Breaking Down the Common Application

The Common Application is a single application that students can use to apply to over 900 colleges and universities. Although filling out one application streamlines the process of applying to college, the Common Application includes many sections and takes most applicants hours to complete.

Think of the Common Application as an opportunity for college applicants to take the raw material of their high school experience and transform it into the best possible audition for college admission. Each section of the Common Application is there for a reason, whether to obtain hard facts about test scores and demographics or soft facts that imply character and personal skills. Accordingly, students need to invest time and thoughtfulness in their responses to each question. The application should be completed by the applicant; the parent’s role is to encourage and support the student in maintaining momentum and meeting deadlines and to answer the student’s questions or guide the student to helpful resources.

Below is a description of the sections of the Common Application and tips on how to write an effective response to each one.

Profile and Family Sections: 

Questions in these sections help admissions officers piece together the student’s identity—what kind of community they grew up in, what type of diversity they have been exposed to or will bring to the college, demographic information and family dynamics. This information is provided by using drop down menus or typing short answers. Students will have the option to discuss further details of hardships or unique circumstances that may have impacted their education in the Additional Information section (see below.) 

Education and Testing Sections: 

Colleges use the Education and Testing sections of the Common Application, in conjunction with the student’s transcript and school profile (uploaded to the Common Application by the school counselor), to gain a full understanding of the applicant’s academic abilities and educational journey, including a student’s adaptability to new environments, capability for academic rigor and academic strengths and weaknesses. Students are asked to provide information about their current high school, high schools previously attended, college courses they have taken and senior year classes including AP, IB, and dual enrollment courses. Students are given the option to self-report their ACT or SAT scores as well as their AP or IB test scores; whether to do so depends on multiple factors such as the intent to re-test or apply to college under test optional policies. It is wise to consult with an expert before self-reporting test scores.

Activities Section: 

Applicants are provided space to describe ten extracurricular activities in the Activities section of the Common Application. Each activity must be clearly explained within a maximum of 150 characters. This short but significant part of the application is an opportunity for students to carefully craft their words, providing a vibrant description of themselves beyond academic achievement. Though organized activities such as sports, clubs and employment are important to include, students should allow themselves to think broadly about the way they have engaged in their interests and responsibilities and include hobbies, family obligations, and self-initiated educational pursuits. Though there is space for ten activities, it is the quality that counts, not the quantity.

Writing Section:

The Writing section of the Common Application consists of three parts: The Personal Essay, Disciplinary History and Additional Information.

The Personal Essay:

College essays are not primarily beautiful pieces of prose or a demonstration of masterful, mature writing skills. They are an opportunity for students to tell the admissions officers who they are and how they will contribute to the campus community. The essay places grades, letters of recommendation, standardized test scores and list of extracurricular activities in context. It also adds the student’s voice to the application. And effective college essay assists the admissions officer in understanding a full picture of the student behind the application.

Disciplinary History:

Students who have received disciplinary consequences in high school are asked to write a short essay explaining the circumstances and reflecting on the experience. Colleges want to know that the student has matured and what he/she has learned from the incident. Students should avoid excuses and make sure that they demonstrate maturity and accountability when describing the situation. 

Additional Information: 

This section of the Common Application is optional but students who bypass this section miss an opportunity to enrich their application by describing achievements, interests, extenuating circumstances and unexplained hardships that do not fit into the other parts of the application. The following are some examples of appropriate and beneficial uses of the Additional Information section.

  • Providing more information about a significant activity, where 150 characters allowed in the Activities section was not enough to fully explain the significance.
  • Links to the student’s social media sites, always curated for consumption by admissions staff, including podcasts, blogs, LinkedIn and Instagram.
  • Colleges value inclusion and diversity in many forms, including neurodiversity. Students with learning disabilities, ADHD or autism can explain how their neurodiversity has challenged and/or impacted them positively.
  • Explanation of discrepancies in the high school transcript.

College-Specific Questions:

Each college that uses the Common Application can tailor the application to meet its own needs by adding additional questions. Many of these questions require brief answers. Some colleges, however, will also ask applicants to write one or more supplemental essays. Often, these essays ask why an applicant is choosing to apply to their college. The answers to this question help college admissions officers gauge their applicants’ level of interest in attending their college. Since college admissions officers want to accept the least number of students to fill their freshman class, they do not want to offer an acceptance to a student who is not eager to attend. The key to answering the question, “Why College X?” is to be very specific in your reasons for wanting to attend. If you can exchange the name of College X with College Y and the essay still works, you are not being specific enough to convince admissions of your interest.

In addition to writing a detailed “Why College X?” essay, there are other ways to demonstrate your interest in a college. The College Spy has created a checklist of tasks that students can complete to convince colleges of their interest. If you would like a free copy of this checklist, please email The College Spy’s founder, Michelle McAnaney, at

Follow The College Spy on Twitter for additional tips and strategies for your application. You are also invited to join the College Admissions Parent Information Group, hosted by The College Spy on Facebook.

The College Spy Logo

The College Spy is a full service independent educational consulting firm that assists students and families across the US and internationally with the college selection and application process. Follow The College Spy on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, LinkedIn and on The College Spy Podcast.