Editor’s note: It feels slightly surreal to be sharing articles about college here at Green Child, but for our readers’ families that have grown along with our team, here we are! My oldest is a high school junior this year, so terms like the Common Application are becoming commonplace in our home. We’re happy to host Casey Near of Collegewise as she takes some of the guesswork out of helping your child apply for college.
By the time senior year approaches, it can feel like the window to still make an impact on an admissions 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 — which focuses 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 the largest application platform currently. More than 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 has 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.
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.
Mastering the Common Application
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.
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.
How to Make Your Common Application Stand Out
One of the easiest places to elevate your application is in the activity list. Far too often, I saw 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”
“Club soccer: always bring 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 very specifically what you got out of soccer, 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 where your voice can come through is in the additional information section. And 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, 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. It 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 in senior year (and why that is), if you have extenuating family circumstances, or (in rare cases) a space 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 activity list, or if you have context about your personal and home life, this is the place to carefully present that information.
College Application 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 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.
No matter what, know that there is a piece of this admissions puzzle that is very much in your control: how you present yourself in the Common Application. Be thoughtful. Be authentic. Take advantage of this platform by presenting your unique voice.
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