Common Application essay

When students sit down to begin working on their college applications, most are intensely focused on just a single aspect of the process: the college essay. After all, top grades and test scores alone are never enough to gain admission into the nation’s more selective colleges and universities. It’s the essay that helps students distinguish themselves, right? While it’s true that stellar essays are critically important to colleges that evaluate their applicants holistically, there are three additional components of the Common Application that provide exceptional opportunities for students to stand out. Will it require more effort from students to enhance these sections of their applications? You betcha. But when thousands upon thousands of students are vying for a limited number of seats, it’s worth it.

1. Activities Page: Club Descriptions

For every club listed on the Activities page of the Common App, students are required to write an overall description of their involvement. This commonly includes leadership positions/titles, one’s role within the organization, and/or a brief overview of the club’s purpose. But here’s the catch. You only have 150 characters (approximately 20 words) to accomplish this task. Given these constraints, most students end up providing middling, nonspecific descriptions of their clubs—perhaps believing that (a) activity descriptions are an unimportant piece of the Common App, and/or (b) 150 characters isn’t enough room to creatively capture one’s commitment to a club. Think again! When reading applications for Bennington, Barnard, and Connecticut College, I always appreciated the student who took the time to write pithy, detailed, or entertaining descriptions. Tell me—which summary for “Hospital Volunteer” below impresses you more?

  • I perform community service at Mass General, including paper deliveries and children’s crafts.
  • It’s never a dull moment at Mass General. From delivering morning papers to creating crafts with the children, I love serving as a teen volunteer.

2. College Supplements: Optional Essays

Let me be direct about this: “optional essays” should not be considered optional. Do students technically have the ability to leave these essays blank and still submit their applications? Sure they do! Is this a wise decision? Absolutely not. Curious to see some examples of optional essays? Take a look at the questions below.

  • Why do YOU want to go to college? We know it is an excellent path to a career, but we want to hear more specifically about what you are hoping to gain from your time in college. Tell us about yourself and your experiences that have led to this decision. (George Mason University)
  • What do you do? Why do you do it? (Lafayette College)
  • In 300 words or less, help us understand what aspects of Northwestern appeal most to you, and how you’ll make use of specific resources and opportunities here. (Northwestern University)

Students who elect not to complete these optional questions are essentially telling colleges: I’m really not that into you. Admissions officers often reason that students with a genuine desire to attend their college will want show their sincerity and excitement for that school by taking the time to draft a thoughtful essay. While this rationale seems logical, I admit it’s a tad unfair that some colleges call these essays “optional” if they actually place a significant amount of weight on those responses. But from the college perspective, it would be unfortunate if a terrific student chose not to apply simply because they didn’t have the desire/time/energy to complete the optional essay. Colleges don’t want to discourage students from applying, but they can (and do) value those who take the extra step to answer those additional prompts.

3. College Supplements: Required Essays

As an admissions officer who has evaluated thousands of applications, I can’t tell you the number of times I felt wildly impressed after reading a main Common Application essay, only to be let down after reviewing a bland and generic supplemental response. Students often place so much emphasis on the main personal statement, they can lose steam when it’s time to tackle supplemental essay questions.

When Georgia Tech asks “beyond rankings, location, and athletics, why are you interested in attending Georgia Tech,” how will you respond if you are primarily attracted to their strong reputation, vibrant urban setting, and infectious school spirit? The single most important step students can take to prepare for school-specific questions is to research!

Go online; read up on the school’s philosophy and mission; check out details pertaining to your prospective major; find specific class titles that interest you; locate a study abroad program that excites you; identify academic opportunities that are unique to that school; determine which clubs on campus you’d most like to join; take a virtual tour (if one’s available); scan the student newspaper online for hot issues on campus; and talk to current students (or alumni) if possible. Then, after you’ve conducted your research, take the next step and show an authentic connection between the school and you. How do those facts fit with the sort of person you are and the type of college experience you desire?

Much of the Common Application is common. Every student who applies must submit biographical information, a family background, and an educational history. It’s the personal aspects of the application—including the Activities page and the supplemental essays — that will allow you to shine. Best of luck!

Check out Elyse’s other 2017-2018 Common App articles:

Common App Resources CTA

Written by Elyse Krantz
Elyse Krantz is a member of College Coach’s team of college admissions experts. Elyse received her BA in linguistics from Dartmouth College and her MA from Teachers College, Columbia University. Prior to joining College Coach, Elyse worked as an admissions officer at Barnard College and Bennington College.