The Common Application
USA Application Guide
6. The Common Application
This article is for those who have Common App Questions. We will walk you through the online application form, step-by-step, to ensure that all your details are right. The Common Application is a centralized application system that standardizes and simplifies the application process. On top of the application form outlined in the section below, universities may have additional requirements. The Common Application form consists of 6 key sections:
This is a page collecting basic information about yourself, like your name, address, contact details, demographic profile, and language skills. Make sure to fill the information in accurately; the process should be intuitive.
Similarly to your the personal Profile, the common app also asks for details about your family members, including their relationship status, educational background (e.g. whether they have graduated from university themselves), and occupations. This may seem unusual or even intrusive to non-American applicants, but is standard practice in the US.
This section is important, and where you provide your educational credentials. The core to this is profiling your high school, courses taken and grades received, but the section also gives you the opportunity to provide details of any additional educational experiences of relevance, like any university courses completed already, or experiences from community organisations. More details about this section is provided below.
This section helps registering the collection of any relevant test scores you will be submitting as part of the application, like SAT and TOEFL scores, or for candidates doing the International Baccalaureate programme, the final diploma grades.
As mentioned elsewhere in this guide, US universities care a lot about your contributions and activities outside of the classroom. Extracurricular activities can include student Government, sports, music, drama, volunteering, religious activities, travel, running a business, political engagement, and many other activities. This section lets you share with the admissions teams what you’ve done during your high school years other than getting a diploma. More details about this section is provided below.
This section lets you submit your College Essay, arguably the single most important component of your entire application (perhaps behind your high school grades…). The essay topic is predetermined by the CommonApp organisation, and we provide more detail about this below.
In the next chapters, we deep-dive into the most substantial parts of the Common App, namely your Education, Activities, and Writing. We also cover the Application Supplements which some universities require you to submit alongside the Common App, and the Student References which you need to liaise with your high school about producing.
Current or Most Recent School: Provide details about your high school education.
Community-based organization: Given the US-centric selection of organisations, this section is typically left blank for non-US applicants; non-academic organisational involvement can be captured in the Activities section of the CommonApp.
Education Interruption: An opportunity to disclose any exceptional circumstance that may have interrupted your educational journey and provide an explanation which will be considered by the university admissions office.
College & Universities: Please enter any courses you’ve completed at University level, either during or after high school. These may include a short course taken at a university in your city, an online course completed, or any enrolment during a gap-year (or perhaps a ‘false start’ education).
- Class Rank Reporting: Most American high schools rank their students based on their academic grades. This field will let you provide how you rank in your class. Few non-American high schools produce rankings, so you will likely answer this field “None”.
- Graduating Class Size: Number of students in your graduating class
- GPA Scale: Provide the highest possible score achievable in your high school education system
- GPA Weighting: If certain courses in your high school are given more weight in your final grade, this is the place to specify so. For most non-American high school systems, this is again irrelevant, so you can select “Unweighted”.
Current or Most Recent Year Courses: Provide the full list of classes taken in your current or final year of high school. Write the name of the course in English, translating from [Local language] where necessary.
Honors: Provide the full list of academic distinctions you have obtained during high school, and specify these were distinctions at a school-, regional-, national- or international level. This may seem tricky, and indeed there is a cultural difference in the use of distinctions in prizes used in high schools in the US (where this features prominently) and majority of the rest of the world (where it is less common). It is natural that e.g. Europeans have shorter lists of academic honors than their American peers, but try to be creative to claim some prizes. If you think long and hard, can you come up with something that resembles an academic distinction? Perhaps you have had the top result in your year in some course? Or had the best test score in a class? Maybe you have won a school debate? Or you have had additional praise from a teacher for an unusually good class presentation? All of these things qualify as academic merits even if they don’t come with an official diploma.
Future Plans: This is a brief sections to provide an indication of what your educational and career ambitions are. This is of course non-binding, but a good way for universities to understand a bit more about your future plans. Make sure what you enter somewhat correlate with the personal profile created in the rest of your application.
This is your opportunity to profile the non-academic activities you have been involved in during high school. In the form, you are asked to provide details about the activity, a short description of it, your role there and any distinctions or particular achievements during your involvement. You are also asked to provide details about the time commitment this activity has demanded – so admissions teams can calibrate your academic achievements with regard to your time commitments outside of school.
The Activities section of the CommonApp is, together with your college essay, the best place to evidence and showcase your ‘personal profile’. It lets admissions teams understand how you’ve prioritised your time and efforts during high school. It contributes to their judgment of your character – are you a future global business leader, the first person on Mars, or the next top UN diplomat?
What are Extracurricular Activities?
They are the things you have spent time on in an organised way, outside of the classroom. They can be associated with your school, or done entirely outside of the school’s regime. They can be paid or unpaid activities. And they can be one-off initiatives or ongoing engagements.
The American high school system is distinct in its focus on extracurriculars. They are hugely focused on offering a wide range of post-school activities to its students, whether they be the school orchestra, fine arts club, sports teams, debating societies, or drama groups. High school students in US therefore naturally build an impressive resume of extracurricular involvement. In Europe and many other countries, extracurriculars are typically organised outside of the school system, and can often be slightly less vibrant than in the US. That said, there is plenty of opportunity to make the most out of what’s available. Be creative!
Chances are, however, that if you think long and hard, you will have an impressive extracurricular resume too. Perhaps you’ve been involved with some of the following activities:
- Sports team
- Student Government (i.e. Student Council, Class Representative, etc)
- Organising school events or trips
- Volunteering for or setting up a charity
- Involvement in a religious organisation
- Music, whether individual lessons, orchestra, or a rock band
- Part-time work
- Setting up your own business
- Participation in local politics, e.g. a youth party or volunteering on a campaign
- Artistic activities like painting, sculpture, drama, whether individual or as part of a group or organisation
As you list your extracurriculars, think about what personal characteristics they tell about you. Admissions officers are looking for people with particular characteristics, and your extracurriculars are tangible examples to demonstrate yours. Therefore, also think about how you can selectively list your activities, and use this section of the application to emphasize your most relevant personal characteristics. Examples (far from exhaustive) of characteristics you may have demonstrated through your extracurricular involvement include leadership, team-player, drive, initiative, maturity, responsibility, creativity and the desire to challenge and improve yourself.
How you articulate your extracurricular involvement is important. The fields in the CommonApp Activities section are small, so you need to be succinct. There is a simple trick for achieving this – structure your points in this way: Action-Description-Results.
Action: A single sentence starting with a verb that describes what you did, for example “Organised”, “Led”, “Planned” or “Sold”. This is action-oriented and focuses the attention on yourself, and your role in the activity.
Description: Write a few words about the most important detail of your activity. For example, if you organised a show, what type of show was it and who performed? If you ran a business, what did it do, or how large was the team? If you were the Chairman of the student council, what was the council’s biggest initiative during your leadership?
Results: This could be the most important sentence, but a lot of applicants still miss out on this. With as much specificity as possible, describe what you achieved during your involvement in the activity. Using the examples above, how many people attended the show, how much money did the business make (and what happened to it), or what was the level of student satisfaction with the council in your year of leadership?
Examples of good articulations:
The Homeless Shelter, Stockholm
A non-profit group that organizes fundraising event for local shelters
The Homeless Shelter, Stockholm
Coordinated three fundraising events for local shelters, which raised $8000 (20% over goal) and improved community awareness
The Big Book Store, Berlin
Worked in a bookstore on weekends and during the summer holidays
The Big Book Store, Berlin (Germany’s largest vintage book store)
Collaborated with colleagues to make the store exceed sales goals for the first time in five years and win the chain’s regional internal competition. Named Best Salesperson of the Store.
Got further Common App Questions or general questions about your college application? Don’t worry. Check out the other articles of this guide to get all the information you need to succeed with your college application.
6.3 College Essay
Your College Essay is a part of the CommonApp, in other words the same essay will be submitted to all colleges you apply to. Therefore, don’t address it to a specific university.
The official CommonApp description of the College Essay task is the following:
“The essay demonstrates your ability to write clearly and concisely on a selected topic and helps you distinguish yourself in your own voice. What do you want the readers of your application to know about you apart from courses, grades, and test scores? Choose the option that best helps you answer that question and write an essay of no more than 650 words, using the prompt to inspire and structure your response”
The essay is assessed on the basis of:
Length: The essay should be between 250 and 650 words.
The essay is a story. Unlike the UK application letter, the so-called Personal Statement, your college essay is not a resume-like letter that showcases your achievements and articulates your motivation to study a specific degree. These points are covered elsewhere in the CommonApp. Instead, the College Essay is a short story about a special event in your life, which illustrates your character and outlook.
You are asked to structure your essay around one of 5 topics:
- Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
- The lessons we take from failure can be fundamental to later success. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
- Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?
- Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma-anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.
- Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.
The university want to get to know you
Imagine yourself as the Admissions Officer at a top college in the US. Every year, 30,000 applications from highly qualified students arrive, all with top grades, impressive SAT Scores and long lists of extracurricular achievements. To give you a couple examples: last year over a third of Princeton applicants had top scores in every single high school class; 97% of Yale applicants had among the top scores in their graduating class. Almost every applicant, in other words, has the academic qualifications to be accepted. For the admissions officer, comparing them and making selections on the basis of grades and extracurriculars alone, would be impossible. When the objective data has been exhausted, admissions officers look to your college essay to hear your voice, get to know you as a person, and understand how you think.
When does the college essay matter?
You can’t compensate for weak academics with a brilliant college essay; strong grades, extracurricular involvement and high SAT scores are prerequisites for being considered to top universities. The college essay is an opportunity to distinguish yourself beyond these merits.
Choosing your subject
As you think about this, remember the 2 key questions admissions officers consider as they read your essay:
- “How will this candidate contribute to our university?”
- “Why should we specifically select you?”
A successful College Essay provides crisp and convincing answers to these two questions. The biggest typical weakness among non-American students’ applications is the inability to make a crisp, memorable point about yourself in the essay. This risks the essay and therefore your application getting lost amongst the thousands of other, more punchy applications.
Admissions Officers read between 50-100 essays per day, and for them to select yours, you they need to be able to fill the blanks of the following with conviction:
“We have decided to admit _______________ because we need more _______________ at Yale.”
Dare choosing a narrow focus
You no doubt have a host of good characteristics and personal strengths. In the attempt to showcase what a fantastic candidate you are, there is a risk of getting caught in the “all-over-the-place trap”. In other words, by trying to showcase all your great strengths (which is very tempting), you easily lose the structure and focus in the essay, and the message is diluted or totally lost. An essay of 500 or so words can impossibly feature all of your strengths and characteristics, so you must date letting go of some of them, in favour of giving enough focus on the few chosen ones.
Common College Essay mistakes
Mistake #1: The essay is about the event or experience, not about you
The event or experience you are writing about in your essay is just the context, the subject is meant to be yourself. If the Admissions team wanted to know about the battle of Lützen in 1632, they would read a book about that. What they want to know about is how your interest in the battle of Lützen made you contact a history professor at the local university to learn more, and then how you went to the local archives to borrow real military uniforms from the 1600s to use in the school play you directed and performed at school in order to share your knowledge & enthusiasm about the battle with your classmates.
Mistake #2: A grand story isn’t always a great story
Every year, admissions offices are overwhelmed with essays featuring trips to the furthest corners of the world, meetings with famous politicians, and participation at high profile events and competitions. The fact is, however, that a conversation with your grandmother probably formed your political views more than a handshake with the Prime Minister of your country. Write about the substantive, meaningful experiences you’ve had, which truly tell a meaningful story about you and how you think. You can add a flashy anecdote at the end, but don’t make it the subject unless it’s truly substantive.
6.4 Application Supplements
What are Supplements?
In addition to the standardised parts of your CommonApp, many universities will require something bespoke – these are the application supplements. While they differ from school to school, they are typically submitted through the CommonApp system. You will see the supplementary requirements in the left hand side of the “My Colleges” tab of the CommonApp portal. The typical supplementary requirements are:
- Extra Essay: Can be a free form (“Write about whatever you want”) or to answer a specific question. Stanford has asked questions like “How did you spend your last two summers?” and “What historical moment or event do you wish you could have witnessed?”.
- Quick Questions: Princeton, for example, will ask you to answer, without motivation, what your favorite movie is, what your favorite word is, or your favorite website is.
- Academic Preferences: Many universities will ask you to provide an indication of your academic interests, for example by ranking your top 3 choices of major subjects to study. This is not a binding ranking, but a way for the university to learn more about your academic interests and ambitions. Make sure your choices reflect the personal profile you’ve painted in the rest of the application.
- Personal Connection: You may have a better chance of being admitted to a US college if you have a parent, sibling or other relative who studied there in the past. The university may therefore ask about this background in the application.
Arts and Athletics Supplements
There are two specific supplements which deserve particular attention, the Arts Supplement and the Athletic Supplement.
The arts supplement is your chance to showcase your abilities in arts, whether that be music, fine arts, theatre, dance, film, or something else. You will be asked to complete a form describing the work, and submit this through the Common App or through physical copy. You will then be asked to share a link with photos of the art works, a Youtube link, or some other digital way to share the work with the university.
The athletic supplement, similarly, is a way to showcase your athletic capability. You will be asked to submit a form describing your capabilities, and then some combination of a coach recommendation and/or a video (through physical copy or digital link) of you practicing your sport. The particular relevance of this is if you are trying to join the Varsity teams at the university you are applying to.
There are three levels of college sports in the US; Intramurals, Club and Varsity. Intramurals is for anyone, with or without prior experience in the sport, and games are played within the university only. Club is more serious, with scheduled practices and games against other universities a few times per year. Varsity is the highest level, a serious commitment where you will represent your university in competition with other universities. To join a university Varsity team in any sport, you need to be ‘recruited’ or ‘scouted’ during high school. The Athletic supplement is part of the process to apply to the Varsity team of the college you’re targeting.
6.5 Student Recommendation
Your CommonApp will be accompanied by two key documents from your high school, a Secondary School Report and a Counselor Recommendation form. While your high school needs to produce these documents, you should make sure to chase them, coach them, and be ultimately responsible for ensuring the documents are submitted in high quality and in-time.
Officially, the submission of the student recommendation should be done by your “Counselor”. The counselor at US high school tends to be a mentor-like person who helps you through high school and the college application process, and thus knows you very well. Not all non-US schools have counselors, so you may have to find someone else. This can be any grown-up, official representative at your school, whether a teacher, guidance counselor, or teacher. Make sure the person knows you relatively well, is supportive of your application to a US college, and is willing to invest the few hours required to properly help you with the application.
Secondary School Report:
This is a fairly formalised report providing more detail about your high school attendance. Key content is:
- Practical information about you, your studies and the school
- Instructions for submitting the final grades transcript (which your school will need to do)
- A chart used to compare you to classmates
- Instructions for submitting the counselor’s recommendation
The precise instructions to the school for how to submit the recommendations are in the Common App system – we strongly recommend you work together with your school to ensure this is properly completed, in time for the deadline.
This is a letter of recommendation from your designated counselor. It contains two quick response answers (duration/context in which the counselor has known the student, and ‘first words that come to mind’ when describing the student) and one long response answer, which is the recommendation letter. This will be a broad-based assessment of academic and personal characteristics and any relevant contextual considerations.
If your counselor is uncomfortable writing in English, it is OK for him/her to write the text in Swedish and have someone else (like the English teacher) write the translation. If so, both parties should sign the letter.
We hope that we’ve answered all of your Common App Questions. Please check out the rest of this guide for additional guidance on how to maximize your application.