2016-17 Common App 2

Welcome back to the second part of our series about tackling some of the Common Application’s trickiest questions. Last week we reviewed the Profile and Activities pages, where we provided must-know tips for making your activities list shine. If you have questions about whether or not you should self-report your SAT/ACT scores, or what you should include on the Additional Information section of the application, read on! Here are our top six suggestions for completing the Education, Testing, and Writing components of the Common App.

Education Page

Tip #1: Attended more than one high school? Explain why!

High school students might change schools for a variety of reasons, ranging from the academic (looking for increased rigor) and the athletic (seeking a stronger sports program), to the financial (private school became too expensive) and the social (peer pressure or bullying might be the cause). No matter the reason, if you transferred between schools at any point after ninth grade, you should report that move on the Education Interruption tab.

Common App Education Section

I know, I know… the language “delayed or interrupted” feels awfully strong, especially if your transition between high schools was smooth and resulted in no missed days from school. Regardless, you should check the box that indicates you “Did or will change secondary schools” so that you can have the opportunity to write a brief (under 250 words) explanation about the change. Why does it matter? If an admissions officer looks at your transcript and notices that grades 9 and 10 were completed at MacArthur High School and that you’re now enrolled at Taylor High School, they’re going to wonder why. And if you choose not to provide your own explanation, their curiosity might turn to concern. So go ahead, check that box, and provide a succinct (yet compelling) chronicle of the transition.

Tip #2: Pre-college enrichment programs are not college classes

Boston University offers two academic-themed programs for interested high school students. Both the “Summer Challenge” and the “High School Honors” programs give students the chance to live on campus; study a range of academic courses (such as chemistry, economics, and psychology); and complete classroom assignments. But only one of these programs – High School Honors – actually awards students college credit after completing the course. If you attended any kind of program on a college campus, you should only list it on the Common App’s College & Universities tab if it was a legitimate college-level course, earning you college credit. Pre-college summer programs that were for personal or social enrichment should instead be included on the Activities page of the application. Please note: if you were awarded college credit for a college-level class, you may want to have an official copy of that transcript submitted to colleges along with your high school materials. Admissions officers are often impressed when high school students can earn strong grades in a veritable college course!

Tip #3: Not everyone needs to report class rank and GPA

The Grades tab of the Common App asks five questions, but only one is a required field: graduating class size. The remaining four questions are entirely optional, and students should strongly consider leaving these questions blank if they fall into any of the scenarios below.

Common App Grades Section

Class rank reporting – leave this question blank if…

  • My high school doesn’t rank
  • My high school does rank, but I don’t know what my rank is
  • My high school does rank, I know my rank, but it’s not a very good rank

Cumulative GPA / GPA scale / GPA weighting – leave these questions blank if…

  • My high school doesn’t provide a cumulative (9-11) GPA
  • My high school does provide a cumulative GPA, but I don’t know what it is
  • My high school does provide a cumulative GPA, I know what it is, but it’s not a very good GPA

If your class rank and/or GPA are not especially noteworthy, there’s no reason to draw special attention to them on your Common App. Allow colleges to draw their own conclusions about the strength of your rank and GPA when they have the opportunity to scour your transcript later on in the review process.

Testing Page

Tip #4: Which SAT should I report – the old score, the new score, or both?

Similar to the optional questions regarding rank and GPA noted above, the Common App allows students to decide whether or not they wish to self-report the results of their SAT, ACT, SAT subject tests, and AP exams. This year, the question of whether or not to self-report SAT scores becomes even murkier with the introduction of the new or “redesigned” SAT. If you have SAT scores earned prior to March 2016, in addition to scores earned in March 2016 or later, what should you do?

Given the uncertainty surrounding how colleges will assess old and new SAT scores, it may be in students’ best interests to either (a) self-report nothing on this page or (b) self-report everything. Why? Some colleges have reported that they will mix and match between the two versions of the exam, in order to “superscore” the results and give applicants the best possible composite score. Other colleges have indicated that they will manually convert old scores into new scores so that they can better compare apples to oranges. Regardless of how colleges anticipate evaluating SAT scores this year, those plans may change. Once they’re in the thick of reading season and can finally see how average test scores are shaping up for this year’s class, colleges may adjust both their SAT review process and the weight they give to the SAT as a whole. Therefore, unless students passionately feel that one version of their SAT is drastically stronger than the other, they should consider presenting their full testing history on the Common App. (If you’re curious to see how your old and new SAT scores compare to each other, the College Board’s score converter will help you do just that!) Remember, colleges will only consider an application “complete” once official test scores have been received by the College Board or ACT. So whether you opt to leave the Testing section blank or not, don’t neglect to submit formal score reports!

Writing Page

Tip #5: Accept responsibility for any disciplinary violations

New York University recently made news for publically announcing they will be ignoring the Common App’s disciplinary history questions, and will instead ask more specific disciplinary questions on their portion of the Common App supplement. While many in the world of higher education applaud NYU’s efforts, students should keep in mind that all colleges take disciplinary infractions seriously. If you have “been found responsible for a disciplinary violation” in school from ninth grade onward, you are ethically bound to check “yes” on the Disciplinary History tab. This violation may have been a result of plagiarism, cheating, or drug/alcohol use. The best way to move forward from such a violation is to provide a well-written account of the event that shows you accept full responsibility for your actions, feel genuine remorse, and are looking ahead to a more successful academic future. Trying to place the blame on a classmate or teacher will not impress an admissions committee. Own up to your mistakes and colleges may be open to giving you a second chance.

Tip #6: Providing “additional information” is often unnecessary

On the final tab of the last section of the Common App, students are greeted with what appears to be a terrific opportunity to share more about themselves and their academic or extracurricular achievements. The question asks, “Do you wish to provide details of circumstances or qualifications not reflected in the application?” Some applicants (wrongly) assume the Common App is giving them carte blanche to include an additional personal essay or cut and paste a full version of their résumé in this space. Unless you believe that your application is truly lacking, and that you have a personal or compelling story that must be shared (in addition to the story you already wrote about for your main personal statement), you should consider leaving this section blank. Time and again I’ve seen students use this space to simply reiterate all of the clubs and activities they’ve already listed on the Activities portion of the application, or to squeeze in a second personal statement they’ve grown attached to (and they simply couldn’t decide which was a better essay to submit). The Common App was designed with a one-page personal statement and a one-page activities list for a reason. The majority of students should be able to convey their best qualities using the primary space provided. If you do have an important life story that needs sharing, or you’d like to explain in more depth about a particular academic or extracurricular project of interest, the Additional Information section should suit your needs perfectly.

If you’re looking for specific tips on writing your Common Application essay, be sure to listen to two of our recent segments from our radio show on Voice America. (Tune into the essay portion of the June 30 show at the 23:50 mark, and of the July 7 show at the 20:20 mark.) Coming up next week, we’ll be tackling your biggest questions about the Common Application’s supplements, including where to find college-specific essay questions and how to manage the FERPA waiver.

Check out Elyse’s other 2016-2017 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.