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by Zach Galin

If you are new to the Common Application, it can be intimidating at first. To new applicants, the Common App can feel like a series of herculean hoops you have to jump through or a foe standing between you and your top-choice schools.

But we at Galin Education have walked many students through the application process, and I’m here to tell you that the Common App is nothing to fear. Instead, there are many ways that the Common App can actually work for you—if you know how to use it to your advantage. To help you present your best self to your top colleges, here are just six tricks you should use while filling out your Common App.

  1. Add prospective colleges to your Common App now

When you add a school to your My Colleges list in the Common App portal, you will be able to discern all of the different components required to complete the application. This is important because every college has different requirements. Some schools require five essays in addition to your personal statement; others require none. Some require specific test scores; other schools are test optional. Some may require just one teacher recommendation of your choice; others may ask for a teacher recommendation from a specific department at your school in addition to three others. Therefore, compiling a list of prospective schools early is a great way to start making your ultimate college application to-do list. Doing this is also a great way to start eliminating prospective schools from your list. (Do you really want to take an additional SAT Subject test, write three more essays, and request two more letters of recommendation just so you can apply to a school you doubt you’d attend if accepted?)

You can add up to 20 colleges to your list at any one time, and can easily delete and add colleges without any sort of penalty. Colleges will be updating their requirements at the end of the summer, so check back in August to see what has changed.

  1. Use fragments and Arabic numerals (1, 2, 3…) in the Activities section

In the Activities section on the Common App, you are limited to only 100 or so characters when describing your involvement in each activity—that’s less than a Tweet per activity. Therefore, space is of the essence. One way to cut down on your character count is to employ what I call “verb-first fragments” and eliminate unnecessary words (similar to a résumé). For example, instead of stating, “I organized a blood drive for the Fabulous Fall Festival” you’d just write, “Organized Fall Festival blood drive” (that just saved 21 characters). There is no need for a subject because it is understood that the subject is yourself.

Another way to save space is to use Arabic numerals instead of writing out the number. Not only does this reduce your character count, but those Arabic numerals jump off the page. Do not be afraid to use abbreviations, either. With these tips, “I collected two-thousand dollars for the local animal shelter” becomes “Collected $2K for animal shelter” (that just saved another 29 characters). By using concise, strategic fragments, you’ll create more room to show off your passions, talents, and good work.

  1. Start working on your personal statement early

It is a good idea to get started on your personal statement early because it is the most time-intensive part of the Common App. Additionally, the personal statement will be sent to all of your colleges (as long as they consider essays), whereas the other supplemental essays will only be sent to specific colleges. Furthermore, the Common Application Essay Prompts are already available, whereas the supplemental essays will not be finalized until later in the summer. Therefore, start brainstorming and writing the personal statement now. (It may take a number of attempts until you find your voice.)

  1. Compile a master list of your supplemental essays and strategize.

Once schools have announced the prompts for their supplemental essays, take inventory of all of the essays you will have to write for your applications. What you’ll find is that colleges often ask similar questions. For example, the “Why are applying to (insert school name here)?” is probably the most common supplemental essay prompt. Last year, I had a few students who had to write about a dozen such essays during the college application process. However, that does not mean they actually wrote a dozen completely unique essays. If you take time to strategically plan your response to this question, you can use a similar formula for each one. Yes, you definitely need to tailor each essay to each prospective school, but you also definitely don’t need to start from scratch each time.

So compile a list of the essays you will have to write and then strategize. This isn’t really a time-saving strategy, but rather a time allocation strategy. It is better to present five really awesome essays that can be used for multiple applications than submit 20 erratic and shoddily-written essays.

  1. Use the Additional Information section wisely.

On the Common Application, there is an Additional Information section that allows you to add up to 650 words on whatever you choose. Though this section truly is optional, it can be a great place to reveal information about yourself that a college would want to know. Perhaps there is a discrepancy in your school record—a dropped semester for example—that needs to be explained. Or maybe there is an activity that is so important to who you are and who you want to be that you absolutely need more than the 150 characters given in the Activities section to fully explain. Though you shouldn’t purposefully leave the most important information about yourself for this section—you’re working on borrowed time, after all—use this section if you think the college admissions office need to know something more about you. (But be warned: you will not be granted any sympathy from the admissions office by explaining an uncharacteristic B+ in biology.)

  1. Find a good editor

The Common Application will likely be one of the most important documents you’ll complete as a young adult. The stakes are high and you want to put your best foot forward. Therefore, make sure you have a trusted editor who can help you make the application sparkle.


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