Why the Common Application Is So...Hard!

High School Student

Dec   2015



On the surface, the Common Application seems like a breeze. Just have some basic information, like address and parental education, and you’re good to go! Stressfully, it’s not nearly that clear-cut. I am a survivor, and I am here to try and give some tips on this monstrous task.

First and most critically is the green checkmark. Often seen as a symbol as completion (and it is intended to be one), it can be disastrously misleading. If one enters information—correct or otherwise—that fits within the question parameters, you’ll get a check mark. On more than one occasion I had entered partial information, intending to go back to it, and forgot it was incomplete (thanks to the checkmark) until the very last minute. Your best bet is to use the “Preview” feature found on every section of the Common App. Print all pages and go over each section one by one the old-fashioned way.

Now comes the real struggle, one I was not expecting until the second it happened, and it happened twice. The “Honors” section under “Education” is where the Common Application begins to separate the strong applicants from the weak. Here are a few tips when navigating the first of three very critical sections:

  1. Don’t feel obligated to fill every space—a few very distinguished awards are far better than five minor ones.
  2. Keep the titles short and sweet. You only have 50 characters, so make a title concise to what the award means. 
  3. Music awards do count. Do not hesitate to put any music or academic competition awards.
  4. Be sure to correctly gauge the reach of the award (i.e., school, state, national). No points are awarded for exaggeration.

Test scores are a breeze; activities, on the other hand, are not. Other than the essay, this is the most critical section of the application. In my opinion, this is where colleges begin to get a real idea of who you are. Make absolute sure to list activities in order of importance to you. I cannot stress this enough. Do not put what looks best at the top. The activity you are most passionate about should occupy the #1 position, and so on from there.

It is in this section that one really feels the burden of character limits. If parents or trusted teachers are available, now is definitely the time to take advantage of them. Do your best to organize each activity and description in Word or another program. The first time writing the “Position” and “Description” sections, don’t worry about character limit. On the second pass, work it down a little, and so on. Once it’s within the character limit, compare to your first draft to ensure you haven’t lost any important points. After you enter all the information into the actual Common App, use “Preview.” It shows you almost exactly what colleges will see and allows you to tweak so that each activity has the most impact.

Once again, you do not have to fill every section. Just like the “Honors” section, include things you are passionate about: jobs, internships, athletics, etc. A few gems are better than a ton of minor participation activities.

Of course, my little tutorial of sorts would not be complete without talking about the essay. Only 650 words, five prompts, and one chance. For me, the topic I wanted to write about jumped out immediately. For others it might not be that easy. A friend of mine could not make up her mind, so she wrote an opening paragraph for each topic and chose the one with the most impact. A solid idea, but she forgot the most crucial aspect of the entire Common Application: always do what is right for you. Don’t just choose the topic colleges want to hear—choose the one that will show who you really are. That’s the hard part. Then, just do it to it!

I promise you will not write the perfect essay on the first draft. It took me seven drafts and four separate reviewers before I knew it was the one. I can’t really give steps or tips on this critical section; it has to come from within. I will say, however, that if you write an essay about you, then you will have no regrets about the entire application.

So, then, why is the Common Application so hard? Well, it is an application after all. For some schools that do not include supplements (like Vanderbilt), it’s all they see of you. The difficulty is in the character limits, the order of importance, and the essay. What do all of these things have in common? They require your voice. Be you! If you feel that you’ve come across as well as possible throughout the application and you don’t get into the school you had your heart set on, then it wasn’t a good fit to begin with. Everything will be okay (at least that’s what I keep telling myself). On April 1, we will all be in the same boat anyway.

Over 600 colleges and universities accept the Common App. Start searching for them here!

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About Skyler Castillo-Wilson

Skyler Castillo-Wilson is a senior at Los Lunas High School in Los Lunas, New Mexico. He has taken a tough course load throughout high school and is anxious to see his hard work pay off. Skyler also plays saxophone and is Drum Major of the Los Lunas High School band. He plans to apply to Stanford University early admission, as well as a slew of other top colleges.