written by
Kaitlin Liston

How to ace the Common App this college admissions season

Admissions Tips 5 min read
The college admissions season is upon us with the launch of the 2020 Common Application.
Image: Editing an essay | The college admissions season is upon us with the launch of the 2019-2020 Common Application.

The Common Application, or Common App for short, launches tomorrow, August 1, just in time as high school students start shifting from "restful summer break mode" to "high-stress college application mode." But never fear, we've got a few tips to help ace the Common App this year!

Quick refresher: What is the Common App?

The Common App is a college admissions application that is accepted by nearly 900 universities and colleges. The Common App allows students to apply to multiple colleges at once – making it very efficient and important - and has four standard parts:

  1. Background Information
  2. Extracurriculars List
  3. Essays and Short Answers
  4. Recommendations

The Common App goes live every year on August 1, and as soon as it opens, students are able to start the application on commonapp.org. A few things to gather before getting started:

  • Unofficial transcript
  • High school information (CEEB code, GPA scale, and class rank)
  • Copy of test scores and test dates
  • Citizenship information
  • State of residence information

The good news is that once a student starts the Common App, all the information is saved until hitting "submit!" This blog post will walk students through the Common App, and how to master each section.

Okay, section one: Background information

The first step to acing the Common App is to fill out the personal information section as soon as possible. It sounds simple, but all college applications require the same details such as name, address, high school, parental information (employment and education), and extracurricular activities. One of the biggest pros to the Common App is that students only need to fill out the background information once for the almost 900 schools that accept it. This background information is great to have on hand for other applications as well, so keep it handy.

Part two: Extracurriculars list

Once the basic profile information is set, it’s time to list extracurricular activities. Think of the extracurricular activities section similar to a resume, where students can list up to 10 activities that matter most. It’s important to ask,

"What would you want admissions officers to take away from these activities?"

Students should use this section to showcase what is important to them, what they're interested in, and how they've contributed to their high school and community. The Common Application lists "family responsibilities, jobs, volunteer work, clubs, sports, hobbies, and more" as acceptable activities.

Each activity requires the years of participation, hours per week and weeks per year spent on the activity, any position or leadership held, and a brief description. Use the description as a place to show why each activity was important and any skills gained from it.

Struggling to narrow the list down to 10 or less? Think about which ones were most meaningful, where leadership positions were held, or which may relate most to future interests and dreams.

Up next and where Bullseye mentors can really help students shine: Essays & short answers

Image of Bullseye mobile mocks to get essay support
Image: Bullseye mobile app mocks where high school students can get line-by-line edits on Common App or supplemental essays, and recommendations for improvement through our proprietary Bullseye Scorecard™.

The Common App is divided into common questions that will be sent to every school and specific questions each school adds. Focus on the common essay questions first: good news, the 2019-2020 Common App Essay Prompts are here.

We encourage students start brainstorming and drafting answers to these, so they have time to perfect them. These essays will go to every school on your Common App list making them important to have nailed down. While overall school lists and school-specific questions may change, the answers to these will not. Once the main Common App Essay Prompts are out of the way, students can focus on more specific questions and other responses that schools may require.

When debating what to write about for the Common App Essay Prompts, keep in mind that there will also be essays and short answers for other schools, so students shouldn't ideally touch on the exact same experience twice. It's helpful to choose a prompt and stick with it up front, so that there can be as much range in other essays along the way as possible. And it's always helpful to find and ask a mentor - we have plenty! - or a college counselor to review and edit essays.

The number one thing we'd say: students should be true to oneself. The best way to stand out is to lean in to what's unique and exceptional about oneself!

And finally: Recommendations

First, ask for recommendations early - as early as within the first few weeks when starting senior year! The common people to ask for recommendations tend to be high school teachers, guidance counselors, and coaches. But it's important to remember that many of these people will have quite a few recommendations to write for students throughout the fall.

Image of teacher writing on a whiteboard
Image: Teacher writing on a whiteboard | Source: Free photo from Canva

So, which teachers, counselors, or coaches to prioritize? Students should aim for teachers that know them well and can write a recommendation that shows their strengths and character. It's more important that a teacher truly can speak to the student as opposed to asking a department head or more seasoned teacher thinking that recommendation may look better. Another tip: students should prioritize teachers who taught during their senior or junior years.

And if students are applying into specific majors or specialized programs, focusing on teachers around that subject area can give them a leg up. For example, if a student is thinking about engineering, physics or calculus teachers could show that the student already has a knack for math and science. Or if a student is interested in an art or design program, art and even English or humanities teachers can probably give insight into the student's creativity and original ideas.

But again, it's not a requirement students need to have a specific major or program top of mind when asking for recommendations. The best rule of thumb again is to have recommendations from teachers who know the student well, and after all, most colleges want well-rounded students that will contribute to the school in a variety of ways. Having a mix of teachers from different subject areas can shed light on how eager a student is to learn new and different subjects, which is part of what college is all about!

Ready to get started? Common App goes live tomorrow!

If you're applying to colleges this year, good luck! We hope you'll ace it with these tips above.

The biggest takeaways: it's never too early to get started, and, it's always a good idea to ask for help.

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