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The Common App: 2020 and Beyond

If you’re applying for college in the here and now, you are probably familiar with the Common App. The Common App is a shared college application accepted by most colleges and universities. Before the Common App, students had to apply individually to each school for which they wanted to be considered and fill out forms with much of the same information again and again. The Common App streamlines the college application process, but it is still a big undertaking. Use these tips to help complete your Common App.

Get Your Materials Together

The Common App is a long application and some of the information you’ll need to submit won’t necessarily be at your fingertips. Before you start, you will want to gather the following:

  • Your high school transcript
    You’ll be asked to fill out your academic transcript with your high school grades and courses. You may able to access your transcript through an online portal. If not, ask your school counselor to print it out or email it to you.
  • A list of extracurricular activities and responsibilities
    Colleges want to know about what you do outside of the classroom, too! Your hobbies, clubs, sports teams, jobs and community activities help round out your application.
  • Your test scores
    You probably know your SAT, ACT and AP scores by heart – since you worked so hard for them! Most schools require that you take the SAT or ACT, but others may have a flexible testing policy.
  • Information about your parents/legal guardians
    Colleges gather information about applicants’ parents, among other demographical data. Ask your parents about where they went to school, their degrees, their job and their employment status.
  • Your academic honors
    If you’ve earned awards or honors for your academic work, be sure to show them off to colleges.

Make a Profile

When you have your information together, sign up for the Common App. It’s an easy application process even for first time applicants. When creating an account, you’ll be asked to provide an email address. Make sure this is an address you check frequently and can easily access. Remember to register with the name that appears on your official school records and test scores – even if it’s not the name you go by.

Common App profiles don’t disappear the moment your college decisions are made. If you decide to transfer schools, you can use your already filled-out account to apply elsewhere as a transfer student.

Select your Schools

The Common App makes it easy to search for schools, with a robust search tool that can find schools close to your zip code or narrow down colleges by their application fees or standardize testing policies. You can add up to 20 colleges to your Dashboard for quick access.

Once you’ve added schools, you’ll be able to access their required supplement to the Common App. Colleges often ask students to answer additional questions or write supplemental essays. Colleges use their Common App supplements to get a closer, school-specific look at applicants. They encourage students to flex their creative muscles and may ask them to reflect on an aspect of themselves that does not otherwise appear in their standard application.

Organize your Essay

The Common App Essay is the piece of writing that every school you apply to will see and evaluate for its content, grammar and style. Typically, the Common App offers six different essay prompts, with the seventh prompt being a topic of your choice. Students can use the Common App essay to illustrate a part of themselves that can’t be quantified in the general application, like their identity, their upbringing, or their way of seeing the world.

The Word Limit

The Common App is a stickler when it comes to word limits. Currently, essays must be between 250 and 650 words. Depending on what kind of student you are, that can sound like a little or a lot. With that in mind, check out these tips:

If your essay is too long…

  • Shorten sentences without losing their cadence. Rambling, conversational sentences should be avoided – you want to demonstrate that you know proper essay writing conventions.
  • Remove adverbs. Adverbs are often added to sentences superfluously (see what we did there?). They’re the easiest word part to cut out. See if you can replace adverbs with more specific and action-oriented verbs.
  • Stick to the prompt. Don’t let your essay take a turn off-topic. Avoid tangents and focus on answering and illustrating the prompt you chose.

If your essay is too short…

  • Vary up your sentence structure. This is a paragraph. Every sentence is similar. The paragraph lacks finesse. The reader will get bored. But if you add a bit of flow, a preposition here, a clause there – suddenly your paragraph has legs to stand on! If you’re not sure how to vary your sentences, take a look over some of your favorite books and see how those authors give their sentences variety.
  • Use your five senses. Colleges are sure you felt “good” when your team won the state championships. But what does feeling good feel like? Is your heart racing with adrenaline? Are your shoulders sagging with relief? Can you hear the roar of the crowd or the cheers of your teammates? Sensory detail livens up your descriptions and brings the reader into the scene.
  • Add an introduction and conclusion. Your essay should follow a typical essay format, with an introduction, body paragraphs and conclusion. Adding an introduction can help set the scene. Use a conclusion to reiterate and strengthen your position.

Create your Support Team

Your parents or guardians, friends, teachers, guidance counselors, tutors, coaches and community leaders all want to see you get into college and begin your post-secondary education career. Don’t be afraid to ask for their help with tackling the Common App. While they can’t fill out your education details or write you the perfect college essay, they can double check what you’ve typed, proofread or edit your essay and help you brainstorm ideas for college supplement questions. When you start hearing back from colleges, remember to thank all the people who helped you get there!

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Last Reviewed: October 2020