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Ace the Common App

Open the door to college admissions



For many college hopefuls, the first chance to stand out to admissions departments is via the Common Application. The online form — accepted by more than 500 colleges nationwide, it lets students apply to several schools simultaneously — encourages “holistic” admissions, where factors like GPA and class rank are considered alongside recommendations, essays and extracurricular activities.

“A holistic review process lets admissions departments consider all of the variables of an application, and it gives a clearer picture of how that person would be as a student,” says Christopher Ferguson, vice president for admissions at Drexel University in Philadelphia, where all undergrad applicants use the Common App. Here’s some expert advice on how to complete the Common App to a student’s best advantage.

Prep early

Getting familiar with the Common App long before admissions deadlines gives kids plenty of time to fill out the form and troubleshoot problems that might arise during the process. Kimberly Lewis, director of the Outreach Futures initiative at Philadelphia Futures, an organization that helps send low-income students to college, suggests checking out the familiarizing yourself with the app as early as your child’s junior year. “Regardless of where a student ends up applying, it’s important for him to get a head start on understanding the key pieces of a college application,” she says.

Ferguson recommends reviewing the app’s requirements — as well as any supplemental info requested by most individual schools — with a guidance counselor and showing up early at a college fair to discuss the requirements in more detail with admissions counselors. “Sometimes there may be issues with submitting the application,” he explains. “Things like double dashes in an essay will create a technological problem, and school counselors can help students get through that.”

Academics vs. extracurriculars

When it comes to striking a balance between extracurriculars and a rigorous course load, boasting a diverse set of activities on the Common App is encouraged — unless the list overshadows a student’s academic background.

“It’s great if an applicant is involved in tons of activities, but if it takes away from their preparedness to do college-level work, then that’s an issue,” says Alisa Hogan, president of the New Jersey Association for College Admissions Counseling and associate director of admissions marketing and communications at Richard Stockton College in Galloway, NJ. Ideally, she advises, “It’s best for a student to list a few activities that help drive his academic success and tie into what he wants to study in college.” Applicants should list extracurriculars in order of importance and not feel obligated to fill in all of the activity fields.

The Common App essay

The Common App includes one essay, with five prompts to choose from. Crafting a response that corresponds with the values of multiple colleges can be challenging, but admissions experts agree that the best submis- sions are introspective, creative and well organized.

“When we read an essay, we take note of how well it was thought out and whether the applicant really looked into herself to express her passion and personality,” Hogan says. “It should go beyond just stating the reasons why she wants to attend this school.”

Ferguson says applicants should approach the essay with originality but stick to the prompt, keeping in mind its 650-word limit. “It’s important for stu- dents to be distinctive in what they’re writing about,” he adds. “But rather than trying to cover everything, they should focus on one topic that will convey a lot about them.”

Subjects best to avoid, Lewis warns, include controversial topics like religion, politics or personal relationships.

Since most colleges provide a space separate from the essay for students to add additional info, Hogan says taking the opportunity to address a school directly shows initiative. “For those colleges that a student really wants to go to, he needs to put his best foot forward throughout the Common App and demonstrate an extra effort.”

Cheyenne Shaffer is a freelance writer and recent Temple University graduate. 

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