A Comprehensive Guide to the Common App: Strategies and Tips from an Admissions Expert

06/05/202422 minute read
A Comprehensive Guide to the Common App: Strategies and Tips from an Admissions Expert

Navigating the university application system can be overwhelming. Here’s a comprehensive guide to the Common Application with everything you need to know. You'll not only understand when to use the Common App, you'll get a full overview of each component along with strategic insights for crafting a strong application that will stand out in a holistic admissions process.

At Crimson Education, we are dedicated to demystifying the college admissions process and providing students with the tools they need to succeed.

Through our series of free webinars, we connect students globally with experts who bring experience and insider knowledge. One of our recent webinars, led by former Johns Hopkins admissions officer Jeremy Parks, focused on a crucial aspect of college admissions: the Common Application.

The Common Application is a pivotal tool in the college admissions journey. Over 900 institutions use it to streamline the application process. Understanding how to navigate its components effectively can greatly enhance your chances of getting into your dream school.

In this blog post, we delve into the essential insights and strategies discussed in the webinar, aimed at helping you master every section of the Common App, from crafting a compelling essay to deciding whether Early Decision or Early Action is right for you.

Join us as we unpack Jeremy's wisdom, complemented by real success stories and additional resources designed to prepare you for a standout application. Whether you are a student, parent, or educator, the insights from this webinar are tailored to guide you through the complexities of the Common Application.

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Common App Overview

The Common Application, commonly referred to as the Common App, is an undergraduate college admission application that prospective students can use to apply to multiple member colleges and universities simultaneously. It is a standardized application that simplifies the college application process, making it easier and more accessible for students worldwide.

Purpose of the Common Application

The purpose of the Common Application is to reduce the barriers to college entry. By filling out a single application, students can apply to a wide range of colleges and universities, which saves time and reduces the redundancy of completing multiple separate applications.

This unified approach not only helps students but also allows colleges to receive applications from a broader, more diverse applicant pool.

Jeremy emphasized the Common App's inclusivity, stating:

It means that all of your materials can be largely the same as you send them to the same schools, with variance in essays and major selection, but your extracurricular activities, your personal statement... all these things will remain the same throughout your Common App to help streamline your process.

Role in Streamlining College Admissions

The wide level of acceptance by top schools and the standardized format mean you can focus more on refining your application content rather than worrying about different format requirements for each college.

This centralized system also benefits admissions offices by standardizing the data received, allowing for a more efficient review process.

The Common App helps us as admissions officers to see a clean, organized application from every student, which aids tremendously in the holistic review process.

Through its comprehensive and inclusive approach, the Common App facilitates a smoother transition from high school to college, supporting students across the globe in pursuing higher education.

Not ALL Schools Use the Common App

While the Common App is accepted by over 900 institutions globally, several notable universities use their own application systems. For example, Georgetown University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) each maintain unique application processes tailored to their specific admission criteria. Similarly, the University of California (UC) system utilizes its shared application for all nine undergraduate campuses, distinct from the Common Application.

Additionally, service academies like the United States Military Academy at West Point and the United States Naval Academy also do not participate in the Common Application due to their unique requirements that include physical assessments and congressional nominations.

While the Common App streamlines the process for many institutions, students should be aware of and prepare for different application procedures at schools that do not use it.

And, did you know there's also a similar application platform with features specially suited for first-generation students and low-income students who want to connect with schools offering more robust financial and academic support programs? The Coalition App has these features, but also some important limitations that set it apart from the Common App.

The Components of the Common App

Navigating the Common App effectively requires a deep understanding of each section and the information it seeks to capture. Here’s a comprehensive breakdown of the key sections illuminated by insights Jeremy shared in a recent webinar, to ensure you can approach each part with confidence.

Personal Information

This section is the foundational layer of your application, where you'll provide basic details such as your name, address, date of birth, and parental information. While filling out this section may seem straightforward, accuracy is paramount to avoid administrative issues.

Even small errors in your personal information can cause big headaches down the line. Always double-check your details for accuracy. It ensures your application is processed smoothly and reflects professionalism.

Education History

In this section, you'll detail your high school career, including the name and type of school attended, graduation date, GPA, and class rank if available. You'll also include any college-level courses taken during high school, such as AP, IB, or dual-enrollment classes.

Fully represent your academic journey here, including all institutions attended and any special programs or curriculums,” Jeremy advised. “This gives admissions officers a clear picture of your academic background and the contexts of your achievements.

Test Scores

This section of the Common App is dedicated to entering your standardized test scores, including SAT, ACT, AP, IB, and TOEFL or IELTS for non-native English speakers. The standardized testing landscape in college admissions has seen significant shifts, with many schools adopting test-optional policies in recent years. However, it's important to note that a trend is emerging where numerous institutions are reverting to test-required policies.

While test-optional allows you to choose whether to submit your test scores based on their strength and the overall competitiveness of your application, submitting high scores can significantly bolster your application by demonstrating your academic preparedness and capability.

For detailed lists of institutions that are test-optional and those that have returned to requiring test scores, you can refer to our comprehensive blogs on schools that are test-optional and schools that are now test-required.

If you're wondering what qualifies as a "strong" score, it largely depends on the average scores accepted by the colleges you target. For more insight into what constitutes a good SAT score, check out our blog.

Before deciding whether to submit your test scores, you must check the specific testing policy of each college to which you are applying. This will help you make a strategic decision about whether including your scores could give you an advantage in the admissions process, ensuring that every element of your application enhances your chances of admission.


This section is your opportunity to showcase up to 10 extracurricular activities, from clubs and sports to volunteer work and part-time jobs. Here, you describe what you did, your role, the impact of your involvement, and the number of hours per week and weeks per year you participated.

Don’t just list your activities; highlight your involvement's depth and impact. Show us how you’ve grown through these experiences and what you’ve contributed to your community. Choose activities that highlight leadership and commitment, and order them by significance rather than chronologically. This shows admissions officers what matters most to you and where you've made your mark.

Remember not to let the simplicity of the list format fool you. As with other components of the Common App, you want to ace your activities list, ensuring the most important and relevant personal traits stand out while also adding coherence to your overall profile.


The Common App Essay is your chance to speak directly to admissions officers in your voice. The Common App provides several prompts from which you can choose, allowing you to discuss meaningful personal experiences, challenges, or achievements.

The essay topics for 2024/25 are as follows:

  1. Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
  2. The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
  3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
  4. Reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you?
  5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
  6. Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?
  7. Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you've already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.

Jeremy stressed the importance of authenticity and depth in your essays.

Use this space to connect with your reader on a personal level. Your essay should provide insights into who you are, beyond your grades and test scores. Start early and seek feedback to refine your narrative.

Each component of the Common Application is an integral part of your college admissions narrative. Jeremy’s insights underline the need to approach each section thoughtfully, ensuring that every part of the application aligns with your overall educational goals and personal values. By thoroughly understanding and meticulously completing each section, you enhance your chances of presenting a compelling and holistic application to your chosen colleges.

5 Common App Activities List Tips

Jeremy Parks' Strategic Insights for the Common App

Leaning on his past experiences as an admissions officer at Johns Hopkins, Jeremy Parks shared insights spanning much more than mere application mechanics. His webinar offered a strategic and holistic guide for students who want their Common Application to stand out in a selective admissions landscape.

His advice underscored the importance of seeing the Common Application not just as a form to be filled out, but as a narrative tool that highlights your most relevant traits, presents a coherent profile, and captures a unique personal story.

Understanding the Holistic Review Process

Jeremy started by clarifying the essence of the holistic review process:

Admissions officers are not just looking at your grades and test scores; we are looking at the whole picture. Each section of the Common Application contributes to this narrative.

This remark underscores the importance of coherence across the different sections of the application, ensuring that each part reinforces the student’s overall profile.

The Importance of Narrative Consistency

Throughout his presentation, Jeremy emphasized the importance of maintaining a consistent narrative throughout the application.

Your application should tell a story. Everything from your personal information to your essays should reflect who you are and what you stand for.

This approach encourages students to think critically about how to ensure each section contributes to a cohesive and authentic portrait of their aspirations, achievements, and character.

Strategic Decision-Making

A significant part of Jeremy’s advice revolved around strategic decision-making, particularly how students present their information in the activities section and decide whether to include standardized test scores. He noted the importance of making these decisions based on the strengths of each applicant's profile:

If your test scores are strong, include them as they can bolster your academic portrayal. Conversely, focus on other areas if they are not indicative of your potential.

Depth Over Breadth

Jeremy also highlighted the preference for depth over breadth in activities, urging students to focus on engagements demonstrating sustained commitment and impact:

Choose activities where you have made a real impact or shown leadership. Depth in a few activities is often more telling than minimal involvement in many.

Essay Strategies

The essay portion of the Common Application provides a pivotal opportunity for personal expression beyond the metrics of grades and test scores. This means the essay can play a crucial role in helping you stand out in a memorable way, among a crowded field of applicants.

During the webinar, Jeremy Parks delved into some of the more effective strategies for tackling the Common App essay prompts, emphasizing how to use them to present a compelling narrative.

Understanding the Essay Prompts

The Common App generally offers several prompts that invite a wide range of responses from applicants. Each prompt explores the student's experiences, values, and character but with different angles, so it's essential to think strategically about which prompt to choose, while also being authentic in picking a prompt that interests you.

For example, one prompt might ask students to discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked personal growth and a new understanding of themselves or others. Another, is meant to encourage writers to talk about topics or ideas that they are deeply captivated by.

By offering students seven essay prompts, the Common App ensures you can use the essay to explore personal terrain not relevant in other application components, while continuing to build a coherent and consistent application narrative.

Strategies for Writing Compelling Essays

  • Choose Your Prompt Wisely: Jeremy emphasized the importance of selecting a prompt that resonates deeply with personal experiences or one that will allow a student to share something meaningful and unique about themselves. “Select a prompt that aligns well with your story. It should feel natural to write and come from a place of authenticity."
  • Show, Don't Just Tell: A well-written essay should show the reader who you are, not just tell them. Jeremy suggested using vivid descriptions and specific details to bring stories to life. “Don’t just say you’re resilient — show how you demonstrated resilience through specific actions or decisions."
  • Start Early and Revise Often: Beginning the essay writing process early is crucial. This provides ample time for revision, feedback from others, and refinement of your narrative. Jeremy pointed out, “An excellent essay often goes through multiple drafts. Give yourself the time you need to polish and perfect your statement.”
  • Maintain a Strong Personal Voice: The essay should sound like it comes from a real person, not a thesaurus. This may mean taking a step back from your academic writing habits and writing as if you're speaking to someone across the table. “Use your authentic voice," recommends Jeremy. "The essay should read as if you're having a conversation with the reader.”


During the webinar, Jeremy shared examples of successful essay approaches. One student discussed how moving to a new country and facing cultural challenges inspired a passion for cultural anthropology. The student used vivid anecdotes to describe the initial challenges and the journey toward cultural understanding and acceptance.

Another example involved a student who turned a routine walk into a reflective essay on environmental responsibility. By describing the litter they saw and their subsequent actions to organize community clean-ups, the students demonstrated initiative and commitment to environmental issues.

The Common App essay is more than just a writing assignment; it is an opportunity to connect personally with the admissions committee. By understanding the purpose of the prompts and applying Jeremy’s strategic insights, students can craft essays that not only tell compelling stories but also underscore their readiness for the challenges and opportunities they'll encounter in college.

Want more essay insights? Check out our detailed blog on answering the Common App essay prompts.

Navigating Early Decision & Early Action

Applying to colleges can be a strategic endeavor, especially when considering Early Decision (ED) and Early Action (EA) options. During the webinar, Jeremy Parks provided insights into the significance of these early application processes and how students can navigate them wisely. Here, we discuss what these terms mean, their pros and cons, and how to decide if they are the right options for you.

Understanding Early Decision and Early Action

  • Early Decision is a binding application process in which students commit to a college if admitted. Under ED, you can only apply to one school, and if accepted, you must withdraw all other college applications and attend that institution. This option suits students who have a clear first-choice college and are ready to commit.
  • Early Action, on the other hand, is non-binding. Students apply early and receive a decision well before the regular admission deadline, but they are not required to commit upon acceptance. This allows students to compare offers and financial aid packages from other universities before making a final decision.

Pros and Cons of Early Decision and Early Action


  • Increased Admission Odds: Many colleges have higher acceptance rates for early rounds due to the smaller applicant pool and the desire to secure committed students early in the admission cycle.
  • Early Peace of Mind: Receiving an early acceptance can reduce stress and simplify planning by securing a spot well before the regular decision announcements.


  • Binding Commitment (ED): With Early Decision, you are committed to attending the college if accepted. This can be a con if financial aid packages and other considerations do not meet your needs or expectations.
  • Less Time to Improve Application: Applying early means having less time to enhance your application with senior year achievements or additional test scores.

Deciding if Early Decision or Early Action Is Right for You

When considering whether to apply ED or EA, Jeremy suggested that students evaluate a few key factors:

  • Certainty About School Preference: If you have a clear top choice and your academic and financial profiles align well with what the school offers, ED can be a great option.
  • Readiness of Application: Ensure your application is as strong as possible by the early deadline. If you believe additional time would benefit your application significantly, it might be better to opt for Regular Decision.
  • Financial Considerations: Since ED is binding, it’s crucial to be comfortable with the potential financial implications. Make sure you understand the financial aid process and have discussed it with your family.

Successful Common Applications & Other Resources

Through a blend of real-life success stories and practical resources, students can gain a clearer understanding of how to navigate the Common Application process effectively. Below, we illustrate how past Crimson students have applied strategies from our college counselors to achieve success, and we provide resources that further empower applicants to create compelling applications.

Crimson Student Success Stories

Anna's Holistic Approach: After learning about the importance of a cohesive narrative, Anna showcased her leadership in environmental initiatives and her internship experiences. Her focused application, which integrated her academic and extracurricular pursuits, helped her gain admission to several top programs with renowned environmental science departments.

Mark's Strategic Essays: Inspired by essay writing strategies from the webinar, Mark wrote a compelling narrative about overcoming a language barrier, igniting his passion for linguistics. His authentic and thoughtful essay helped him stand out in a competitive applicant pool.

Sophia’s Comprehensive Application: Sophia leveraged Jeremy’s advice on portraying a well-rounded profile, emphasizing her involvement in both robotics and community service. Her application highlighted her diverse skills, leading to multiple offers from prestigious engineering schools.

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Additional Resources and Tools

To further assist students in preparing their Common Application, Crimson Education offers a range of resources:

  • Common App Database: Explore our database of successful Common App profiles from previous admits. This resource includes detailed views of their academic profiles, extracurricular activities, and essays, offering a real-world glimpse into what a successful application entails.
  • College Admissions Calculator: Gauge your preparedness for the Common App process with our college admissions calculator. This tool helps identify areas where you need more focus or additional information.
  • Webinars: Revisit our educational webinars, including Jeremy’s insightful session, available on our website. These webinars provide valuable advice and can be watched at your convenience to reinforce your understanding of the application process.
  • Official Common Application Resources: Visit the Common Application's official website for comprehensive guides, FAQs, and tips on navigating each application section.

Common App FAQ

Following are some frequently asked questions that align with the topics discussed in the webinar, accompanied by expert answers that reflect the advice Jeremy shared:

Q1: How important are standardized test scores in the Common App now that many schools are test optional?

"While the importance of test scores has diminished at test-optional schools, they can still play a significant role in your application if they strengthen your academic profile. If your scores are competitive within the context of your target schools, including them could enhance your application. Otherwise, focus on strengthening other components like your essays and activities."

Q2: What is the best strategy for deciding which extracurricular activities to include in the Common App?

"Focus on depth rather than breadth. Highlight activities where you have demonstrated leadership, commitment, and growth. It's not about the number of activities, but the impact and involvement in them. Choose those that best represent your interests and align with your prospective major if possible."

Q3: Can you explain more about how Early Decision affects financial aid?

"When you apply through Early Decision, you agree to attend if accepted, before seeing your financial aid offer. However, most institutions are committed to meeting the full demonstrated financial need of every student. If the financial aid offer does not meet your demonstrated need, you can discuss it with the college's financial aid office or, in some cases, appeal the decision."

Q4: How can I make my Common App essay stand out?

"Tell a story only you can tell. Focus on a unique aspect of your life or a perspective that shows depth in your thinking. Use your personal voice and avoid overused topics. Think about what the admissions officers might find interesting or refreshing, and remember, authenticity is key."

Q5: Is it a disadvantage to apply in the Regular Decision pool?

"Not necessarily. While Early Decision and Early Action might provide an advantage to those who are ready and certain of their first-choice school, Regular Decision gives you more time to polish your application and gather all necessary materials to present the strongest application possible."

Final Thoughts

With insights from an experienced Crimson Education Strategist, we've explored various crucial aspects of the Common Application process that go well beyond mere mechanics, empowering you to think holistically and strategically and craft a Common App that really stands out.

Jeremy's expert insights underscore the importance of a thoughtful, well-rounded approach to your application. Remember, each part of the Common Application offers an opportunity to showcase different facets of your achievements, character, and potential. By paying close attention to how you present your personal information, educational background, test scores, extracurricular activities, and essays, you can create a compelling narrative that resonates with admissions officers.

We encourage all students to utilize these tips and insights to refine their application strategies. Whether you're just starting to prepare your college applications or you're looking to optimize an existing application, use the advice shared today to guide your next steps.

And, don't miss out on new learning opportunities — sign up for future webinars now. Each session is designed to provide the tools and knowledge you need to succeed in a competitive college admissions process. Additionally, consider consulting directly with our team of experts at Crimson Education. Our personalized approach can help you navigate your unique journey to college, boosting both your confidence and your results.

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