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College Admissions: Understanding the Common Application


Students enter the Mandel Center for Humanities at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts.

What do all of the over 4,000 colleges and universities in the United States have in common? The answer is not a lot.

These schools are all different in many ways. The same is true for their requirements for admitting students.

College applications can often be very complex, with several parts. And as the number of people seeking a college education increases every year, competition for admission also grows. So students often end up applying to more than one school, which can be a lot of work.

That is why a growing number of colleges and universities have started using the Common Application method, also known as the Common App. It began with 15 U.S. universities in 1975. Today over 730 schools worldwide have students apply for admission this way.

Any student can use the Common App so long as he or she is connected to the Internet. The system lets students use one set of materials to apply to as many of its member schools as they want, all at once.

To get started, simply go to the Common Application website.

Sara Brookshire, director of admissions at Brandeis University
Sara Brookshire, director of admissions at Brandeis University

Sara Brookshire is the director of admissions at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts. Brandeis, a private research university, does have a traditional application process, where students can apply directly to the school. But Brookshire says less than two percent of its applicants do so. Most apply through the Common App website.

Brookshire says the purpose of using this method is to reduce barriers for students and make the application process less stressful. Some colleges may feel students are showing less interest in finding the best school for them by using the Common App. Some may feel that students simply want to increase their chance of getting accepted.

Brookshire admits that students could seek admission to 730 schools if they really wanted to. But many schools that use the Common App require students to pay individual application fees. So the process could get very costly!

Brookshire adds that students can no longer expect to get into the first or second school they choose.

“So the hope was to be transparent in [honest about] the process, but also to still encourage [ask] students to be thoughtful,” Brookshire told VOA. “Find those eight to 10 schools that are appropriate and exciting for you, and go ahead and just send in apps [materials] to them.”

Like traditional college applications, the Common App website has several parts. The first is where applicants provide personal information, such as their sex, ethnicity and citizenship. Students may also be asked what languages they speak and details of their family. Brookshire says this kind of information gives the school an idea of who the applicant is.

The second part of the application is where students provide information about their education history. This includes what high school they attended and their academic performance during the high school years. It also includes a list of the classes students are currently taking and any college-level classes they may have taken.

Brookshire notes that attention to detail is very important. Most colleges and universities ask for official documents from a student’s high school to confirm what they are reporting is true. So dishonesty would be a mistake. Also, students should be careful about spelling mistakes, as well as names or words used in email addresses.

Outside the George and Beatrice Sherman Student Center at Brandeis University.
Outside the George and Beatrice Sherman Student Center at Brandeis University.

The third part is where students list any awards or honors they have received. It is also where students list their activities outside of the classroom. Brookshire thinks this part is one of the most important.

“What we’re doing on the college side is trying to understand a student’s potential [possible] fit for our...community,” she said. “It has to do with which clubs [student groups] and organizations that we think they might be involved with, what kind of impact [effect] they’re going to have on campus, whether or not we think they’ll … thrive [succeed] in a very busy…environment.”

Brookshire suggests that students think hard and list as much as they can in the activities section. Sports teams, volunteer organizations, and part-time jobs are all good examples. But, she argues, applicants should also consider adding less structured activities. Most colleges want to see that students have a lot of different interests. However, an applicant demonstrating hard-work and responsibility can also be appealing to admissions officials.

For example, Brookshire says, a student could talk about how they had to come home after school every day to care for an aging family member. That would explain why they did not have time to join a school band or debate team.

The fourth part of the Common Application is the personal essay. This section shows a student’s ability to communicate in writing, as well as demonstrate their critical thinking skills. Students must choose one of several open-ended questions about themselves. Then, they must answer the question in about 400 to 600 words.

Brookshire says this is a chance for students to explain themselves in a way that the other parts of the Common Application do not. It lets them be creative, while also showing the way they think and see the world based on their own experiences. She adds that when choosing which question to answer, students should think about how the subject relates to the schools they would like to attend.

One of the past questions was similar to this: “Think about a time when you questioned a belief or idea. What affected your thinking and what was the result?” Brookshire says this might be good question for a student hoping to attend a liberal arts college. Classes at this kind of school will often ask students to question their understanding of the world.

But Common Application member schools often request changes to the application materials and the essay questions do change from year to year. The newest form is released once a year on or close to July 1. And as Brookshire notes, the more time students spend on the essay the better.

Finally, the last part of the application is a teacher recommendation. This is where a teacher with a personal connection to the applicant writes a letter in support of the student. This letter describes the personal qualities of the student and why the college or university should accept them.

Students have no control over what the teacher might write. So Brookshire says a student should probably choose a teacher who taught a subject related to the field they want to study in college. Or students could ask a teacher whose class they struggled but succeeded in in the end.

Brookshire suggests that a thoughtful letter from a teacher like that could show that the student never gives up, even when things get difficult.

I’m Dorothy Gundy. And I'm Pete Musto.

Pete Musto reported this for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

We want to hear from you. Have you or anyone you know applied to a college through the Common Application process? What was that experience like? Write to us in the Comments Section or on our Facebook page.

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Words in This Story

application(s) – n. a formal and usually written request for something, such as a job, admission to a school, or a loan

stressfuladj. making you feel worried or anxious

appropriateadj. right or suited for some purpose or situation

excitingadj. causing feelings of interest and enthusiasm

academicadj. of or relating to schools and education

spellingn. the act of forming words from letters

campusn. the area and buildings around a university, college, school

bandn. a usually small group of musicians who play popular music together

essayn. a short piece of writing that tells a person's thoughts or opinions about a subject

liberal arts n. areas of study, such as history, language, and literature, that are intended to give you general knowledge rather than to develop specific skills needed for a profession

recommendationn. the act of saying that someone or something is good and deserves to be chosen

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