What are the most Common Common App errors and omissions?
The Common Application can be a smooth and relatively stress-free process. However, there are many items that are easily overlooked or misinterpreted. Here are just a few:
1. Financial Aid Resources: Once you log in, you will see the toolbar that has the “Dashboard” on the left and “Financial Aid Resources” at the far right. Do not ignore that section! If you click on it, you will get directed to a huge number of general resources as well as a complete list of the schools to which you are applying and their individual opportunities for financial aid, assistance, scholarships, etc.
2. Instructions and Help: To the right of every category of the Common App is a section that gives a plethora of information, explanations, and answers to questions. Read each one! For example, under “Education/Honors,” if you list National Honor Society, the Instructions indicate that this is a school honor (rather than national), since you have been chosen by faculty in your own school.
3. “Contact Support” will allow you to ask any question about the application and will send you an emailed response within hours, sometimes minutes. Use it.
4. Language: Under “Profile,” when you are asked about your “language proficiency,” that does not translate to “complete fluency.” So think about the languages that you know fairly well. The drop-down menu allows you to check more than one box for each language: First Language; Speak; Read; Write; Spoken at Home. So if English is your first language (which means the language you spoke when you first began talking), most likely you also speak, read, write and speak it at home. If you have been studying Spanish for four years, you have some proficiency: You may be able to speak, read and write it. And if your family speaks Greek at home on a regular basis or at the dinner table, it is likely that you can speak it and that it is most certainly spoken at home.
5. Honors: Under “Education/Honors,” you have five spaces to list academically-related awards. Think about the certificates, letters of commendation, art exhibits, publications that accepted your work, honor roll, AP Scholar, scholar athlete, etc. Even if your school has a policy which does not include formal recognition, you may have been honored for academically-related work outside school.
6. Activities: You are asked to list the activities (including school-sponsored activities, community activities, summer jobs, volunteer work, etc.) in the order of interest to you. If you want to revise the order, there are arrows that allow you to move the activities up and down. Also, don’t exaggerate how many weeks and hours per week you spend on each activity. You don’t want to make it seem that you spend so much time doing your favorite sports and working for the school newspaper that you have no time for classes, homework, meals or sleep!
7. Additional Information: I have asked dozens of admissions officers about this optional question, which is found at the bottom of the Common App writing section after the Personal Essay and Disciplinary History. If you click “yes” in answer to the question “Do you wish to provide details of circumstances or qualifications not reflected in the application?” you may use the Additional Information prompt in the Writing section to “share relevant information about yourself that is not captured elsewhere in the application.” This section can add essential information that is relevant to your candidacy. You have up to 650 words in which to explain medical problems, deaths in the family, financial issues, the need to help care for siblings, or a natural disaster that have had an impact on your high school life. You might also want to elaborate on talents, interests, passions, or experiences that set you apart from your fellow applicants: Perhaps you’ve composed your own music, set up a photography studio, created and marketed software, or read every book that Charles Dickens ever wrote. Or you feel that the 150 characters and spaces about baton twirling does not capture your passion, expertise, and the camaraderie of leading the Color Guard. As one admissions officer once told me, “If you don’t tell us, how will we ever know?”
8. Changing answers: It is very important to know that the Common App is very flexible. You can edit any response in the application until you submit it to a school. Even afterwards, you can make unlimited edits as you go along, even swapping out “favorite activities” essays and personal statements. For example, if you are applying to the engineering school at one university and the business school at another, you may want your answers to be more reflective of the relevant interests. DO NOT customize the Common App personal statement or additional information essay to a particular university, however. That is frowned upon.
9. Review the application: Before you submit each application, you will be given the opportunity to review your entire work before payment and submission. Be sure to do that, and if you see errors, go back and edit them. Do not get impatient because it takes a while for the “PDF in progress” to load. You need to be sure that your application is as flawless as you can make it!