essay prompts

Last month we reviewed how to complete the first three pages of your Common Application. Today we’re taking a deep dive into the four remaining sections of the Common App: the testing, activities, writing, and (relatively new) courses & grades pages. Unlike the first part of the Common App, these pages require a significant amount of writing and allow you to share more of your personal story with admissions officers. Keep reading to discover how to make a positive impression on your Common App!

Testing Page

First and foremost, please recognize that the entire testing page is optional. Only students who wish to self-report their standardized test results (or future test dates) for the ACT, SAT, AP, IB or TOEFL exams need complete this section. If you are happy with your scores, and are not planning on taking future exams, feel free to include your scores here. If, however, you don’t want to draw attention to less than ideal scores, it’s okay to leave this section blank. To indicate that you will be taking one or more of these exams in the future, simply select “0” for the number of past scores you wish to report, and enter the number of future sittings you expect. If you are applying to any test optional colleges and you don’t want your scores included as part of your application review, leave the testing page blank.

ACT Tests

  • Colleges generally focus on the highest composite ACT score, although some schools will pay special attention to your English and math sub-scores. Additionally, if you’ve taken the ACT multiple times, many colleges will “super score” your results to give you the highest possible composite. If you’re reporting more than 1 ACT score, be sure to list just your highest composite and sub-section scores for each portion of the exam.
  • Students who took the optional writing test will need to indicate their “Highest Combined English/Writing or Writing Subject Score.” Although the drop-down menu includes numbers from 1-36, your writing score can only be between 2-12. On your ACT report, look for the number in the “writing” column. Please note, colleges do not want you to report your ELA (English Language Arts) score; the ELA score should not be confused with the writing score.

SAT (before March 2016)

  • It’s highly unlikely students applying to college in 2018-19 took the “old SAT” prior to March 2016. And it’s also unlikely that the colleges they’re applying to will accept the results from that dated exam. Most colleges require that applicants take the redesigned SAT, from March 2016 or later. If you have results from the old SAT exam, be sure to check with your colleges to ensure they will accept those scores.

SAT (March 2016 or after)

  • Students who took more than one SAT exam will have the ability to list their highest scores from the EBRW (evidence-based reading and writing) section and the math section. Most colleges do “super score” results from the SAT.
  • If you opted to take the SAT essay (which fewer colleges are now requiring), you must report a score between 6 and 24. How can you find your essay score? On your SAT score report, you’ll see three separate essay scores (between 2-8 each). Simply add them up and – voilà – there’s your essay score!

SAT Subject Tests

  • Most colleges don’t require SAT subject tests, but if you have any to report, you have room to list up to 10 results. This includes both the number of tests you’ve already taken, as well as future exams you wish you report.

AP Subject Tests

  • Here you have room to list up to 15 AP results, which including tests you have already taken as well as future exams you wish to report. For example, if you plan on taking AP Calculus BC this May, you can select the appropriate subject from the drop-down menu, leave the score section blank, and enter “May 2019” for the future test date.
  • If you have a mix of some lower and higher AP scores, it’s acceptable to only self-report your best scores. Generally speaking, 4s and 5s are good to report. 3s and lower can be omitted.

Activities Page

The activities page is undoubtedly the least appreciated (and probably most underutilized) section of the Common Application. Why? Because most students are content to supply basic, bland descriptions of their activities, not realizing they have the opportunity to unleash bold and engaging writing to capture their reader’s attention.

Activity Type

  • There are 30 options on the drop-down menu for activity type, from academic and internships to music and paid work experiences. There’s no need to spend hours deliberating which activity type you choose. Whether you select “robotics” or “science/math” is less important than what you list on the position/leadership line.

Position/Leadership Description and Organization Name

  • This is where you should list not only the name of the club/organization you’re involved in, but your actual role. Even if you don’t have a specific “leadership” position, it’s likely you still have some kind of title to share. For example: “Cellist – Chamber Orchestra,” “Member – Student Senate,” or “Babysitter for Neighborhood Children.”
  • If you have been elected to a specific position, you can include that on this line as well. I usually suggest that students also indicate what grade level they held that position, as this can change from year to year. For example: “Captain (12) – Varsity Field Hockey.”
  • You have 50 characters (including spaces) to list your position/leadership description and organization name.

Activity Description

  • Some students prefer to use “I” sentences here (e.g. “Working tirelessly with the editorial staff, I contribute to my school newspaper as a features writer and photographer.”) while others opt to remove the first-person pronoun altogether (e.g. “Manage, organize, and coordinate the publication of Kennedy High School’s student newspaper as Editor-in-Chief (12).”) Either way, it’s critical that you use this space wisely by capturing as much specific detail on this line as possible.
  • You have 150 characters (with spaces) to share something meaningful about your involvement in each club/activity, so be very deliberate about your word choices. Repeating the word “participate” on every line (e.g. “I participate in track,” and “I participate in book club,”) will not give the impression that you have a strong vocabulary. Instead, look for dramatic, descriptive verbs that show your involvement, rather than simply telling about it.
  • You have room to include up to 10 clubs/activities on this page. They should be ranked in order of importance to you. If you have fewer than 10, that’s perfectly all right! Be sure that you think broadly about your activities, though, as any experience that takes place outside of the classroom (such as summer jobs, church/temple, volunteering in your community, family responsibilities at home, important hobbies, etc.) can be included on this list.
  • If you’re involved in more than 10 activities, you can list the extras on the writing page of the application on the additional information tab. But be judicious. There’s no need to include an activity that only took place in 9th grade and lasted for one hour total. Focus on highlighting your most important clubs/experiences, or else admissions officers may have trouble identifying your most significant achievements.

Writing Page

Not all colleges require the submission of your personal essay. Once you’ve added colleges to your “My College” list, you will see two lists of schools on this page: those that require the essay and those that do not. You will have the opportunity to send your personal essay to the colleges that fall in this latter category during the submission process.

Personal Essay

  • We’ve written a host of blogs about the writing portion of the application. Be sure to look through our past posts for specific tips on how to start your college essay, the best length for a college essay, and words to use in your college essay.
  • If you’re wondering which essay prompt you should answer (there are seven this year, including one “topic of your choice”), you’re in luck. There is no single best essay question. In fact, most admissions officers gloss right over the question you’ve chosen, and instead jump right into the essay itself. What you choose to write about matters far more than the actual prompt you’ve selected.
  • In case you’re curious, though, here were the most commonly selected prompts during the 2017-18 application cycle. But again, a strong essay doesn’t emanate from the prompt itself; it’s the story you choose to write about that makes an essay stand out.

Common App Essay Prompts

Disciplinary History

  • Here you will be asked whether or not you have “been found responsible for a disciplinary violation” at school from 9th grade onward. This includes being placed on probation, being suspended, or being expelled from school. You will also be asked if you have been found “guilty or convicted of a misdemeanor or felony.” If you answer yes to either question, you will then be required to supply an explanation of the event (up to 400 words), along with a reflection of what you learned from the experience.
  • It’s always best to answer these questions as openly and honestly as possible. Ideally you will be able to provide a response that shows remorse for your actions while also letting colleges know you have learned from your mistakes and are now in a position to stay out of similar trouble in the future. Taking responsibility for your actions (and not placing blame on others) is an important theme admissions officers look for.

Additional Information

  • Most students select “no” here to indicate they don’t have additional details or qualifications to share with colleges. However, there are a few instances in which it does make sense to utilize the additional information section of the Common App.

Courses & Grades Page

This self-reported grades section of the application is only required by a handful of colleges. If one of the colleges on your Common App list requires courses & grades, you will be asked to complete digital charts that will essentially recreate your official high school transcript, including course names, the levels (regular, accelerated, honors, AP, etc.), grades, and credits.

Colleges that Require Courses & Grades

  • To view a full list of colleges that require courses & grades, visit this Common App link. Among the more well-known colleges are Arizona State University, Chapman University, Loyola Marymount University, Michigan State University, Ohio State University, Purdue University, University of Arizona, University of Kansas, University of Southern California, and University of Wisconsin.
  • Grades that were earned in middle school (for high school credit) or over the summer at a high school should be listed on the “Other Courses” tab.
  • If you are not applying to any colleges that require courses & grades, you will not even have the ability to complete this portion of the application. It only becomes accessible if you first add one of the above colleges to your “My Colleges” list on the Common App.
  • Please note that you will still need to submit an official transcript to all of the colleges on your list, even if they require courses & grades.

Tutorial/Course Assistant

  • There is a helpful video tutorial that walks you through the process of entering your transcript data into the courses & grades page. Simply click on the “View Courses & Grades Tutorial” link at the top of the page, just under the preview button. Additionally, you can click on the “Use the Course Assistant” link (found at the bottom of the “edit courses and grades” screen) for additional help.

After you’ve completed all required questions on the “Common App” tab of the application, you should see green checkmarks next to every page in the left-hand menu. Congratulations! Make sure to ask a trusted adult to proof your application with you, and then you can move on to completing school-specific supplements on the “My Colleges” tab. You’re one step closer to applying to college. Keep up the amazing work!

How to Complete Your 2018-2019 Common Application: Part 2
How to Complete Your 2018-2019 Common Application: Part 1
Don’t Overlook These Three Important Sections of Your Common Application
10 Biggest Changes to the 2017-18 Common Application | Part 1
10 Biggest Changes to the 2017-18 Common Application | Part 2
What to Know About the 2016-2017 Common App: Part 1
What to Know About the 2016-2017 Common App: Part 2
What to Know About the 2016-2017 Common App: Part 3

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.