Attention Underclassmen and Parents: CommonApp 101 & Hot Tips for Extracurrics


                “Passion is no ordinary word” – Graham Parker 

One of the most common words bandied about in the college admissions game is “passion,” and not without good reason. Indeed, one of the keys to writing successful applications is effectively communicating areas in your life–whether academic, athletic, extracurricular, or volunteer and work experience–about which you are passionate. These days committees aren’t as impressed with “well-rounded” as they are with “depth of interest,” in other words, passion.

So how and where can you communicate your passion on the CommonApp?  Good question, glad you asked. Many mistakenly think it’s only the “Personal Essay” in the Writing section that gives you space to showcase an area where you excel. Wrong! In fact, that’s not even the main purpose of the personal essay, which is rather intended for you to offer committees a clear verbal picture of who you are, which may or may not be about one of your passions (it may be, for example, about a quality you have, an aspiration, or an experience that changed you). So where, then, are the places for your passion to shine through?

If you’re unfamiliar with the CommonApp, I suggest you visit the CommonApp site and register. It’s free, and you need not be applying to college this year to have an account. Familiarize yourself with the basic components (see figure at right), which I divide into FIVE basic sections as follows:

  1. My Colleges: This is where you load up all the schools to which you will or might be applying. The CommonApp uses this section to pull in your “future plans” forms (i.e., EA and ED choices, whether you’re starting fall or spring, etc.).
  2. Name/Date/Serial #: The next few pages are where you enter basic info about you, where you live, your parents, your school, your courses, etc.
  3. Activities:  This is a CRUCIAL SECTION to which students often do NOT give enough time and attention. I elaborate on some key points below.
  4. Writing: There are TWO writing pieces that go to every school: a) a SHORT (1000-character) elaboration on one of your extracurricular activities (around 4 or 5 sentences is all you get and the form WILL CUT YOU OFF at your 1000th character); and b) your Personal Essay, which is supposed to be 250-500 words, but which can be longer without anyone caring, although the NYT recently reported that starting in 2013, the 250-500 word limits WILL be enforced (see prior blog posts and “Prep Talk” shows below for more info on the personal essay).
  5. Supplements: The CommonApp will pull in on the fly the supplemental forms that each of the colleges in your My Colleges section wants you to complete. These usually entail a little more basic info and one or more essays, typically including the “why do you want to go to xxxxx?” question.  These supplements do vary widely, however, from the very easy one-page, no-essay-required, to the long, involved, can-I-shoot-myself-now-because there-are-so-many-new-essays-I-have-to-write? Check them out early to get your head in the game and know what to expect. It’s important to think about responses to supplements in conjunction with your topic choices for the two writing pieces in #4 above.

The title of this blog post promised “hot tips for extracurrics,” so here are five to get you started:

    1. Note the bold-faced instructions “in their order of importance to you.” SO MANY students miss this, and following them is really important to create an accurate picture of who you are. If you have difficulty figuring out what’s your most important activity, try this: imagine your parents sit you down and tell you you can only do ONE thing outside of classes and HW. What’s it going be? That’s #1. Then they say, okay, you can do TWO things. What are you going to do second? That’s #2. And so forth.
    2. Here’s the format into which you have to press each of your activities (up to 10), and trust us, it ain’t easy:Activity Format
    3. Note that two spaces where you can write have strict character limits. Be consistence, concise, and cogent in every box.
    4. Note that you have to check boxes for EVERY activity according to how many years you pursued each activity. So this is a place where you can SHOW PASSION by having all four (or five in the case of PGs) boxes checked.  Conversely, it allows committees to bust you for having lots of activities with only the Grade 12 box checked.
    5. Know the drop-down list really well, and choose your categories wisely. At CollegePrepExpress, we can show you how best to package yourself using these categories.  “School Spirit,” for example, is often overlooked but plays very well with committees.  Here’s the complete list (and note how few there are outside of the long list of sports):
    6. Activity CategoriesHave at least one Community Service/Volunteer activity and, if possible, have it overlap with a passion. For example, if you love baseball and are on the Varsity baseball team, it would be a good idea to volunteer coaching for Little League or the Special Olympics. Or if you’re a sax player, perhaps volunteer to help young musicians in the elementary school band or start a pep band at your school.

Application packaging is both a science and an art. At CollegePrepExpress, we’d be happy to show you how best to package yourself and to make sure all your passions shine through.
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The primary purpose of CollegePrepExpress, LLC is to help students get into their top secondary schools, colleges, and graduate schools and to reduce stress surrounding the entire admissions process.

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