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5 Tips for Students Filling Out the Common App

Sunday was a big day in my household. August 1st always is. It is the day when the Common Application goes live with an updated template for the next college admissions cycle. It's like my oldest daughter waiting for a new Taylor Swift album to drop in the middle of the night and then listening to every song over and over again for the next 24 hours or more.

Common App is my version of a Taylor Swift album. There is not a day that goes by that I don't spend time on Common App, apart from the few days it is unavailable every July for its annual update. I fill out sections to test them out. I see how many different ways there are to describe an activity in 150 characters or less. And I give students insight on how to answer a question that reveals a piece of who they are even if the question appears to be as straightforward as possible. I am an expert at making Common App your own Taylor Swift album—full of nuance, personality, and verve.

The Common App or any college application is really a blank canvas that could be filled out quickly without much thought or could be the most accurate and detailed representation of who the student is. I recently walked my Application Nation - Class of 2022 group through every section of the Common App during our Zoom call. Here's a peek at what I shared with them:

1. Fill out the "Profile" and "Family" information with your parents.

There will be questions about where you were born, where your parents went to college, when they graduated, and even what their official job titles are. You will be surprised at how many things you don't know about yourself and your parents. 

2. Have your official transcripts and score reports right by your side when filling out the "Education," "Testing," and "Courses and Grades" (if required) sections.

If you make one little mistake reporting your GPA, rank, grades, classes, or scores, that can be grounds for a denial or an admissions acceptance being rescinded.

3. Have proof for everything you report.

Since the admissions scandal broke two years ago, colleges are more likely to verify applications or specific items listed in the application to ensure authenticity and honesty on the part of the student.

4. Invest time and thought in the extracurricular activities list—it is much more important than any resume you attach.

Admissions officers often rely solely on this list and rarely have the time or interest to look at an attached resume. 

5. Optional essays are required in my book if you want to be taken seriously by any college. 

Related Reading: My Summer Checklist for Rising Seniors

When I was a high school student, I had no plan in place when I started filling out college applications. I was just going through the motions in a detached way, almost like filling out a medical form that never sees the light of day. If I knew then what I know now, I would have recognized the power of my own story and allowed every facet of it to come through in each section of the application. Common App or any college application might be a template, but it has the potential to be a vessel of individuality and personal reflection. I hope it will be a vessel for you.