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How to Stand out on the Common Application

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how to stand out in the common app

The very nature of the title of the document gives the impression that the common application is just that—common. But the word “common” doesn’t mean ordinary. It means “common”as it applies to all colleges being able to use the same common information. If you think it’s impossible to be uncommon on the common app, think again.

Even though the information you share is going to be common to all colleges that receive your application (name, age, school, grades, etc.), there are several areas on the application that will make you stand out to the colleges who are reading your information. You can use those areas to paint a picture of who you are to the colleges and share key personal aspects that are not available in the general information sections of the application.

The Common Application Essay

The essay is the most logical place for you to tell the admissions committee something they do not know about you that was not communicated in the general information. Spend time before you start writing to do some self-reflection. The essay is a way to help admissions officers get to know you. It’s a way of saying, “This is who I am. This is how I see myself.”The essay can make the difference between a common application and an uncommon or extraordinary one. Admissions officers will tell you that the essay often makes the difference between memorable and accepted or being ordinary and rejected.

Answer these questions when thinking about your essay:

  • What makes you tick?
  • What are your learning styles?
  • What do you do outside of school and why do you do it?
  • What should the admissions committee understand about you and who you are?
  • What can you tell them that they don’t already know by looking at your application?
  • Is there something about you that makes you unique and memorable?

In addition to the main common app essay, many colleges ask for supplemental essays. These essays often ask probing questions that allow you to show even more of your personality than the standard essay. Spend as much time on these as you do on the standard one.

The Additional Information Section

It’s important to know when and how to use the additional information section. The section of the application allows you to share key personal information that you haven’t included elsewhere, either in the main section or on the essays. Don’t use brag sheets or resumes here. You could use this section to clarify any unusual grade trends or test scores, homeschool experiences, transferring schools during high school, any learning or physical disabilities, or any other life event that has affected your high school years and impacted your grades or attendance. Even though the additional information section is not required, you should utilize it if there is something you need to explain that will help you stand out on the application.

Community Service Activities

Colleges are looking to build a community and admission committees want to know that its future students will participate in their college community efforts. For this reason, your community service can also help you stand out and create a positive impression as your application is evaluated. In addition, colleges are looking for students who will graduate and become well-rounded citizens and contribute to their community.

First things first, list those long-standing involvements. A day here or there picking up trash does not impress admissions officers. They are looking for commitment and a community service activity that lasts more than a few hours will fare much better than a few hours in many different activities.

Following are just a few suggestions that look impressive on your common app:

  • Politics—work on a local campaign, at a polling place during elections, at the office of a local, state or federal public servant; work on a political campaign; get involved with local issues by volunteering for local efforts contributing to better education, neighborhoods or community.
  • Your local community—work with a literacy group; collect used books for the library; participate in Big Brothers/Big Sisters; help out with the local M.A.D.D (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) organization.
  • Your local business community—get involved with local businesses by working, job shadowing and apprenticing; join local service organizations as a junior member; become an entrepreneur by starting your own business.

One student I know used his spare time to take care of the grave sites of Revolutionary War and Civil War veterans. This is a memorable and impressive form of community service. Think before you list any activities. What would most impress you? How can you best portray your community service in your common app? What would make admissions officers want to offer you admission?

As you can see, the common app can be used to easily share your common information with multiple colleges. But it can also be used to share some uncommon aspects of your academic and personal life as well.

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Written by Suzanne Shaffer

Suzanne Shaffer counsels parents and students in the college admissions process and the importance of early college preparation. Her Parents Countdown to College Coach blog offers timely college tips for parents and students, as well as providing parents with the resources necessary to help their college-bound teens navigate the college maze.

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