Common Application Tips

The Common Application (Common App) is an online admissions application that is used by over 500 colleges and universities in the U.S. and abroad. The applicant enters his/her information once into the online application system and the common app submits it to all of the colleges and universities indicated in the application. The common app also includes information and/or essays specific to a particular school when that school is chosen by the applicant. Once the application is submitted online to a school, it cannot be changed for that school; the applicant must contact the school's admissions dept to request a change or to submit additional information.

 

Resources

 

The following tips have been gathered over the years; keep in mind that the common application changes from year to year, which may have impacted the specific instructions.

 

Academic/teacher recommendations

Check out this article from US News: Get Letters of Recommendations as a Home-schooled Student

Some thoughts from a poster on a national homeschool to college forum:

My son requested reference letters from two college professors whose classes he took as part of dual enrollment. When we requested the letters I included a cover letter that suggested things that might be useful for a college admissions officer to know -- such as his level of classroom participation, interest in learning, how well he fit into the classroom community, etc.

 

Essay(s)

The common application includes at least one required essay, and often there are additional essays required for the specific schools you are applying to. Essays may be included in both the Questions section and the Writing Supplement. And required essays may also be located on a specific "homeschool requirements" page on the school's website.

 

The "guidance counselor" section

Where do we upload the transcript, guidance counselor letter and answer the questions about homeschooling philosophy?

The transcript and other "school"-related information is uploaded in the guidance counselor section of the common app. This section does not exist at first. There are two explanations for how to generate an invitation to your parent, who will serve as your guidance counselor:

From Khan Academy: "Here’s how your parent can access this profile online. If you log on to the Common Application, find the "Education" section and click on “Find School.” A window will pop up that lists all the schools in your area. Scroll down to the very bottom of that window and select “I was/am homeschooled.” The site will then prompt you to enter your counselor’s contact information. You’ll want to enter your parent's contact information in here instead. Your parent will then receive an email to set up a counselor account (a My Recommender Account), which is where the school profile and counselor recommendation are filled out. This is where your parent can provide some additional context about your homeschooling and how it was structured."

Another option is that it is generated after you (the student) specify a college in the "My Colleges" section. After logging into your account, go to the "My Colleges" tab (not the "Common App" tab). That should automatically open the application information for your first college (alphabetically), at which point you should see "Recommenders and FERPA" as one of the choices underneath. When you click on that, a window that allows you to send invitations opens. One of the invitations is to your counselor (choose one of your parents for this role).You will also have an opportunity to name the people who will write recommendations.

What do I put in the "rankings" fields in the counselor's section?

Before you click on any students, you can answer that your "school" does not provide rankings. This changes those questions from required (red stars) to optional (no red stars). Then you can leave the rankings blank.

What is the guidance counselor letter and where does it go?

The guidance counselor letter is usually written by the parent who oversees the homeschooling process. It provides informative and evaluative information, offering insights into your student's character, academics, and other relevant experiences. You have the option of either pasting text directly into a box or uploading a document. If you choose to type into the box, there is a limit of 1000 words.

What do I put in the guidance counselor recommendation letter?

First, note that the common application does not display the section for the counselor recommendation until the school report section is complete.

Here are some thoughts from a poster on a national homeschool to college forum:

From my admissions experience, a few things I'd recommend doing and avoiding.

Avoiding:

1. Avoid using superlatives unless you have outside experience to substantiate that superlative. (E.g. "As a coach of college rowing at the D2 level, my child is one of the strongest all-around rowers I've worked with.")

2. Going over the 500 word ish ballpark unless there is a specific reason to do so. College admissions officers have A LOT to read from A LOT of students and appreciate when information is presented effectively, efficiently, and succintly.

Doing:

1. Explain, explain, explain. Why the switch from Latin to Spanish in senior year? Why the discontinuation of community college courses? Why the gap in math? Why drop robotics team? Why the interest in medicine? Why homeschooling? There are lots and lots of questions to answer!

2. Give additional context that might not be present in the rest of the application.... this includes scheduling conflicts, the impact of frequent moves, a divorce or a family crisis, etc.

A common issue families run up against is whether to disclose issues like learning differences/neurodiverse issues in the counselor letter. Ask ten college counselors and you'll probably hear 11 different opinions on that one!

Check out this blog post with tips for guidance counselors who need to write one of these letters.

Here is what one particular college asked for in the counselor letter:

Please write a summary appraisal of the candidate, assessing the academic and personal qualities and the candidate's promise as a XXX student. We are particularly interested in evidence about character, relative maturity, integrity, independence, the values or the beliefs the student is enthusiastic about, and any special talent or quality the candidate possesses. Avoid listing activities that are mentioned elsewhere. We are interested in specific events and unusual circumstances that will give us added insight into the strengths and weaknesses of the candidate. Photocopied reports are acceptable. You may either upload your letter here or type it in the box below.

Other thoughts:

--In my counselor letter...I focused on his personality and goals and how I felt homeschooling had helped him get a start on those goals -- things likely not mentioned by academic references.

--This is an opportunity to point out things that aren't evident from the transcript, scores, and student essays. Or, it's a way to show how a set of things that might seem a bit random really are connected.

 

Extra-curriculars

Is there a way to upload an activities "resume" to include in the Common App? The 100-character limit for each activity description is not giving me enough room to adequately describe some of my more unique activities.

No, but you may be able to use the section which follows the Writing section of the Common App: "Additional Information" which has a 650-word limit. Consider writing a short narrative of involvement your primary extracurricular activity. Explain the activity, work experience, competitions, and at the end, list major wins and other awards. Writing about your experience may be especially applicable if you are planning to major in a related field. Explain your activity in terms of how homeschooling allowed the flexibility to participate in this activity which resulted in a deeper and more meaningful experience.

An admission rep for a school said that they encourage homeschoolers to use this “Additional Information” section of the Common App to tell them anything that would help to fill in the details about why you homeschooled, how your homeschool program was designed, and how you used some of the benefits of homeschooling to your best advantage.

 

Information about Home School

Where do I provide information about homeschooling? I heard that there used to be a homeschool supplement, but I can't find it.

The Common App has discontinued the homeschool supplement for the student. Instead, when the counselor indicates that the type of school is Home School, several questions pop up in a Home School tab in the student's and guidance counselor's workspaces.

Home School questions in guidance counselor section (use the text box for response, limit likely 1000 words.):

  • Please provide any information about the applicant's homeschool experience and environment that you believe would be helpful to the reader (e.g. educational philosophy, motivation for homeschooling, instruction setting, etc.).

  • Please explain the grading scale or other methods of evaluation.

  • If the student has taken courses from a distance learning program, traditional secondary school, or institution of higher education, please list the course title and content, sponsoring institution, instruction setting and schedule, and frequency of interactions with instructors and fellow students (once per day, week, etc.). In addition, if the student has taken any standardized testing other than those listed on page 2 of the Common Application, please also describe below.

    • For the first part of this question, you may want to refer the reader to the home school transcript.

What is a School Profile? Should I include one for our Home School?

It is up to each family whether or not to create a School Profile (see sample: http://professionals.collegeboard.com/guidance/counseling/profile/sample). There is a lot of overlap between questions on the Home School tabs in the student and guidance counselor sections and what is typically included in a School Profile. Most institutions will be satisfied with the answers provided to the quesitons in the Common App. You can also use the Guidance Counselor letter to provide information about your Home School.

Review before submitting

What is the best way to review our application before submitting?

When you click "Submit," (as either the student or guidance counselor) the software will generate a pdf that has everything in one long document. You can review that document and go back and change things as needed before you really, irrevocably, submit it. However, you might not really be able to change an uploaded document (e.g., in the guidance counselor section). The software allows you to delete a document and re-upload a corrected document. And even though you may see the correction on the "is this exactly how you want it" version, when you resubmit, it may use the old document anyway. Moral of the story: make sure everything is perfect before you click "Submit." However, some have suggested that if you name the new version differently from the original, the software retains the new one.

After you've submitted, you can download the pdf (for both the student and guidance counselor sections), if you want to save or print it.