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Articles / Applying to College / The Common Application

The Common Application

Dave Berry
Written by Dave Berry | Nov. 13, 2012
The Common Application

Some of you have already set up your Common Application accounts. But if you haven't done so, you had better get going! Don't put off this important aspect of your college process.

First go to the Common Application site. The instructions should be clear. Once you've picked your user name and password, be sure to save them in a safe place. (It can be a huge pain in the neck to lose this info, and don't trust the computer to "remember" it, even when you tell it to.)

Here are some general 11th-hour tips to keep in mind:

1. Click on Search for Colleges to add your target colleges to the list. (You may have some that don't use the Common App, but the majority will.) If you're not sure exactly where you'll be applying, there's no harm in adding a school for now. You can always delete it later on. But adding now allows you to check out the supplement and other requirements.

2. Yes, supplements ... a thorn in my side and soon to be in yours. Although in theory the Common App makes it easy to apply to multiple colleges with just one form, in reality most colleges have supplements which often mean more essays to write and other nasty short-response questions to answer. So once you've added all of your current target colleges to your “My Colleges" list, check to see if there is a supplement and, if so, read through it to find out what it will require. (When you click on the name of a college on your “My Colleges Screen," you can look down below for a link to the supplement if there is one.

3. You can start working on your Common App and on your supplement and then save your work before you finish. You don't have to do any of it all at once. Colleges won't see what you've completed until you submit your forms, so feel free to put down tentative responses that you might decide to change later on.

4. Many of the supplemental essays and short-response questions will give you a box in which to type. At the bottom of that box you may see a word or character limit. Pay attention to it! Even though you may be able to fit more words into the space than the count allows, when it's time to print your application, the extra words may get cut off. If YOU can't see your words on the printed version, then colleges won't see them either.

5. Under “Future Plans," you will usually find a choice of three “academic interests." Even if you are undecided about a major right now, it is wise to choose three fields you might like to explore in college. Don't put “Undecided" because it makes you sound as if you aren't interested in anything. BUT … if a supplement asks you for a prospective major, that's a different story. It's important to know whether you are making a commitment to that major or not.

When you make a commitment, you can wheedle out of it once you enroll, but it will sometimes be a hassle. But if you're not making a commitment, you can change your mind a dozen times between now and when you formally choose a major, and it doesn't matter at all. At Cornell, for instance, you are expected to major in the first-choice field that you put on your application although they do allow you to indicate a second choice as well. At the other Ivies, however, the choice of major isn't binding unless you are aiming for engineering (or for Wharton school of business at Penn).

Typically, you are making a commitment if it means that you will be assigned to a particular “school" within a university … e.g., if you choose engineering, business, physical therapy, etc. But if you are choosing a liberal arts major such as biology or economics or psychology, then these choices are rarely binding.

6. You can use the Common App to “invite" teachers to submit references. (In past years, many students solicited their references at the end of 11th grade, so some of you may have done this already.)

7. The Arts Supplement should be completed only by those who have exceptional talent and training in the visual or performing arts. The “Athletics" supplement is only for those who expect to play a varsity sport in college.

The Common App is actually pretty easy to navigate once you get used to it, although you may hit some bumps along the way. The “Help" section is decent.

My advice is to get going on this now if you haven't already, but try not to feel overwhelmed on your first visit to the Common App site. You've got plenty of time to chip away slowly.

I hope this helps.


Be sure to check out all my college-related articles and book reviews at College Confidential.

Written by

Dave Berry

Dave Berry

Dave is co-founder of College Confidential and College Karma Consulting, co-author of America's Elite Colleges: The Smart Buyer's Guide to the Ivy League and Other Top Schools, and has over 30 years of experience helping high schoolers gain admission to Ivy League and other ultra-selective schools. He is an expert in the areas application strategies, stats evaluation, college matching, student profile marketing, essays, personality and temperament assessments and web-based admissions counseling. Dave is a graduate of The Pennsylvania State University and has won national awards for his writing on higher education issues, marketing campaigns and communications programs. He brings this expertise to the discipline of college admissions and his role as a student advocate. His College Quest newspaper page won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award, the Pennsylvania Newspaper Publisher's Association Newspapers in Education Award, the Thomson Newspapers President's Award for Marketing Excellence and the Inland Press Association-University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Mass Communications Inland Innovation Award for the Best New Page. His pioneering journalism program for teenagers, PRO-TEENS, also received national media attention. In addition, Dave won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award for Celebrate Diversity!, a program teaching junior high school students about issues of tolerance. His College Knowledge question-and-answer columns have been published in newspapers throughout the United States. Dave loves Corvettes, classical music, computers, and miniature dachshunds. He and his wife Sharon have a daughter, son and four grandchildren.

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