Summer and the Common App

Summer is in full swing! The next few months are about spending time with friends and family and enjoying “fun in the sun” activities…and for our rising seniors, wrestling with the dreaded college applications. It hangs over their heads like a dark cloud, but it doesn’t need to be so daunting. Breaking it up into simple steps helps students manage their stress and anxiety about the application process.

  1. Open a Common App Account: It’s that easy.

I like to tell my students that the first and most important step of the college application process is to click on the Common App link and “create an account.” It takes only a few moments. And then I encourage them to take a few more moments to complete the Profile, Family and Education sections. “That’s it? That’s all I need to do?” a student recently asked me. Well, not exactly, but it’s a solid start.

Tip #1: there are some schools, with varying degree of selectivity, who require their OWN applications to be completed and do not accept the Common App (Georgetown and College of Charleston are two popular examples). This can be frustrating to learn late in the application process. Be sure to vet your list early!

  1. Draft an Activities List: You CAN make it to ten!

The Activities section offers ten spaces to list things you do outside of the classroom. Start by brainstorming a list. Do you play sports? An instrument? Have you ever joined a club? Had a job? Volunteered? What do you do with your free time in the summer? Camps, trips, travel? Once you have a list to work with, describe the activity, we coach our students to use active verbs in resume-style sentence fragments (“raised funds for afterschool program; organized a team bake sale; trekked the Appalachian trail”) and then organize in order of importance.

Tip #2: Be sure to check your spelling in this section. Spell check is not active on the Common App. College admissions officers know exactly where to look to find errors—and they start with the Activities List!

  1. Tackle the Personal Statement: What’s missing from your narrative?

You may have been thinking about your topic for months, maybe even years. I’ve had students arrive at the office and announce they wanted to write about “a trip to Israel, my grandfather’s death, how my life mirrors the Philadelphia Eagles ride to the Super Bowl, What color M&M I would be, when I won the tennis tournament/lacrosse championship.”

Your personal statement should introduce the side of you that admissions officers won’t learn about from reading the rest of your application. It’s often something that doesn’t show up on your transcript or activities list. It is about that one time, that one memory, that THING about you that makes you unique. Admissions readers just want it to be memorable. They want to feel something when they read it. We work methodically through draft after draft with our students to capture their authentic voice.

So, should you write about what a good athlete you are? Probably not. Should you write about your academic acumen? Not unless it says something about you personally.

Tip #3: Don’t fret, you are unique. We all are. Sometimes we just need help identifying it!

  1. Ah, The Good Old Supplements

Your account is opened. Your activity list and personal statement are complete and inputted (but not before August 1). You’re ALMOST done. Right? There’s one more (significant) hurdle to face: the supplemental questions.

  • How can you be best prepared for prompts like these?
  • You’re on a voyage in the thirteenth century, sailing across the tempestuous seas. What if, suddenly, you fell off the edge of the Earth? (University of Chicago)
  • What is your theme song? (University of Southern California)
  • It’s 2040. What’s today’s headline? (Elon University)
  • In the age of social media, what does engaging with integrity look like for you? (Emory)
  • Find X. (University of Chicago)
  • Write an essay somehow inspired by a super-huge mustard (University of Chicago).
  • If you could choose to be raised by robots, dinosaurs or aliens, who would you pick (Brandeis)?

McMiIllan consultants engage students in a writing process that generates content to answer these seemingly complex prompts in a personal, engaging way. Our students have often written the perfect response to difficult questions without even knowing they’ve done so. When my students are asked, “Where’s Waldo?” (by a university who is famous for tricky, esoteric prompts), they have just the right response.

Tip #4: Don’t start collecting your supplemental essay prompts too early! Colleges will often tweak—or entirely change the questions—over the summer months.

The Common App gives every student a platform and structure to tell his or her personal story.

Embrace it. Have fun with it. Don’t be afraid to make that first click.

About The Author

Susanna Beckwith, MALS