by Elyse Krantz, former admissions officer at Barnard College
To say this school year will look a bit different than last year is probably a bit of an understatement. Last year’s school supplies included highlighters, notebooks, pens, and a calculator. This year? How many masks, bottles of sanitizer, and tubes of hand cream will you be toting to school? Or not… if you’ll be spending the majority of your time at home, locked into distanced learning courtesy of Zoom or Google Classroom.
But there is one aspect of this fall that hasn’t changed – at least, not much. Applying to college! And when August 1 hits every year and the Common Application is refreshed for this year’s crop of high school seniors, I say: Bring it on! I love the college application season and get excited to help students navigate even the smallest details of their applications. After carefully studying this year’s Common App, we’ve distilled the seven tips you need to know to successfully craft your own application.
1. More Room to Describe Your Activities
The Common App still allows students to list up to 10 clubs, organizations, or meaningful activities they have participated in during high school. And, as always, there’s room for students to describe each of those involvements (including accomplishments and/or recognition received) within 150 characters of space. But on previous iterations of the application, students had just 50 characters to list the name of the club/organization and the position they held. Now the Common App has separated the two headers, offering students 50 characters to enter a position/leadership description and a whopping 100 characters to list the organization name. The Common App will automatically insert a comma between the two fields, so the entire heading appears neat and polished when published.
2. New COVID-19 Question
On the Writing page of the application under the Additional Information tab, students will now find an optional question that invites them to explain how COVID-19 (or any other natural disaster) has personally impacted them. If students wish to share details about any challenges they faced as a result of the coronavirus pandemic (such as effects on health, family circumstances, education, or future plans), they have words in which to do so. Students should not feel compelled to use this optional space to explain how their high school responded to the pandemic – for example, cancelling courses or switching from letter grades to pass/fail. High school officials will have room on their Common App forms to let colleges know how they adapted to COVID-19. See our recommendations for whether or not students should answer the optional COVID-19 question.
3. Disciplinary Questions on Both Writing Page and School Specific Supplements
In response to feedback from college officials, the Common App has altered how (and where) they ask students about their disciplinary history. On the Writing page of the application under the Disciplinary History tab, students will now see just one required question, and it relates to disciplinary violations that may have taken place at school:
Note that not all colleges use this information as part of their application review process. In fact, colleges now have the option of suppressing this question when downloading students’ files from the Common App. This year, students will also encounter additional disciplinary history questions on college specific supplements, explicitly related to misdemeanors or felonies. These questions can appear nearly anywhere within a college’s supplement, but they are most often placed on the General, Special Circumstances, Writing, or Additional Information tabs.
4. Indicate Future SAT/ACT Test Date
This is not a new feature of the 2020-21 Common App, but it’s certainly one that will come in handy this year! If you are among the thousands of students who hasn’t yet been able to sit for an SAT or ACT exam, and you still plan on taking at least one of these tests this fall, consider highlighting your anticipated test dates on the Testing page of the application. To indicate a future test date, select yes on the Tests Taken tab, and add the name of the test you’ve registered for. Then on the ACT or SAT tab, you can list 0 for the number of past tests you wish to report, and then 1 (or more) future test dates.
5. Apply Test Optional
The National Center for Fair and Open Testing has reported that three-fifths (or over 1,450) four-year colleges and universities now have test optional policies for fall 2021. And chances are you will be applying to at least one of these schools. As a result of these changes, many colleges have added a test optional question on their school specific supplements, making it easy for students to inform colleges of their preferred testing plan. However (and this is a BIG however), carefully review the small print before completing any test optional question! On many colleges’ supplements and/or admissions websites, you may find language explaining that once you select a test optional admission plan, this decision cannot be changed. This means that if you apply in early fall as a test optional candidate, and then take the SAT or ACT in October, you may not have the flexibility in submitting those scores at a later date and having them considered as part of application file. If you’re not sure whether applying test optional is right for you, consider reaching out to your school counselor or a college admissions officer.
6. Writing Supplements Can Be Tricky to Find
In addition to asking students to submit a personal statement with their applications, many colleges also require (or encourage) students to complete additional essays that are unique or specific to their institution. Despite the good intentions of Common App developers, locating those additional writing prompts can sometimes prove challenging. Where might these supplemental essays be hiding?
- First, be sure to answer all questions on a college’s General and Academics tabs before looking for additional writing requirements; sometimes the questions won’t reveal themselves until after you’ve selected a particular term of entry or major.
- Next, you’ll want to click on every tab within a school’s supplement – even those that are already marked by green check marks. (Optional writing prompts are just that… optional. So the tab may appear complete, even if you haven’t answered an important—but optional—supplemental essay question.)
- Finally, check to see if a school has a separate Writing Supplement within their application. While some colleges place additional essays within the main “Questions” supplement (often on the Academics, Activities, Writing, or Other Information tabs), other schools confine all of their additional prompts to a secondary supplement (titled Writing Supplement), which can be found under a college’s name on the My Colleges tab.
In short: You may have additional essays to write, even if a school doesn’t explicitly use a separate Writing Supplement.
7 . The Common App Help Desk is… Helpful!
No matter how many blogs I write about the Common Application, I never tire of singing the praises of the Common App help desk. If you run into any difficulties completing or submitting your application, the amazing support specialists at the Common App can help! Their help desk operates 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. And I can vouch for this as I’ve written to them on Sunday evenings and holidays, and I’ve always received a timely reply. The easiest way to get in touch with the help desk is to click on the boxed arrow next to Instructions and Help on the right-hand side of any Common App screen. Alternatively, you can visit the Students Solutions Center and click the Contact us button.
To find even more tips and suggestions for completing your Common Application, visit Insider Blog for a compilation of relevant blog posts and podcasts, all created by the former college admissions officers here at Bright Horizons College Coach.