, but most of the highly selective colleges and major state schools do accept it.
What do they want to know?
The information on Common App is pretty general. There are questions about who you are, how to get in touch with you, your family, your education, your extracurricular activities, your standardized testing. And then there is the Writing section, where you are asked to upload a personal essay of between 250-650 words on one of their predetermined, very broad topics. The application essay is the subject of another blog post so I won’t go into that here.
Essay? No, thank you!
Yes, sorry. Depending on where you apply, it may be the only essay you have to write (Bard, Middlebury) or it may be just one of a number of other short and long essays (Yale, UChicago). The Writing section also asks about your disciplinary history (and a short essay explaining it if you have one) and “Additional info” which is where you explain anything important you want colleges to know about you that has not already been covered elsewhere in the application.
What are supplements?
Most colleges that you apply to through Common App also have a supplement (sometimes called the writing supplement) for you to complete. The supplement has questions specific to the college: what extracurricular activities will you participate in on campus, are you related to any alumni, etc. This is also the place where you designate the people who will provide your letters of recommendation (only after asking them to write a letter for you!), so those people will get an email from Common App with a link where they can upload their letter. (Sending recommendation letters through snail mail is so 2005.) There will probably also be at least one additional essay in the writing supplement.
What else do I need to apply?
The Common App is free for you to use, although each individual school you apply to will probably require an application fee or fee waiver when you submit your applications. You do need to arrange through your school for a transcript and school profile to be sent. (That usually happens through Naviance or Parchment if your school has those things.) Even though you reported your test scores, you will still need to ask ACT or SAT to send official score results to the schools. Depending on the school, you may also need to submit the CSS/PROFILE, FAFSA, and other financial documents before your application is considered complete.
Are their other common applications?
Yes! The Universal Application debuted in 2014 with about 50 member schools. The Coalition for Access and Affordability is supposed to bring their new application online with 80 member schools on April 1, 2016. I would point out, though, that many highly-selective schools, like the Ivies, will accept any of these applications. There is also one common application for colleges in Texas (ApplyTexas) and for colleges in California system (The UC Application and CSU Mentor).
Thanks to Dwight School (https://www.dwight.edu/) for letting me use their infographic!
Most students ask: “Is it better to get a B in an AP class or an A in a regular class?”
The answer I always get from college admissions officers is: “It’s better to get an A in an AP class.”
I interpret this to mean that there is no good answer to this question. If they say it’s important to get an A, they’ll get transcripts full of A’s in Mickey Mouse classes. No bueno. If they say it’s okay to get a B in an AP class, students may not take that course load seriously. Also no bueno.
character. Are you the kind of person who enjoys a challenge? Because college will be challenging. Can you manage your time well? Do you have study skills? Both of these things are vital to the successful college student. And, frankly, they don't want to admit a student who is likely to wash out after first semester.
Sign up for the most difficult classes available to you that you will do well in. This means take that AP or dual-enrollment college class in an area of interest or an area of strength, because that makes it easier handle the workload. Take the hardest English composition class available to you. You will thank me when you get to college. If you’re looking at a selective or highly selective school, take that fourth year of math, even if it’s not required and you’re not planning to major in anything mathy. Same goes for science. This is not the year to check off your graduation requirements and blow off anything you “don’t need.”
As if college admissions wasn't confusing enough, at many colleges you have your choice of dates to apply. This sounds like a good thing, until you realize your first application deadline might be in October or November of your senior year!
Don't panic! With a little bit of knowledge, you got this.
Early Decision: If you apply Early Decision (ED), you are agreeing that, if the college accepts you, you will attend. No questions asked. This is a binding agreement that can only be undone if your financial aid award is not sufficient. Many schools accept a higher percentage of students from their ED applicant pool because they know they can count on them to show up in September, which is not the case for regular decision applicants.
Early Action: Like Early Decision, Early Action (EA) is also really early. The difference is that early action is a non-binding agreement. You can apply to many EA schools and not agree to attend until May. This helps with financial aid, because you'll know exactly what the school will cost you before you agree, unlike Early Decision. College usually accept a greater percentage of Early Action students than of the regular application pool, but not always. Check the individual college you're thinking of because assuming you have a better chance going EA.
Single-Choice Early Action: This variant of early action requires you to apply to only one college early. You are still not obligated to attend, and you get the benefit of early admissions, but the school has less competition in this scenario. Applicants who are not accepted SCEA will often be rolled over to the regular admissions pool.
Regular Admission: Most colleges have application deadlines in January and February, otherwise known as the Dark Night of the Soul. Don't put off applications until winter break or you'll ruin your vacation.
Rolling Admissions: Many state colleges have rolling admissions, which means you can apply anytime before their final deadline (frequently in March). Be aware that these schools may have financial aid deadlines that are earlier than their last-chance application deadlines. Apply for financial aid early to get the best chance at a good award.
Open Admissions: Open admissions schools will take anyone who applies. You generally find open admissions at community colleges or very small state schools. Apply anytime.
The Bottom Line: There can be good reasons to start your college planning in your junior year, especially if you want to apply to a highly-selective school. Being ready to apply in October or November can give you a leg up in the admissions process. Be aware that its unethical for a college make you apply before October 15 or accept admission before May 1.
Do you have a friend wondering about all the different kinds of college deadlines? Use the share button to pass this along!
Admissions Committees have two ways to get to know the real you: your essays, and your letters of recommendation. (Three ways, if you interview, but not everyone can do that.) Colleges want to know the living, breathing, learning, pizza-eating, Netflix-binge-watching student who will wander their campus, stay up all night studying in the library and play beach volleyball in the residence quad. As with the essays, colleges want to know: Who are you? Will you be a good roommate? How will you contribute to campus life?
A simple transcript doesn't answer that question. Your essay presents that information from your point of view, but the letters of recommendation from your counselor, your teachers or other adults who know you well can make the difference between a place on the waitlist or an offer of admission. So here are some tips to keep in mind to get great letters of recommendation.
1) Start Early
Most students don't even think about getting recommendations until fall of senior year, when they see the application requires them. Then they approach the teacher in their hardest class, thinking that having a letter from their AP English or Calculus teacher will look good to the Admissions Committee. Stop right there.
While I'm sure your AP English teacher is a lovely person and writes really good letters, he or she has only known you for a month or two. Probably not enough time to get a feeling for you as a student, much less you as a person. Admissions committees can tell when the recommender doesn't know the student well, so it comes off as a lukewarm recommendation, even when the letter sings your praises.
A better idea is to approach your junior year teachers in the spring, after they've had you in class for an entire year and have really gotten to know you and your classroom habits. If you have one, approach a teacher in a core class (English, math, social studies, science, foreign language), who has known you over multiple years. Not only will they have more to write about, but they can also offer perspective on how you've grown and matured since freshman year.
2) Be polite
Remember, you're asking your recommenders for a favor. Be polite: ask in person first whether or not the person feels they can write you a good recommendation. Hopefully they will be honest with you. A poor or vague recommendation can actually be worse than no recommendation at all.
3) Give your recommender plenty of time
Contrary to elementary school suspicions, teachers don't live in their classrooms or get put away in the broom closet at the end of the day. They have lives and families and other responsibilities (shocking, I know). So your request for a recommendation is the equivalent to a big homework project: they're willing to do it, but it's going to take some time to fit it in. Give your recommenders at least six weeks lead time before the letter has to be in the mail/submitted via Naviance or the Common Application. This is another reason why asking at the end of junior year is better than fall of senior year. Your recommenders have all summer to work on your letter at their convenience, so you're likely to get a better product. In the fall, you're competing for time with other seniors' letters, plus homework grading, lesson planning, Parents' Night and all the other things teachers have to do to start off the new school year. (You didn't think teachers just taught the same lessons in the same way year after year, did you?)
4) Give them plenty to write about
Many teachers ask (or require) you to fill out a "Brag Sheet" for them to refer to when writing your letter. This is a way for them to fill in any gaps in their knowledge about you, and a way for those senior year teachers to have something to say about a student they may have just met. If you've been keeping your activities resume or website up to date, this would serve the same purpose as a brag sheet. Better to write a personal letter or email to the teacher, thanking them for agreeing to recommend you, and reminding them of one or two things you have identified as important for the admissions committee to hear. Demonstrated leadership and academic achievement are almost always good topics. Have you distinguished yourself in classroom discussion? Has this teacher singled you out for praise for a project, paper or other accomplishment, or invited you to do something special (join an academic team, take a more advanced class, teach Spanish to preschoolers)? Mention that in your request letter. (If not, you might consider whether this is the right teacher to ask for a recommendation.) Here's a sample of what the recommendation request might look like:
With your request letter, you need to provide stamped envelopes addressed to the school the letter is going to. Multiple schools need multiple copies of the letter, so mention all the schools in your request. If you're using Naviance or the Common Application, mention in your letter than you will send them email links to upload their letters. If you like, you can ask your recommenders to seal their letters in envelopes that you will then include in your application package, but since paper applications are pretty old school, that can be weird. Having multiple sealed hard-copies is quite handy for scholarship applications, though, as many of those are not as internet-savvy.
A Note About Naviance and other online applications:
Web-based application programs allow you to just list your choice of recommenders, who are then sent an email by the program with a link to upload their letter. This is meant as a convenience for the recommender. However, it makes it way too easy for students to let the program do the asking for them. DO NOT LIST ANYONE WITHOUT FIRST ASKING THEM IN PERSON AND FOLLOWING UP WITH A REQUEST LETTER! There is no better way to get a terrible recommendation letter--or no letter at all--than to essentially summon your teacher's recommendation.
5) Follow up with a thank-you note
About four weeks after you send the request letter, send a (preferably hand-written) thank you note to the teacher. This accomplishes two things: a) reminds them how awesome you are, in case you decide to apply to more colleges or to scholarship competitions and need more copies of the letter in the future, and b) reminds them of the deadline, in case they've become so busy they forgot. Teachers are usually pretty organized and great at multitasking, but things happen. A polite note can keep your applications on track without nagging.
BONUS TIP: While it can be convenient to have non-confidential recommendations, admissions officers generally give more weight and credibility to confidential letters. This doesn't mean that you can't ever see your recommendations (some teachers will show them to you anyway), but indicating on the application that you have not seen the letters is better.
The college essay, for undergrad or graduate school, is the most dreaded, and most important, writing you will do senior year. The dread is in direct proportion to the importance: if it was just any old essay, who cares? But no, this essay, this one or two page piece of writing, determines your. entire. future.
The admissions essay is how you distinguish yourself from the crowd of other students the Admissions Office has never met, and whose numbers all look the same. The Committee wants to know: what makes you special? Will you be a good roommate? Will you contribute in the classroom? On campus? Who are you and why do you want to go to our school?
Your college essay doesn't have to be monumental, it just has to be true to you. Just like your Facebook page and your Twitter account (which you have cleaned up, right?), the essay is your chance to put your best foot forward and show what is unique about you. Since college is the place to re-invent yourself, consider this your first opportunity. Who do you want to be when you get to college? Write that person's essay!
Rules for making your essay the best it can be:
1) Don't be afraid to show your personality. If you dropped a draft of the essay in the hallway between classes, would your best friend know you wrote it? You can (and should) ask for proofreading help and reactions from your friends, your parents, your admissions consultant and/or your teachers, but the final editing decisions must be yours, in your authentic voice. The Admissions Committee can spot a parent-written essay a mile away. (HINT: They usually sound like "Jeremy has been a model student with a 3.8 GPA...")
2) Pick a topic you feel passionate about. Was your bar mitvah or quinceanera super important to you or was it just an excuse to have a party? (One of the new Common Application essay topics is on a "coming of age" ceremony in your ethnic background.) Was working at the soup kitchen that one Thanksgiving really the turning point in your life?
If these really were transformative experiences, then write about them. But if you're writing about something because someone told you that's what Admissions Committees want to hear, forget it. There will be thousands of warmed-over soup kitchen essays, and writing the same essay as everyone else is not the way to distinguish yourself.
3. Don't wait until the last minute.
Seriously, don't wait until the day before your application is due. Not only will it cause considerable stress and probably ruin your winter break, but you'll lose the opportunity to get feedback from others. I know what I'm talking about, my mother had to lock me in my room to get me to write my essay. #real talk
TALK BACK! How's your essay coming?
I'm always available to my clients by text. Contact me to learn more about how inexpensive it can be to have a college counselor on call!