Timing & Preparation: The Common Application

The Common App makes it easy to apply to multiple colleges and universities.

by Lee Norwood, Annapolis College Consulting, July 1, 2019

Junior year is in the books. Summer is finally here. You have a moment to exhale……… Done? You had your moment. Now teens and families need to start thinking about other things like your final college list and the applications for numerous schools.

In the old days, applying to 12 colleges meant 12 different college applications; now things are much easier.  The Common Application, which is accepted by more than 800 schools, including some located outside the U.S, is one place where a student can enter their basic demographic information and extracurricular activities that will be able to be sent to multiple schools. You do not have to use the Common App, but it certainly makes life easier.

“The idea behind the Common App is to try and reduce the barriers that students face when applying to college,” says Jenny Rickard, president and CEO of The Common Application.

The Common App may be confusing for some families who are new to the college application process.  So, we decided to answer some of the burning questions of the day.

[Get tips and tactics from college students on how to use the Common App.]

Starting before the Common App opens August 1

By working with us on your resume and personal statement, you are already preparing for the Common Application which opens August 1st.

You want to dig deep, discuss as a family, and include your extracurricular accomplishments on your resume. Gather details and show an impressive story. Perfecting your resume first really helps because it makes the application a bit easier because you will already have strong statements and utilize the specific number of characters in the best possible way.

To stay on track, we love the Common App’s mobile app to stay on top of deadlines, invite recommenders, and set reminders.

Students don’t have to submit their college applications during the summer, but starting the Common Application in August will give them the opportunity to review the specific additional requirements for schools they’re considering, draft supplemental essays and get some of the tedious background information completed before they start their busy senior year.

To start, applicants can go to commonapp.org and click on the “Get Started” button to get details about how to create an account and log in to work on an application through the platform. The official application opens August 1st, so don’t fill in the details in your Common App account yet.

SOME GOOD LINKS TO HELP YOU

 [Avoid these big college application mistakes.]

WHAT CAN YOUR ESSAY/PERSONAL STATEMENT BE ABOUT?

Essays are 10-30% of the admissions decision, so take your time and answer with interesting details. The Common App essay prompts for the 2019-2020 school year will be the same as the seven prompts used last year and have a 650-word limit.

Your main personal statement essay really needs to show the admissions department who you are and why you would be an asset to their campus. The prompts are just that, you want to tell an impressive story that compels the reader to want to learn more about you. Differentiate yourself from others. Don’t write the essay that has already been written: sports injury, church mission trip, grandmother being your idol, etc.

Some colleges will ask you to write additional supplemental essays. Each essay should be completely different and focus on different aspects of you while answering the specific question. The essays should be able to tell the reader who you are, what core values are important to you, if you have a unique skill or ability, and that you will bring something of unique worth to their campus.

Not all schools require students to submit an essay and some require additional essays or information. Applicants can see the requirements for all schools on the Common App when they log in to their student accounts or download a PDF from the Common App’s website.

Students can also preview supplemental questions for schools before they start their applications through the platform’s Applicant Solutions Center.

[Learn common reasons why college applications get rejected.]

Is the Common App Mandatory?

No. But it sure makes life easier. Many schools allow students to apply online through their websites. Some states have application systems that students can or must use in order to apply to schools.

Other platforms accepted by some schools include the Coalition Application and the Universal College Application. And while there are some exceptions, many schools that use those platforms also use the Common App.

Do Schools Prefer to Get the Common App?

Colleges that allow students to submit applications through multiple platforms don’t have a preference on which one is used, but high school counselors might. The Common App’s integration with Naviance, a college and career readiness software provider, makes it easy for counselors to submit documentation for colleges, experts say.

 A few colleges require that you do use their specific application, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Georgetown University in the District of Columbia only accept applications through their school websites. The University of Maryland, Virginia Tech, and University of Washington in Seatlle only accept the Coalition App.

5 Important Elements Colleges Look For

  1. High Grades. Grades are a sign of intellect and effort, and the best indication of how you will perform in college. College admissions wants you to take the hardest classes that you can that you will get at least a B in. Focus on your grades and work with your teachers.
  2. Taking the most rigorous curriculum that you can while still getting high grades. AP’s, Honors, College Classes, IB if available. Colleges consider your options and want you to  challenge yourself and be successful. Here is an article on choosing the right classes.
  3. Standardized Test Scores. Many colleges consider these, but some colleges are test optional. There are choices you should consider before you start this process. Is the ACT or the SAT right for you? When should you take the standardized tests? How should you prepare for each test to be successful in the college process? Testing information.
  4. Write an Essay in senior year that strikes a chord with the admissions representatives. What do we need to tell colleges to make you the kind of candidate that they want? College essays should be very personal, thoughtful and demonstrate your background, values, goals, or an achievement. Here is an article on writing a memorable college essay.
  5. Your Demonstrated Interest in the institution. You need to show that this is a college that you are very interested in, not just one on your list which is a back-up school. Many college admissions offices track every contact you have with them. How to demonstrate interest.

The National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) annually surveys member colleges and universities. Here are the latest survey results for what colleges say is important:

  • Grades in college prep courses: 79.2%
  • Grades in all courses: 60.3%
  • Strength of curriculum: 60.2%
  • Admission test scores: 55.7%
  • Essay or writing sample: 22.1%
  • Student’s demonstrated interest: 16.9%
  • Counselor recommendations: 17.3%
  • Class rank: 14.0%
  • Teacher recommendation: 15.2%
  • Subject test scores (AP/IB): 7.0%
  • Portfolio: 6.6%
  • Interview: 3.5%
  • SAT II scores: 5.3%
  • Extracurricular activities: 5.6%

Your Checklist for Senior Year

Staying on top of the college process is key to your success. Here is a month by month listing of what you need to do. Please stay current and communicate with us.

AUGUST / SEPTEMBER

❑ Start to fill out your Common App, Coalition App, or Specific College Apps. Make sure that we see your essays before they are added.

❑ Check Naviance and sign up for college visits at your school. Read this article, it will make a big difference, Know your college representative.

❑ Decide if you will apply Early Decision or Early Action to your top choice school. If so make sure everything is sent on time. Let us know.

❑ Tell your counselor and recommenders when you need letters written by. They need at least three weeks’ notice.

❑ Look at the fall calendar — plan final campus visits/interviews.

❑ Take a look at your social media and clean it up!

❑ Request interviews at colleges that you are interested in, where available.

OCTOBER

ED and EA candidates prepare to submit applications by the deadline, Oct. 15th, Nov. 1st, or 15th!

❑ Attend local college fairs and college visits at your high school. Connect with the people who will be reading your application.

❑ Check Naviance to follow up with recommenders to make sure that they have written their letters.

❑ Fill out the FAFSA and CSS Profile if you qualify to receive financial aid. The FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) and the CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE (required by many private schools and a few flagship state universities).

❑ Take advantage of priority deadlines — get your application considered sooner and increase eligibility for merit aid.

❑ Use our tracking form to stay on top of what’s due when. Plan to submit applications before the due dates, preferably before winter vacation!

❑ Confirm that counselor and teacher recommendation letters have been uploaded into Naviance and request transcripts be sent to the schools you’re applying to (there may be a small fee for each transcript).

❑ Decide which test scores (SAT, ACT) to send and order score reports.

❑ Follow up with colleges to make sure all application materials were received.

NOVEMBER

❑ Continue to “demonstrate interest” in schools — open emails from colleges, call the admission office to request an alumni interview, etc.

Make sure all essays are approved by us before they are sent to colleges. The deadline to have the draft in to us is Thanksgiving.

❑ Finalize your college list and finish all essays.

❑ Follow up with colleges to make sure all application materials were received.

DECEMBER

❑ Note financial aid application deadlines, which may differ from admission application deadlines.

❑ Proof any remaining applications one final time and “submit”!

❑ Let us know about any acceptance you receive.

JANUARY

❑ Make sure mid-year grade reports are sent to all schools you’ve applied to.

FEBRUARY

❑ Beware of Senioritis…stay on track academically!

❑ Begin planning for summer (work, travel, volunteering, etc.).

MARCH

❑ Decisions arrive in the mail and/or online by the end of the month, so get ready to handle and share “the news.”

❑ Celebrate!

APRIL

❑ Attend “admitted student” events on campus and compare/contrast other aspects of the schools where you were accepted (including financial aid awards).

❑ If you were waitlisted, express interest to the school.

❑ Send a deposit by May 1st to accept a spot at the college of your choice!

❑ Continue to do your work in class so grades don’t “droop” too much.

❑ Start planning the graduation party!

MAY

❑ Thank teachers, counselors, and coaches who helped you apply to college.

❑ Open and respond promptly to communications from the college — information about housing, orientation, course registration, etc.

❑ Study for finals and AP exams — end the year strong.

❑ Solidify summer plans (work? travel? study? volunteer?).

❑ Connect with future classmates (and perhaps find a roommate) through the college’s official social media sites.

❑ Enjoy time with your friends and family and bask in the glow of your accomplishments at graduation!

Impacting the World Around You

New research shows that 47 percent of high school seniors graduated last year with an “A” average — up from about 39 percent in 1998. But average SAT scores fell 24 points in that same period.

The authors of the study — Michael Hurwitz of The College Board and Jason Lee of the University of Georgia — said the trend signals grade inflation over the past two decades. With signs of grade inflation, students are more often earning the same exact GPA, making the job of college admissions officers more complicated. “The variation in GPAs have actually decreased by 10 percent”. So, what can you do?

College admissions officers are talking more and more about how applicants impact their communities.  According to Sara Harberson, in her article about the Five Biggest Trends in College Admissions we see Impact Over Leadership. She writes,When I first started out in college admissions, “getting in” was all about leadership titles. Students had to gather the highest level of leadership in each club activity to feel like they could stand out in a highly competitive applicant pool. Nowadays, making an “impact” on a cause, movement, hobby, or commitment is much more respected.

This new paradigm allows a student to pursue something meaningful to them which may or may not fit into a traditional activity like student government, athletics, or community service. The student who creates something on their own, moves a cause forward, or independently pursues a transformative project shows initiative, influence, and ingenuity. This has effectively reset the way colleges view and evaluate extracurricular activities.”

When reviewing applications, colleges are ultimately putting together a class. They want to fill that class with individuals who can contribute positively to the campus’s community and have a meaningful impact. When new students are living and learning together, they’re constantly interacting and are having an impact on one another’s learning environment. That’s why colleges spend so much time thinking about the impact you’ll have on campus culture and community. They want every impact you make on campus – whether it’s in the classroom, dorms, or even in the cafeteria – to be a positive one!

Here is what the University of California Admissions and other colleges are looking for. “Special talents, achievements and awards in a particular field, such as visual and performing arts, communication or athletic endeavors; special skills, such as demonstrated written and oral proficiency in other languages; special interests, such as intensive study and exploration of other cultures; experiences that demonstrate unusual promise for leadership, such as significant community service or significant participation in student government; or other significant experiences or achievements that demonstrate the student’s promise for contributing to the intellectual vitality of a campus.”

So, with the new school year, start thinking about how you can make a positive impact in your community. You can start small. Look for others who need help in the classroom. Can you offer assistance? Soon you’ll see that you can easily identify whether or not others need help, and before it’s asked of you.

How can you make a positive impact in an extracurricular setting? Is there a way you can invest yourself in student government, athletics or clubs? You can also think about your immediate community – your family? Are there ways to help out by doing volunteer work in your community? Try finding an afterschool program or community organization to help. Colleges want to see this so highlighting meaningful examples in your activities list and essays enhance your application. There are plenty of ways you can have an impact so strive to make a difference!

Tips for Writing the Essay “Why This College”

Writing the Essay 

Many colleges ask a variation of the same question in their application, “Why are you considering our institution?” It is not a fluke that they ask this. Nor is it an opportunity to quickly jot down an answer, or worse, re-use an answer from another application! Colleges ask this question because your answer tells them a lot about how serious you are about their institution; this is why this question deserves some serious thought!

Colleges look for ‘likelihood to enroll’ when admitting students. They will not waste a spot on a student who is not likely to commit to attending. These essays can be a strong indicator of how much (or little) research you have done.  If you have strong, specific reasons for considering a college, they will notice.

These questions are also a two-way street. They give you the ability to signal why a college might be a good fit for you as well as why you might be a good fit for their college. Letting them know about your interests, ambitions and what you bring to campus shows them you have a serious connection and an understanding of the college deeper than its surface-level characteristics.

Tips for writing effective “why our institution?” responses.

Dissect the prompt. Take note of what they are actually asking. Are there key words or aspects of campus that they bring up themselves? If they ask what academic programs are prompting your application, or how their college fits your future goals, it is best to address these aspects of the question first rather than as an afterthought or not at all.

Specificity is key. It is not enough to say that you like their athletic facilities or that they have interesting classes. Look up the name of the complex or have an idea of the academic path you could take. This does not mean you need to know every single detail about a part of campus or program, but generic answers get generic evaluations in the admission process. Signal that you know what you are talking about.

If it is obvious to you, it is obvious to them. They already know where their campus is located, the programs they offer and what campus looks like. Tell them how you feel about their campus. Center your answer on how you connect to the campus. Err on the side of giving a personal answer, not something surface-level like the weather. On that note…

Bring it back to you. Think about the things or characteristics you want your future college to have. Again, this is deeper than just your major or their facilities. Do you want a college that emphasizes something in particular like research, leadership, or career development? Do you want personal interactions with faculty and staff or would you rather be in a larger setting? Think about the things that you want and only they can offer.

Connect the dots for them. This question is an opportunity to reinforce the connection you are trying to make with their institution. Provide an answer that shows them you are match for their needs and they are a match for yours. Remember, there is a difference between loving a college for its writing program and loving a college because “students in the program get to craft work in a hands-on environment with some of the top minds in the world of historical fiction.”

So, is your answer strong and specific? Here is a trick that admission counselors often use. They will take the name of a similar peer institution and drop it into your answer in place of their school’s name. If the answer still makes sense with the other school, they will know you did not put much effort into developing your answer.

Fall Checklist for Senior Year

Applying to college is a complex process so it is important that you stay on top of the different elements.

Congratulations you have made it this far, don’t slow down yet, and don’t allow anxiety or doubt to take a hold. We will all get through this process beautifully if you can stay focused. I am available to help you as long as you do your part, which I know that you can. Please read all these steps and take the time to implement them.

Input Your Activities Sheet into the Common Application – If you have not sent the finished version to me, please do it soon. This should be given to your teachers and guidance counselor so they can write stronger letters or recommendation. If not everything fits onto the Common Application pare down the wording, and reach out to me if you have questions.

Work on Your Essays – If we have not brainstormed themes, I would like to know what subject you are writing about before you put significant time into the essay. Pick an interesting topic that shows what you can contribute to a college. Here is an article which is helpful: https://annapoliscollegeconsulting.com/writing-great-college-essays/ . Essays take numerous revisions so please start them early. You cannot expect to leave it till the last minute and assume that I can review it that day. Some schools have supplemental essays, and some do not use the common application and have their own unique essay. Please stay on top of this.

Have Your List of Colleges Finalized Soon – If you still have questions about a few colleges, research them further. Here is an article on what to consider https://annapoliscollegeconsulting.com/researching-a-college/. Peruse their website and call the admissions office to ask any questions that you cannot get answers to from the website. Visit the college if it is less than four hours away from where you live. Visiting is the best way to get a sense of the atmosphere and fit for you.

Demonstrate Interest in Your Top Colleges – If you missed this article, please read it https://annapoliscollegeconsulting.com/demonstrate-interest/.

College Representatives Visiting Your School – A great way to show interest is to meet with the college representatives of the schools you are interested in, when they come to your school. That individual is going to be one of the people looking at your application to decide if you should be admitted. Dress well, look interested, ask an intelligent question, shake their hand at the end of the meeting, and ask for one of their business cards. Write them a thank you note and let them know why you are very interested in their institution.

Senior Surveys or Brag Sheets – Most high school guidance counselors ask you to fill these out. Do an excellent job on this. Many counselors use this document as a blueprint for what they write about you. Make it interesting, clear and positive. Also give your counselor a copy of your activities list to enhance your information. https://annapoliscollegeconsulting.com/your-senior-survey-letter-of-recommendation/

Teacher Recommendations / Counselor Recommendations / Transcript Request Forms need to be requested two to three weeks before the college’s application deadline. I will be sending you a sheet to track your applications. You must make sure that you let everyone know when your deadlines are so that they will do their part. Find out what your school’s policy is on getting this done. https://annapoliscollegeconsulting.com/how-to-fill-out-the-parent-brag-sheet/

You Need to Send Test Scores to the Colleges – Test Scores can take up to three weeks to be sent to your colleges, so go on-line and fill out the form. Most schools allow you to choose which scores to send. If you have higher scores on different tests you might want to send all of them.

It seems like a lot, but doing it correctly should give you the outcome you desire!!!

A William & Mary Student’s Essay

Halfway across the globe and with no more knowledge of my location than a fishing boat in the Dead Sea, there I found myself, a Panamanian boy who had never stepped past the familiar boundaries of the Americas, in the extravagant land formerly known as Siam. Little did I know that within a few months I would dismiss any fears or misconceptions I had of my new country of residence, and embrace a culture formerly unknown to me.

My parents divorced when I was young, and I had to live in an apartment in a crowded metropolitan area. The expense of living in a suburban home was too much for my mother who had to care for two children by herself. As it was not the right setting for outdoor activities, my mother taught me to use my time for studying instead. Although this helped me excel at school, it made me somewhat of an outcast amongst my peers, who preferred to play sports rather than expand their minds.

After my mom re-married, we moved to Bangkok, Thailand. My initial reactions were mostly negative, as I was afraid of living in a place that I had not even heard of, and feared that I would be an outcast there too, as I did not even know the local language.

I was wrong; living in Thailand proved to be the most wonderful experience of my life. There, I had the opportunity to familiarize myself with a culture more accepting and richer than my own. What I loved about it the most were the people. Never in my life could I have predicted that I would feel so accepted in a place so unknown to me. The love and smiles that Thai people radiated combined with their casual attire and friendly demeanor could have made even the grumpiest of grouches smile like a child. Living amongst these people opened my mind, and allowed me to evaluate my own culture from an objective point of view; making me see how constrained and unhappy my life truly was back at the place I called “home.”

Asia was not the only continent I visited during those three wonderful years, as my school, the International School of Bangkok, granted me the opportunity to visit Prague as part of their Week Without Walls program. There, I saw how life was in a place where the weather was the opposite of the warm tropical climate I was accustomed to, and how its people would still remain warm and friendly regardless. In Prague, I visited different chapels and medieval structures that astonished and overpowered me. Although I was raised Catholic, I had never truly felt the presence of an omnipotent being until I was surrounded by those magnificent and beautiful walls.

And now I find myself in a new home. I have already become fond of this great nation, which embodies the unison of all the cultures to which I have been exposed to, all under one flag, and I expect to see the diversity, which this nation was founded upon, continue to flourish throughout my stay, however long that may be.