Mastering the Common App: Tips and Tricks to Stand Out

If you approach the Common Application like a form at the doctor, you're doing it wrong! Here are some ways you can stand out on this prevalent college app.

By the time senior year approaches, it can feel like the window to still make an impact on a college admission decision has closed: your classes have been set, your grades are mostly behind you, your activities are in motion, and usually your standardized testing is nearing completion. But that sort of logic—focusing on what's out of your control instead of what's in your control—can also fuel the fire of stress this time of year. So, what's in your control right now? Aside from building a smart, balanced college list (which should be comprised of places where you can thrive, places you can afford, and places you can get in) and continuing to do well in school, there's one final piece: how you approach your college applications.

The Common Application is currently the largest application platform. Over 800 schools use the Common Application, meaning you can fill out one application and have it sent to a whole host of colleges on your list. For many students, it’s made it easier to apply to multiple schools. But the ease has a flip side: it's very tempting to approach the application like checking the box. You mindlessly work through it on a Saturday morning, check off a few schools, and away it goes. But here's the deal: if you approach the application like a form at the doctor, you're doing it wrong. Or rather, you're not using one of the few things left in your control wisely.

So what do you do now?

First, it helps to take a step back and consider how colleges will paint a picture of you when you submit an application. They will have grades, many will consider test scores, most will ask for teacher letters of recommendation, and some will ask for supplementary essays. The application—essays included—is your only chance to share your voice. Not your grades, or a set of numbers from a standardized test, but your voice.

Related: An Insider Look at Holistic College Admission

Why does that matter?

American colleges are by and large residential colleges. They care about who you are going to be as a student, but they also care about who you'll be as a roommate, friend, and member of the community. It's why colleges ask questions about exactly that—how you'll contribute to their community, what perspective you might offer as a roommate, or how you've navigated differences on campus. They care about the kind of person you will be. But before you even get to the supplementary essay questions (if your colleges ask them at all), there are actually plenty of places to share your voice hidden within the application. You just have to know where to look.

Where can you stand out?

One of the easiest places to elevate your application is in the activity list. Far too often, I’ve seen students waste the opportunity to share something specific to them. The description—while only 150 characters—is not meant to be a description of the activity itself. It's meant to be a description of your involvement in it. It's the difference between "Club soccer: daily practices, weekly games" and "Club soccer: always brought the orange wedges and cheesy cheers, got better at passing, chosen to lead warm-ups senior year." The first description is really what all club soccer participants experience. The second tells me specifically what you got out of soccer and what you put into it, and it gives me a flavor for your personality. When you're writing about your activities, remember to think: how did I impact this activity, or how did it impact me? If your activity description can capture even a hint of that, no matter how small, I'll have gotten to know you all the more.

The other place your voice can come through is in the additional information section. This is a place where, if you don't treat this section carefully, your voice can actually come off negatively. First off, what exactly is the additional information section? Well, not to be obvious, but it's truly meant to capture additional information not asked about in the rest of the application (and not present in your transcript or additional materials). It's largely a place to share valuable context and should be approached very factually. But it’s not a place for an additional essay. Let me repeat: this is not a place for an additional essay. It’s also not a place for complaining about a teacher as the reason you got a poor grade. This is the place to share if you weren't able to register for a class, if you doubled up on science in lieu of a language during senior year (and why that is), or if you have extenuating family circumstances. In rare cases, you can use this section to add a bit more about a particularly important, long-standing activity. It's a space that, when used well, can provide helpful and factual context. Frankly, most students don't need to use it. But if you have more awards, skills, or hobbies than you can capture in your activities list, or if you have context about your personal and home life, this is the place to carefully present that information.

Related: The Ultimate Guide to College Applications: How to Stand Out From the Crowd

Some good-old Common App hacks

Some students don't realize that while the application is a tool for applying to colleges, it's also a tool for discovering colleges. On the College Search tab of your Common Application, you can search for schools and filter by requirements—be it schools that don't require test scores, schools that don't have supplemental essays, or schools that don't need letters of recommendation. While I wouldn't recommend choosing a school solely because there's less work involved, it certainly is smart to be thoughtful as we approach deadlines.

If you have lower test scores but strong grades, do you want to add a few more test-optional schools to your list? Are you struggling with writing and need a few more schools that don't add to your workload? This is an easy way, especially if you've started the college search process in the fall, to narrow your list and maximize your time.

Related: How to Fill Out the Common Application 

No matter what, know there is a piece of the admission puzzle that is very much in your control: how you present yourself on the Common Application. Be thoughtful. Be authentic. Take advantage of this platform by presenting your voice.

Find more college application and essay advice in our College Admission section.

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About Casey Near

After transferring from the University of Pennsylvania to Scripps College, Casey caught the college admission bug and hasn’t turned back. She started as a professional backwards walker (tour guide) at Scripps, then helped run visit programs for the admission office. After graduation, she returned to her Bay Area home to work as an admission counselor at Mills College, where she ran the tour program, assisted with transfer admission, and convinced people that women’s colleges are indeed a wonderful idea.

In 2013, she opened the first Collegewise expansion office in the Bay Area and found her true professional fit. After a year of backpacking and working around the world in 2016 (and collecting a few stories along the way), she returned to her counseling roots to run our Newton office. When not vigilantly correcting her students’ grammar, Casey enjoys watching the latest BBC shows, attempting to become a runner, and rereading Harry Potter for the umpteenth time.


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