Common App: Top 10 Tips
Approach the Common App with some care and logic and you will rock this college application platform that’s used by over 900 colleges and universities. It’s likely that not all colleges you apply to will use this particular platform, but I’ll bet some will, so let’s get started! Below are some strategies to employ as you work through this multi-leveled online application, and some pitfalls to avoid as well. Here are our top 10 tips and tricks.
1. Start the right application: First-Year!
When beginning your Common App, choose First-year student for the application type. Otherwise, you get dumped into another bucket of students you don’t belong in, and denied the opportunity to be considered for all the freshmen scholarships! Even if you have some or even many college credits, if they were obtained while you were still in high school, you are not a transfer student.
2. How to choose your essay prompt: do not stress too much!
All the prompts are general enough to fit almost any story you have to tell. Don’t focus on the prompt too much... read them all, let them sit and swirl around in the back of your mind, and let it go. Think instead about what part of yourself you want to share, and which of these seven “cars” is the right one to drive you across the finish line. Review the essay webinar from last week and get writing!
3. Be creative, confident, and careful with your activities section
The Common App Activities section lets colleges see what you’ve done and are doing outside of the classroom, offering you a chance to showcase some of your unique skills and interests — not reducing you to just a letter grade or a test score. Try to use this section to develop a theme or tell another chapter of your story.
Students can list up to 10 activities, in a large variety of categories. Examples of activities might include:
Arts or music
Family responsibilities (learn more)
Work or volunteering
Other experiences that have been meaningful to you
Creativity comes into play when you think about activities that aren’t necessarily part of an organization. It’s great to list that you learned how to play the fiddle during the pandemic or that you do all the meal planning for your family. Maybe you raised a litter of puppies or created a board game. Tell them about it!
List your activities in order of importance, not necessarily in calendar order. What you lead with is more likely to be remembered and noticed. Try to group like things together to develop a theme or value which can demonstrate consistency and passion in your efforts. You only get 150 characters to describe your activity, so feel free to use bullet points and not complete sentences in this section. Use awesome, epic verbs and avoid boring, nondescript language. Did you do something or did you spearhead, revitalize, or transform something?
Finally: Never stretch the truth or embellish your activities list. Try to sound impressive without fabricating or exaggerating.
4. How to filter your Common App college search
You’ve already done some research, perhaps using Overgrad or College Board search tools, but there are also some neat filters in the Common App to help you narrow down your college picks! Within the Common App, students can filter by application deadlines, essay requirements, no-fee applications, test policies, and letter of recommendation requirements. For example, I found 182 colleges and universities with no application fee, no test scores required, no letters of recommendation required, and application deadlines after January 1. (George Fox University and The College of Idaho, for example).
5. Pay attention to the extras (supplemental essays)
The 650-word Common App essay will be required by most colleges, but some have additional essays, usually called supplemental essays. These are often shorter writing pieces, usually 150-250 words long, but more elite or competitive schools tend to have a longer word requirement — for example, Reed College’s supplemental essay is 500 words. These supplemental essays are unique to each school and aim to provide a deeper picture of you and how you think. Treat supplemental essays or short questions with as much care and effort as the main essay — they truly are just as important and not to be left to the last minute.
The easiest way to keep track of all your schools’ specific requirements is to click the Application Requirements link from your Common App dashboard or College Search tab. You should download this requirements grid for easy viewing and print it out. Not only will you have a list of all the deadlines for each school on one cheat sheet, but you'll also see a column called Supplements which lists any portfolio or writing supplement requirements.
6. Get a copy of your transcript from your counselor
Some colleges require you to self-report all your past high school classes and the exact grades you received. Use your transcript to complete this task and do so carefully! You also may need to report classes you haven’t yet taken but expect to take your senior year. Use your best judgment to predict what classes you’ll be taking, and know that colleges will be receiving a copy of your final official transcript and your admission is contingent upon this final transcript.
7. Additional Information
The “Additional Information” section is found at the bottom of the Writing section and is used for two things: an optional COVID-19 question and a general “additional information” section. Use either of these options if you have something meaningful to share; not to complain but to explain. Do not use these sections if you have nothing particularly significant to add.
For example, use the COVID-19 impact statement if you suffered major disruptions beyond what the rest of the world experienced, such as death, loss of income, significant loss of academic time, or serious mental health concerns. If you feel that your application is deficient in ways that can be explained by the COVID-19 statement that is unique to you, then use this 250-word section. If you want to talk about how all the extracurriculars and sports were canceled, then probably don't do that — everyone had these things canceled.
The final additional information section is for any other situation that isn't mentioned elsewhere in your application that you feel is critical to understanding who you are or how a particular thing has impacted you. Do you need to explain how learning differences, health challenges, or other crises have impacted you? Use this section.
If you do choose to use either of the additional information sections, follow this simple format:
What happened to me - the challenge and its impact on me
What I did about it
What I learned
8. Choose the correct school: BEC, BWC, BWA
For most students, what high school you attend is very straightforward. However, our school organization can be a bit confusing! Here's the deal:
If you're a Baker Early College student: choose Baker Early College High School, CEEB Code 380061
If you're a Baker Web College student: choose Baker Web Academy, CEEB Code 380055
If you're a Baker Web Academy student: choose Baker Web Academy, CEEB Code 380055
9. Understand what it means that our school uses Overgrad
Because Baker Charter Schools has integrated the Common App with Overgrad (a web platform used to support college/career searches, transcript requests, letters of recommendation, and more), it's important to understand what tasks students do in each platform. All the schools listed in the Common App must also be listed in Overgrad.
DO NOT assign recommenders via Common App and do not use Common App to attach or send transcripts to schools — this happens in Overgrad. Read more here about how to use all the cool features of Overgrad.
DO fill out the entire Common App and submit it by your deadlines.
10. Do the FERPA Waiver!
The FERPA (Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act) waiver in the Common App is you signing away your rights to read any letters of recommendation submitted to colleges on your behalf. We absolutely recommend you sign the FERPA waiver, which sends a signal of authenticity, trust, and candor to both colleges and recommenders. Some recommenders may still give you access to read their letters, and that is fine, but it's not an expectation that you will ever see the letters.
Where is the FERPA waiver? You need to go to your My Colleges tab in the Common App, select any college drop-down menu, and click on Recommenders and FERPA. Complete the waiver for this college and it will apply to all other colleges in your Common App list as well.
FINALLY...it goes without saying — Review and Submit!
You don’t submit your application in Overgrad, even though that’s where we manage your letters of recommendation, transcripts, and school reports. The Common App (or whatever type of school application you’re submitting) is where you actually SUBMIT your application.
Look for the green check marks to ensure each section is totally done! No check mark means you're not done with that section and you won't be able to submit your application.
Have fun with this process; it's taken you a lifetime so far to get here — and don’t get too bogged down. Take breaks, work in sections, have someone look things over, and just grind through it!
PS You might qualify for an application fee waiver. These fees add up fast, so read here about the Common App fee waiver and how to get one.
PPS You’re not done yet. You will receive an email from each college you submit an application to with instructions on how to enter their college portal. Do this right away, as they will give you additional information about your application and any next steps still needed for an admissions decision.