THE BLOG
10/09/2013 05:27 pm ET | Updated Dec 09, 2013

The Top 6 Questions Students (and Everyone Else) Are Asking About the New Common Application

If you are a high school senior, parent of one, high school counselor, teacher or someone who is writing an application recommendation, I'm sure you know there is a brand-spanking-new Common Application. The "Common App" is accepted by more than 500 mostly private and a few public colleges and universities and used by more than 1 million students each year. You can find which schools make use of it by going to www.commonapp.org, and clicking on the top right tab, "MEMBER COLLEGES."

Since the new Common App (CA4) came out on August 1, I can't tell you how many questions I have received about it from my own students and also from The Huffington Post readers. In order to understand what people were asking, I went through the application process myself. Quite frankly, it took some time to figure out, but then I'm not a computer wonk.

Hoping that I can save you time and varying amounts of aggravation, here are some of the most frequently asked questions I received about the online application, some answers and a bit of information and advice.

1. How much does it cost to register with the Common Application?

There are no fees for registering with the Common App; however, there are application fees for submitting a Common App plus Supplement to individual colleges.

The fees range from $25 and $90 and can be paid for by credit card or eCheck on the Common App website. Some students may be eligible for a Common Application Fee Waiver. For information about that, go to the Application Fees section of CA4.

When you register for the Common Application, you will be asked to provide your email address and come up with a password. Students who apply to colleges through the Common App and whose high school uses the Naviance system (a school-based college planning platform that facilitates students' submission of their college applications, including transcripts, recommendations and other form) need to know that it is extremely important that they use the same email address for both. To register with one email address for the Common App and then another address with Naviance will produce problems. Don't do it! Or if you have already done this, change one address to match the other.

2. Okay, I get that the Common App personal statement allows for a minimum of 250 and a maximum of 650 words. How many words do I have for the additional information essay? It doesn't say.

The Additional Information question, "Please provide an answer below if you wish to provide details of circumstances or qualification not reflected in the application," will accept up to 650 words. There is no minimum word requirement.

3. When I go to the Common App supplements, some essays have a specified number of words or characters, but others don't. Does that mean I can put as many words into those spaces?

It is highly unlikely that there is no word or character limit for an essay question, even though the question may not indicate that there is one. The Common Application people suggest that you take one the following two options if there is no limit posted:

a) Fill in the essay space with words until you receive a message that the limit has been reached,

or

b) Call individual college admissions offices to ask for the word/character limits.

By the way, it's very important that you pay attention to the word or character count. If you go over the specification, you will be cut off, often right in the middle of a word.

4. What are the character or word limits for the honors and activities grids?

Honors: You may identify up to five Honors in the Education section of the Common Application, which should focus on academic distinctions. Although not stated there, you have 100 characters with spaces to fill in the Honor title space. Example: "Recipient, AP Scholar with Distinction, for receiving four 5's and one 4 on AP tests." (The preceding description has 85 characters.)

Activities: There are 10 spaces for different activities. You will have 50 characters with spaces to identify what the position is. Example: "Captain/member, School Varsity Academic League" (This entry has 47 characters with spaces.)

You have 150 characters with spaces to describe the "Details, honors and accomplishments" involved with an activity. "Lead members in practicing and competing against other private and public schools. We were county and then state champions 2 years in a row." (The preceding description has 139 characters.)

5. I have been trying to enter my teachers and counselor names into the recommendation area, but I just can't seem to get there. What do I do?

Of all the areas of the Common App that seem to confuse students, getting to the recommendation section is number one. Since it is already October, most students have asked their school counselor and a couple of teachers to complete the School Report and Teacher Evaluation forms. How to get those people's names into the Common App system can seem pretty complicated, especially if your school uses the Naviance system.

Here is a step-by-step process that explains what you need to do.

After you sign up for the Common App:

A. Complete all the pieces of the "EDUCATION" section under "COMMON APPLICATION" (a tab located at the top of the website, in between the "MY COLLEGES" and COLLEGE SEARCH tabs). You will know that the section is complete when a green checkmark appears on the Common Application list on the left hand side of your computer screen. If there is no checkmark, that is an indication you have failed to complete something in the "Education" section. Return to it and add/correct anything you find until the green checkmark appears.

B. Go to the "COLLEGE SEARCH" tab at the top of the website, click on it and when the page comes up, fill in the informational spaces in order to add a college.

C. Once you have added a college, go to the "MY COLLEGES" tab at the top of the website and click on it. The college/s you have signed up for will appear on the screen.

Assign Recommenders

D. Click on one of those colleges and the following list will appear: Questions, Assign Recommenders, Writing Supplement.

• To add the name of your school counselor or a teacher, click "ASSIGN RECOMMENDERS." The first item at the top of the new page is FERPA Release Authorization. You must agree or not agree to this authorization before you can add recommenders' names.

• FERPA: After reading the instructions, I strongly suggest that you agree to the FERPA statements and then type in your name on the signature space.

• After you sign the FERPA agreement, you will be able to add your counselor and teacher names to the Recommender list.

• If your school uses the eDocs Naviance system, then contact your high school counselor and he/she will provide you with instructions for your school regarding these documents.

• Once you add a recommender to the Recommender list, the FERPA selection locks and students cannot change their minds about it.

adMISSION POSSIBLE TIP: FERPA (Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act says that you can have access to letters of recommendation written by the counselor, teachers and other recommenders.) The FERPA statement in the Common App asks you to decide whether you want to waive this right.

Common wisdom among admissions professionals is that students should waive their right to see the counselor School Report, Teacher Evaluation Forms and other recommendation letters. The reason why is that while it is totally understandable that students would like to read these documents,

1) Colleges will put more trust in a recommendation if a student waives his/her right to see it;

2) Some teachers might not feel comfortable writing a letter of recommendation if a student has not waived his/her right, meaning that the recommendation is not confidential;

3) Teachers are likely to be more open, honest and candid in their evaluations if the FERPA right has been waived and

4) Admissions officers might be suspicious of students who don't waive their rights.

6. The Common App seems to have a bunch of different symbols like green checkmarks, yellow dots, black dashes, red dashes, and a red asterisk. What in the world do they mean?

According to the Common Application Help Center, here is what each of the above symbols mean:

Green checkmark

1) A green checkmark signifies that you have completed a section of the Common App, e.g,. BUT

2) A green checkmark can also signify that work has been submitted to a college. AND

3) The very same green checkmark also indicates that a Common App question or section isn't necessary to complete! Among the optional pieces is the Additional Information subsection

In general, I urge students to answer every question on an application. After all, the application is the only thing that colleges have to sort out whether you are a good candidate for their school; therefore, it's in your best interest to answer all questions to give them as much ammunition as you can. If you leave out something important (or even not important), they will never know.

Yellow dot (circle)
Yellow dots indicate that parts of the Application and/or the Writing Supplements have not been submitted. Yellow dots turn green when something has been submitted.

Red asterisk
Questions that are required are noted by a red asterisk.

Black dash
A black dash means that some element of the application is not applicable to you and you do not have to fill it out.

Red dash
A red dash means that something is not required (see above for my recommendation regarding optional questions)

Finally, some unsolicited, important advice: For students who will be applying Early Action, Early Decision or Rolling Admissions, because of the glitches that are coming up as students complete the Common App, I urge you to submit the application a week or two early. When problems develop, even with the help of the Common App Help Center people, it might take a while to resolve. You don't want to miss an application deadline because you can't get your application turned in.

These are a few of the questions that keep coming to me over and over. I have many more. If you find this blog useful and would like me to continue with Common App Q and A's, please let me know.