common application help

While colleges pay very careful attention to the names, facts, and details contained within the six main pages of the Common Application, they are perhaps even more meticulous when reviewing students’ responses to their own school-specific supplements. And, unfortunately for applicants themselves, completing these supplements isn’t always as straightforward as it may seem. Looking for (potentially) concealed essay questions or curious about whether you should attach a résumé to your application? Review our tips below to uncover five important facts about Common App supplements.

Tip #1: Uncover Hidden Essay Questions

Despite the well-intentioned Dashboard tab of the Common App, it’s nearly impossible to know ahead of time which colleges have additional writing requirements. Supplemental essay questions can be hidden in a variety of locations, and there’s nothing worse than thinking you’re done with a school’s supplement only to uncover a required 500-word essay question. Where might these required prompts be buried? In order to unlock potentially hidden writing assignments, first be sure to indicate your preferred start term (likely Fall 2017) and preferred admission plan (early action, early decision, regular decision, etc.) on the college’s “General” tab as well as your intended major on the “Academics” tab. Then on either the “Application” or the “Writing Supplement” page of the supplement, be on the lookout for tabs labeled “Writing” or “Other Information.” Case in point: applicants completing the University of Michigan’s supplement will readily see the school’s main essay questions located on the “Writing” tab of the “Application” page. But once students indicate an interest in the Ross School of Business, a separate SlideRoom portfolio link will appear, prompting applicants to complete two additional business-themed essays! And for Cornell University, a “Writing Supplement” page only appears after you select the undergraduate division to which you’re applying (e.g. The College of Human Ecology). Other colleges, such as Amherst, Purdue, and Loyola University Maryland, sneak in a brief extracurricular essay question on their supplemental “Activities” tabs. Be on the lookout, as these essays might appear anywhere!

Tip #2: Be Comfortable With New Gender Terminology

The Common Application made headlines last April when it announced they were going to expand new “gender identity options” on the 2016-17 application. Now, on the “Personal Information” tab of the Profile page, all students have the option of responding to this prompt (in 100 characters or less): If you would like the opportunity, we invite you to share more about your gender identity below. Additionally, a number of colleges invite students to disclose more details about their gender identity on their school-specific supplements. Lawrence University (screenshot below), provides applicants with an impressive array of gender identities and preferred pronouns to choose from. Other schools, including Macalester College, offer students space to share more information about their gender identities in a short answer response. Students who do not fall within traditional gender categories are encouraged to share more details about their gender background with colleges, as this can provide important contextual information to admissions officers.

Common App Gender Identity

Tip #3: Uploading an Optional Résumé May Be a Waste of Your Time

Look on the “Activities” tab for the supplements to Baylor, Johns Hopkins, Oberlin, the University of Connecticut, and Vanderbilt. What do they all have in common? These and hundreds of other colleges have all given applicants the ability to upload an activities résumé to be considered along with their applications. Keep in mind that the contents of this résumé will be reviewed in addition to the information students already provided on the “Activities” tab of the main Common Application. And while it’s incredibly temping for students to attach beautifully formatted versions of their résumés to their Common App supplements, know this: if you have completed the “Activities” portion of the main Common App to your satisfaction, don’t squander your (and admissions officers’) time by uploading a document that virtually restates the same information. Admissions officers are already so busy reviewing thousands of applications, why squeeze one more page into your file when its contents are essentially redundant? I love how the University of North Carolina phrases the instructions on their supplement’s “Activities” tab below:

We hope you’ll share with us the activities that you’ve found especially worthwhile. We also hope you won’t feel compelled to tell us everything you’ve ever done or, worse yet, to do things that mean little to you just because you think we want you to do them. We also hope you’ll remember—because we never forget—that low-profile pursuits can be just as meaningful as ones that draw more attention, and that fewer activities can be just as good as more, and sometimes even better. Although starting a new club, for example, can be a great experience and helpful to others, so can caring for siblings, parents, or grandparents, or working outside the home to put food on the table, or being a good and caring friend. We hope you won’t feel as though you have to do the former, especially if your doing so will keep you from doing the latter. For all these reasons, although we’re glad to receive complete résumés, we don’t require or encourage them. Instead, if you choose to submit something that goes beyond what you’re providing through your Common Application, we encourage you to keep it brief; focus less on including everything than on choosing and explaining the things that have meant the most to you; and upload it here.

Hear, hear!

Tip #4: Now You ZeeMee, Now You Don’t

As you’re reviewing the “General” or “Activities” tabs of various Common App supplements, don’t be surprised if you find a reference to ZeeMee – a web-based platform that allows students to create social media-style résumés and share them with colleges. Only five schools accepted a ZeeMee link when the company first made its debut on the Common Application in 2015. Today over 100 Common App colleges and universities now invite students to share their ZeeMee page as part of their applications.

Common App ZeeMee

Some of the colleges that proactively use ZeeMee are Beloit, Tulane, the University of Denver, and Washington University in St. Louis. Should you create a ZeeMee profile for the purpose of sharing it with your future colleges? That depends. If you believe you have the creativity, talent, and (perhaps most importantly) self-editing skills to create a well-produced ZeeMee page – go for it! Additionally, students who feel their grades and/or standardized test scores do not accurately reflect their true ability may find ZeeMee is a terrific outlet for standing out in a competitive applicant pool. But students are advised that ZeeMee should not be used as your own personal Instagram or Facebook page; it is a site for your professional self. Be thoughtful and deliberate about the photos, videos, and documents you choose to upload. The whole point of ZeeMee is to “bring your application to life,” not to overshare and potentially harm your chances of acceptance.

Tip #5: Waive Your Rights to Access Your Letters of Recommendation

The moment you attempt to invite a school counselor or teacher to submit a letter of recommendation on your behalf, you will be prompted to sign and complete the FERPA waiver. Not sure what all of the fine print means? In practice, waiving your rights means that you’ll never be able gain access to the letters of recommendation contained within your application file. It also means that the counselors and teachers who agree to serve as your recommenders will feel comfortable knowing they can write honestly about your accomplishments in the classroom and your potential for college success. Although this might sound a bit scary, take heart in knowing that college admissions officers strongly prefer that students waive their FERPA rights. Why? Colleges want the assurance that those letters of recommendations contain truthful representations, not watered-down versions of reality that may not reveal an accurate depiction of your character and ability. So go ahead… be bold, be honest, and waive your FERPA rights!

Common App Release Information

There’s a lot more to completing the Common Application than simply filling out the required forms and answering the occasional “yes” or “no” question. The Common Application is your chance to speak directly to the college admissions officers evaluating your application. Beyond grades and test scores, who are you? What’s important to you and how will you contribute to college life? Be sure that your activities page and essays, in particular, are a genuine reflection of the kind of student you are and what’s meaningful in your life. And then, after you have finished the Common App and can see a green checkmark on every page, be sure to have a trusted adult proofread your application one more time! Click on “Review and Submit” in order to generate a PDF of your entire Common App, pay the application fee, “sign” it, and let it go. Congratulations on taking the very exciting first step in applying to college!

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.