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Common Application: Does “Optional” Truly Mean Optional?

You’ve finished the core components of your Common Application – your main essay, your activities, and any required supplements for the schools on your list – and are ready to submit. Then you pause.

Should I self-report my scores? Do I need to respond to the COVID question? Will colleges read the four extra letters from my other recommenders?

Need some last-minute advice? Read on!

COMMON APPLICATION: TESTING

Standardized testing these last few months has been an exercise in frustration for seniors. You’ve registered and prepared, only to see test centers shuttered and exams canceled – sometimes with no warning. Maybe you were able to sit for the SAT or ACT once but ended up with a lower score than you had hoped.

For students applying to colleges that are newly test optional, including the majority of the most selective colleges in the country, a good rule of thumb is that if your SAT or ACT scores are well within the middle 50th percentile range, then go ahead and submit these scores. Remember that for many top colleges, the switch to test-optional this year leaves admissions officers without some of the customary guideposts they used to help decisions. If everything else about your application is strong— your GPA, rigor of course load, and rank (if your school calculates one)—then including scores confirms to admissions officers that you are the kind of student they seek to admit.

What if your SAT or ACT scores are below the school’s typical admit ranges? If you are from a high school that typically sends lots of high-scoring applicants their way, admissions officers will likely assume that you are unhappy with your scores and chose not to send them. Remember that they have data from prior years’ applicant pools so they have some sense of what to expect from your school. Students from low-income schools and communities, those in historically underrepresented groups, will likely be given more benefit of the doubt than students from well-resourced families and schools.

We also anticipate that newly test-optional colleges this year will be flooded with applicants from around the country and around the world who, in previous years, may have been discouraged from applying because of lower scores. If applicant pools balloon, guess how admissions officers will sort through applications? They’ll use data – scores and GPA – especially in the first read, to figure out who seem to be the strongest students in their pool. A word about AP scores. If you’ve got a bunch of AP courses on your transcript from junior year, admissions officers will check to see if you self-reported your results. If not, they’ll assume the results were poor. So, if you have scores of 3 or higher, report them! In the absence of an SAT or ACT or subject tests, strong AP scores will also help show your strength.

Common Application COVID Question

COMMON APPLICATION: COVID QUESTION

The Common App’s new, optional question opens the door for students to share more about the impact of COVID on their “health and well-being, safety, family circumstances, future plans, and education, including access to reliable and quiet study spaces.” Should you respond?

First, ask yourself a question. We’ve all had our lives turned upside down these last 9-10 months. Virtual schooling, zoom fatigue, quarantine blues, canceled testing, disrupted activities – these are common to all high school students. If the story you tell pretty much recounts what every high school student has had to contend with, then you are better off not responding to this optional prompt. You risk coming off as tone-deaf or privileged, two things that will form a bad impression in the minds of your application readers. 

Do answer this question if you and your family experienced significant hardship because of COVID – serious illness or death of a loved one, parent’s loss of employment, additional home responsibilities caring and teaching for your siblings, lack of access to technology and other online resources. In addition to sharing your struggles, be sure to show admissions officers how you overcame these unexpected challenges.

COMMON APPLICATION: SUPPLEMENTAL RECOMMENDATIONS

Back in the day when students applied to college using pen and paper (seniors, ask your parents about those days), admissions officers had a saying: “the thicker the file, the thicker the kid.” Essentially, students who loaded up their application with tons of extra letters of recommendation were essentially compensating for weaker credentials and basically throwing the kitchen sink at the admissions office.

So, once you’ve assigned the one or two required teachers, be judicious in using any of the optional or “other” recommenders. If you truly believe that a potential recommender can offer a perspective on your candidacy that no other recommender can, then go ahead and tap that person to be your “other” recommender. But, loading up on extra recommendations – even if the college allows – can overload your application with extraneous materials, making admissions officers a little grumpy as they wade through these extra letters. Good luck with your applications and we are here to help if you want last minute essay help or an entire application review before hitting SEND.

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5 Tips for a Compelling Common Application Essay

For many high school seniors, the Common Application’s personal essay is the most intimidating part of the admissions process. What are admissions officers looking for? Are there particular topics you should avoid? How can you possibly summarize your interests and goals in 650 words? What do they mean when they call it a “personal essay?”

If the very idea of tackling this essay leaves you feeling overwhelmed, don’t worry! We’re here to help. Below, we’ve listed some of the most important things to keep in mind when putting together your personal essay. If you can follow these guidelines as you plan, draft, and polish your applications, you’ll be in great shape! And bonus tip, it’s not really personal, meaning they don’t care about your personality or your deep, dark secrets. Read on.

5 TIPS FOR YOUR COMMON APPLICATION ESSAY

1. What Makes You Stand Out

Every year, admissions officers receive thousands of essays that sound similar. Some of these address cliché topics (e.g., winning the big game, being transformed by a volunteer opportunity); others simply don’t make clear how the applicant differs from other students.

Before you begin writing your essay, take some time to think about what makes you a compelling applicant. Are you an amazing writer or an incredible biologist? Are you a budding political activist? Have you developed great resources to support the homeless population in your area? Whatever it is that makes you stand out, that is what you should be discussing in your college essay! Not what you want to “do” in life, but what you’ve done to elevate yourself to present as a compelling candidate. Give the reader a zoomed in snap shot of what it is you will bring to college.

2. Turn Your Essay Into A Story

The Common App asks for a “personal essay,” but you’d do better to think of your writing as a personal narrative. Use this as an opportunity to tell a story about yourself, one that — like all the great stories you’ve read in English class — includes a compelling opening, some narrative tension to keep the reader invested, and a satisfying conclusion. If, for example, you want to write about your background as a programmer, don’t just tell us that you can code and list your achievements. Instead, tell us a story about how you were confronted with a seemingly impossible programming challenge, how you spent months studying a particular programming language to debug your code, how you finally succeeded after multiple failures, and how this has shaped your current approach to computer science. Giving your story a narrative arc will make it both more enjoyable and more memorable. The one caveat: make sure your narrative presents you in a positive light. No one wants to admit the story’s villain.

3. Show, Don’t Tell

We’ve said it before, but it’s worth repeating: rather than telling us that something is true, show us evidence that makes us believe it. That is, rather than simply asserting things about yourself in your college essay (“I’m a compassionate person,” “I love history,” etc.), give us information that proves your point. Maybe you’ve shown your compassion by working at a food bank during the pandemic and tutoring underprivileged kids. Perhaps you have illustrated your love of history through independent historical research projects and summer programs on American history. Providing this information in your essay will support your statements about yourself and make them convincing to your reader.

4. Proofread Your Work

After all of the hard work you’ve put into planning and drafting your essay, you don’t want an admissions officer to dismiss it because of sloppy writing. Typographical errors suggest to admissions officers that you are a careless student or (even worse!) that you aren’t particularly interested in their college. To avoid giving these impressions, make sure to spend some time carefully reviewing your writing. (Don’t just rely on the computer’s spellcheck feature — it won’t catch everything!) If you can, ask a few other people to review the piece for you to look out for any spelling or grammatical errors or any moments where your writing is unclear.

5. Get Help

If you keep these suggestions in mind when putting together your personal essay, you should finish with a strong piece of writing. Still feeling a little unsure? We’re here to help!  Just as you might get standardized test tutoring to help your scores go up, it’s helpful to have an expert make sure you are on the right path with your college essay. Like a good theater director is able to get a magnificent performance from an actor, so too does a skilled essay coach help an applicant find and present his/her authentic voice.

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College Application SOS

With early admissions deadlines now in the rearview mirror, all high school seniors can breathe a sigh of relief, right? Actually, based on data newly released from Niche.com, 47 percent of all high school seniors have yet to start applying to colleges. The Common Application this week reported an 8 percent decrease in number of applications submitted to date.

What’s behind the delay? Not surprisingly, anxiety is the single biggest reason why students haven’t submitted applications. Niche.com’s data shows that an overwhelming majority (92 percent) of students are feeling fear or anxiety right now with concerns about being able to afford college topping the list.

We also posit that lack of opportunities to visit campuses in person have led many students to feel uncomfortable applying for early admission, especially when binding commitments were required. Also, the Class of 2021 lost important mentoring and support from teachers and counselors in the crucial junior spring when schools went to virtual learning and for most, that has continued throughout the senior fall. 

Is it any wonder we are swamped with requests from students from around the world with questions on how to handle college admissions during the pandemic?

Are you behind on your college applications? Don’t panic — we are here to help with top tips for completing your applications NOW.  Take a deep breath and let’s do this!

BUILD YOUR COLLEGE LIST

Your first step should be to create a realistic list of colleges. Start with an honest self-assessment of your academic record. In real time, admissions officers cite a student’s grades and level of rigor of coursework as core to their assessment of applicants for admission. Even though many schools don’t officially report rank-in-class, there are plenty of hints that admissions officers find in counselor letters, school profiles, Naviance type software, and transcripts. So, where do you think you fall relative to peers? Near the top or more towards the middle?

Next, how would you rate the level of rigor of your curriculum? Have you stretched yourself to take the most challenging courses? How have you sought academic challenge beyond what your school offers? Again, this is what admissions officers are looking for as they read your application and just one of the myriad ways we guide our students in our Application Boot Camp and Private Counseling programs.

Although just about every college has moved to test-optional admissions policies for this current cycle, you can use your test scores to gauge where you fall relative to students who typically enroll at the colleges on your list. Do your SAT or ACT scores lie at or above the 75th percentile for enrolling students? Do your scores fall below the 25th percentile? Are you somewhere in the middle? Match your scores to the data colleges report on their incoming classes to give you a realistic sense of where you would fall if you submitted them.

Do a similar honest self-assessment of your extracurricular impact. How do you think your teachers and counselor would describe you? Leader, high impact, participant, just like everyone else? The more competitive the school, the more you will need to show impact and distinction—both in and out of the classroom.

Finally, as you build your list, recognize that rates of admission at top colleges in the regular round can be excruciatingly low. Create a balanced list with schools where your likelihood of admission is good, along with a handful of realistic “stretch” picks.

CONNECT WITH TEACHERS AND COLLEGE COUNSELORS

Immediately, connect with your teachers and college counselors to ask them to be your recommenders. Most top schools require letters from your counselor and at least one teacher, typically two, so choose teachers from junior year who know you well and talk with them about the schools on your list. Remember, they will be your advocates in the process, so the more you can share about your college aspirations, as well as all you’ve done both in and out of the classroom, will help them write stand-out letters on your behalf.

Also, many college counseling offices will require your finalized list in early December so that they can prepare and submit your transcript and counselor letter by college’s specific deadlines.

GIVE THANKS—AND THEN WRITE YOUR ESSAY

The Thanksgiving holiday is the perfect time to write the Common Application and supplemental college essays, especially since most of us will likely be hunkering down at home during the break.

When it comes right down to it, your main college essay is a 650-word introduction to you as a scholar, a community member, and a potential alumnus/a. This means that the story you tell about yourself must depict you as an academic, someone with strong interests, an inventive mind, and a willingness to pursue your goals.

There are likely plenty of stories in your background that are personally meaningful to you, but that don’t represent you in this particular light. A story about watching reality television with your sister, for example, might capture a family tradition, but it won’t tell us much about your scholarly interests or goals. A narrative about your mother’s immigration to the U.S., too, might show us her ability to overcome difficulties, but it won’t highlight yours.

Rather than focusing on stories that are personally important to you, we recommend that you tell us about moments in your life that highlight your passions, goals, and interests. Tell us about how watching reality TV with your sister inspired your award-winning research project on modern celebrity culture. Tell us about how your mother’s experience coming to the U.S. informed your own passion for immigration reform, which has led you to spend your time campaigning and volunteering with organizations that support migrants.

The stories don’t just give us a window into your life. They give us insights into how you’ve developed and explored your interests in high school — and how you might continue to pursue them at college.

Want more essay tips? Check out our Top Tips for Winning College Essays! Or work with us directly in our College Essay Guidance Program.

CREATE A SUPPLEMENT ‘MAP’

Today, most colleges have two to four supplemental questions (long essays, short responses, lists) in addition to what’s being asked on the Common Application. So, applying to colleges is far from streamlined.

As you approach your supplements, we suggest creating a supplement ‘map’ and categorizing the prompts based on theme. You will quickly notice some patterns emerge! For example, many schools will ask a version of the “Why Essay.” In other words, be prepared to explain what it is you like about their specific scholarly community and how you would contribute to campus life, both in the classroom and elsewhere. Other common supplemental questions include a meaningful extracurricular activity, your potential academic major, your role in a community of your choice, and personal perspectives showing how you would contribute to a diverse college community.

WE’RE HERE TO HELP

Whether you need step-by-step guidance with the ever-tricky Common App or guidance on organizing and crafting your essays, we’re here to help! Our expert editors and writers are at the ready to assist you in putting your best foot forward during the college application process.

For students who have finished their application and want our “review” we have a few more spots available before 12/20/20 in our Application Review Program! Good luck and get writing!

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Common App Eliminates Disciplinary Question

Post by: Dr. Michele Hernandez

Every year, we have a few students who agonize over the disciplinary question on the Common App and how to respond to that question. As parents ourselves and private admissions counselors for two decades, we have seen all sorts of crazy incidents from a student who was charged with a felony (“graffiti” on federal land when it was actually just a funny drawing in a park) to plagiarism, cheating, fighting, drug/alcohol and minor disciplinary charges like missing a few days of schools. One complicating factor is that every high school has different rules for suspensions, expulsions and what to report. Should a student who receives a dress code suspension receive the same treatment as one accused of academic dishonesty?

ACADEMIC HONESTY IS KEY

When I worked in Ivy League admissions, I can testify that we were VERY concerned about any report of academic dishonesty from plagiarism to cheating and did reject kids who were known cheaters. After all, academic honesty and integrity is the currency of a university experience. Any violation of academic integrity typically resulted in rejection though often we would verify with the student’s school counselor first.

We also gave the student a chance to explain what happened and the Common App itself provided a space to do so. For years as private counselors we have helped students show their side of the story which often mitigated the judgment if it turned out to be more of a misunderstanding than a flagrant violation such as the student who wrote on social media that she could “Kill Mrs. Smith for that horrible test” which her school took as a threat.

When the Common App actually analyzed the data of who actually submitted application materials, they found that students of color (Black students particularly) were more than twice as likely to report a disciplinary record than white students. This is a significant issue since Black and Latinx students (27 percent of students who submit applications through the Common App) comprise 52 percent of the roughly 7,000 students who first, declare an infraction and second, as a result, do not submit their application.

COMMON APP DISCIPLINARY QUESTION = GONE

Based on that data, the Common App decided to eliminate that question beginning in the 2021-2022 admissions cycle. Does that mean students should not worry at all? Of course not. Keep in mind that serious incidents of bad behavior or academic dishonesty still have paths to reach the admissions office. The most common way is the actual guidance/college letter. I would hope that a counselor would include in their official letter any serious incidents as they put their reputation on the line each time they write a letter of recommendation. If admissions officers learned of a serious omission, it would threaten the credibility of the high school and the counselor. My worry is that counselors are often afraid of legal repercussions and undue pressure from wealthy/powerful parents who could influence them to leave out important information. The other avenue for requesting the same information would be for colleges who wanted more information and who cared deeply about academic dishonestly to include that question on their supplemental essay questions so that the student would have a chance to elaborate.

Though of course we don’t support a question that penalizes one segment of the population, we do think the Common App could have perhaps tweaked the question rather than abandoning it altogether. We surmise that suspensions result more often from bad behavior than from academic dishonesty. If that were the case, why not ask a more targeted question: has this student had any major infractions of academic dishonestly including cheating or plagiarism. That would eliminate the minor suspensions from shoving a classmate in the hallway or not tucking in a shirt for instance, but preserve the essence of the question.

OUR ADVICE TO YOU

Our advice to students and parents is to keep in mind that top colleges DO value honesty and integrity and your teachers and school counselor are still writing letters to colleges that elaborate on what kind of student you are. Just because the Common App is eliminating the disciplinary history question (along with the cover letter School Form that asks for similar information) does not give you license to cheat or behave badly. That information is likely to come across via other channels (even from jealous classmates – really!).

Honesty is usually the best policy and we have helped students explain unjust suspensions or unfounded accusations. Admissions officers are human beings who do try to understand the context and the nature of any disciplinary action. That being said, your best option is to take pride in your own academic achievements and to avoid risking rejection for falsifying any of your work, period.

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Colleges Without Supplemental Essays: 2020

Back in 1975 when the Common App was first launched, it was truly a common application. Students filled out a form, wrote a short piece on a favorite extracurricular activity, and then their 650-word essay.

Over time, colleges started asking for supplemental essays as a way to get to know more about their applicants, make distinctions amongst a high-achieving applicant pool, and to better assess who was seriously interested in the school. Today, most colleges have two to four supplemental questions (long essays, short responses, lists) in addition to what’s being asked on the Common Application. So, applying to colleges is far from streamlined. We are almost back to where we were before the Common Application – different essays for different schools. But……

MOST but not ALL.

WHY?

There are still nearly 400 schools that accept the Common Application who don’t have additional supplements. That’s many good schools that don’t require supplemental essays and rely solely on the Common Application. So why don’t they ask any supplemental questions? Most likely, the decision falls into one of the following:

  • A desire to increase accessibility and attract more applicants. An application with lots of additional essays will deter students who lack the time to work on them. Essentially – get more kids to apply!
  • A much-more straightforward admissions process that is based primarily on scores, class rank, and GPA. Data drives these schools vs getting to know the candidates.

Whatever your reason for seeking a school that doesn’t require additional supplemental essays, we’ve got you covered.

SAMPLE LIBERAL ARTS SCHOOLS WITHOUT SUPPLEMENTAL ESSAYS

SAMPLE UNIVERSITIES WITHOUT SUPPLEMENTAL ESSAYS

ESSAY GUIDANCE

Whether your list of schools requires supplemental essays or not, or if you’re still working on your Common Application essay – we’re here to help you share your voice, your vision and your true scholarly selves to college admissions officers and can help you craft compelling essays.

“T was accepted early decision to Boston College! Thank you so, so much for all of the help and guidance that you provided us over the past 6 months. I can’t imagine there are many (if any!) people out there who are better than you at what you do! Thank you for your patience, prompt replies, and for keeping T on track! We are very grateful to have found you and worked with you!”

– D.M., Essay Guidance Program parent