Your Guide to the Common Application

Your Guide to the Common Application

By Dale

Your Guide to the Common Application

By Dale
Which essay prompt should I pick?

This year's Common Application may have opened only a few days ago, but you probably already have a million questions.

     Which essay prompt should I pick?

     What supporting documents do I need?

     When should I retake my tests?

     Why do I keep forgetting my Social Security number? 

Maybe that last one was just me, but odds are you will relate to the feelings of uncertainty and stress that come with trying to navigate and gather everything you need to submit your Common App.

The good news is that it's easier than you think, and better yet, I'm here to help break it down for you. Here are some tips for you.

Creating an account

Resist the urge to use your high school email address or any email address you will not regularly check or may lose access to. When I was a senior, I took creating my Common App account as an opportunity to get rid of the embarrassing email address I made when I was 13 and create one that was more professional and polished. If your 13-year-old self embarrasses you, too (or you just need a new email address), make a new email that you’ll use exclusively throughout the application process.

When you log in, you'll notice that there are different sections for you to fill out. Let's focus more on the ones where you can self-report your test scores and extracurricular activities.

Test Scores

When it comes to your test scores, self-reporting them is important, but you still have to arrange for the testing agency to send the official scores directly to the colleges/universities you're applying to. That goes for all the scores you want your chosen colleges/universities to seeSAT, SAT Subject, ACT, and Advanced Placement. If you would like to retake the SAT or ACT, those scores must be sent to UM by the testing agency by November for Early Action and Early Decision I applicants and by December for Early Decision II or Regular Decision applicants.

Extracurricular Activities

Many people struggle with writing about their extracurricular activities (I know I did). Despite what the endless threads on college application forums have to say, there are no "right" or "wrong" activities to put in this section. Talking about what you do outside the classroom isn’t about making sure that you sound like you're saving the world one honor society at a time. It's about providing a more complete picture of who you are and talking about the experiences that have shaped you. Whether those experiences were in clubs, a job, or a volunteer position, they're a part of you and are worth sharing.


For most of us, nothing creates more anxiety than the essay portion of the application. A good way to help curb that anxiety is to view it as an opportunity to express yourself! Don't be afraid to have fun with the essayI have a friend who wrote her essay about making cauliflower pizza. Being authentic to yourself and your experiences in your essay will help your application stand out among the thousands of others that universities receive. There might be a lot of people with similar grades or extracurricular activities as you, but your essay will be wholly unique to you.

There are seven prompts to choose from, and at least one of them is sure to inspire you. Don't worry about picking the "right" prompt that admission counselors want to hearpick the prompt that you think will allow you to create the most compelling story about yourself.

Once you're finished writing, I suggest asking two or three people who know you really well to read it. Those people can include a teacher, a family member, a best friend, a counselor, or anybody whose feedback you trust! It's important to make sure that your essay's voice is authentically yours and that it reads well. A useful tool in Microsoft Word is Track Changes. Turn it on and send your essay to the people you want to read it. They'll be able to make comments inside the Word document and you'll have the option to accept or reject edits they make to your essay. It'll make keeping track of feedback so much easier!


Every university has its own set of requirements on the Common App, and it can be confusing to keep it all straight. Here's a quick breakdown of some of the U's basic requirements.

There are no supplemental essay questionsthe only essay required is the Common App prompt.

UM requires a counselor recommendation and a teacher recommendation. If you can't obtain one of these, reach out to your admission counselor to figure out a solution. The Chat with Charles videos explain your options in more detail.

There are also requirements specific to certain majors, schools, and colleges. The Frost School of Music requires an audition or portfolio, and so does the Theatre Arts B.F.A. in the College of Arts and Sciences (which also sometimes requires an interview). The School of Architecture highly recommends a portfolio, so while it's not required, it's definitely worth seriously considering. Remember, if you have any questions about the audition or portfolio process, don't hesitate to reach out to the program you're interested in! They want to hear from you, and the more you know, the better.

The cost of applying to UM is $70, and it's nonrefundable. If you can't afford to pay, don't let that stop you; talk to your high school counselor about the possibility of obtaining a fee waiver from College Board, the NACAC, or the ACT.

Lastbut certainly not leastdon't forget to relax! Applying to college can be stressful, so it's important to take care of yourself and to remember to enjoy your senior year of high school! Take breaks while writing your essay or studying for that retake, and allow yourself a few minutes of something you enjoy doing. You'll thank me later.

LYGC (Love You Go Canes),