Wazzup! 12+ Things You Should Know About the New Common Application 2015-16

08/05/2015 09:01 am ET Updated Aug 05, 2016

Ahhhh. The first days of August! You're probably thinking sunshine, swimming pool (ocean or lake if you're lucky enough to live near the water), going on vacation with the family, and/or getting together with friends at the mall. Except...if you are a rising high school senior--or parent of one--you're probably thinking about (drum rollllllll) THE COMMON APPLICATION! Every August 1, a brand new Common App is posted online, which is often a signal to millions of students that it's time to get serious about college admissions.

Before I go on with what's new about the Common App 2015-2016, let me remind you that these days there are three possible options for submitting a college application: 1) a college's own application (offered by many public universities such as the UC's); 2) the Common Application (application home to over 600 colleges and universities in the US, 69 new ones just this year) and 3) the Universal College Application (application home to 43 colleges and universities). A couple of colleges offer all three options, some offer two and most offer just one option.

I. A FEW HOUSEKEEPING ISSUES: First things first
Before we get started on all of the new "stuff" about the Common App, let's go over some things you need to know and do to take the best advantage of the application.

A. System Requirements to Use the Common App
Over the years, I have found that some applicants had difficulty with the Common App because their operating systems and browsers were not brought up to date. Here is what the Common App folks say about what to have on your computer:

Operating systems (e.g. OS X/Tiger and Windows XP) and browsers (e.g., Google Chrome, Safari, etc.):

Mac
Operating System: OS X Tiger/Leopard/Snow Leopard
Browser: Current version of Chrome or Firefox
Safari 8 or higher

PC
Operating System: Windows XP/Vista 7
Browser: Current version of Chrome or Firefox
Internet Explorer 10 or higher

Correct browser settings:
Javascript and Cookies enabled
Popup blocker disabled

Software needed:
Adobe Reader 10 or higher

Email:
Make sure to add appsupport@commonapp.net to your email contact list so that you can received important messages from Common App administrators

B. CREATING A COMMON APP ACCOUNT
After checking your operating systems and browser, the next thing you need to do is create a Common App account.

All that takes is your email address and a password. The password must have between 8 and 16 characters, at least one upper case letter, at least one lower case letter, one number and one of the following characters: !@#$%^& or *

Be good to yourself and come up with a password that is easy to remember, e.g., "mydogFreddy!" Don't forget to write down your password and store it someplace where you can gain quick access. You're going to be using it a lot.

C. THE INCREDIBLY USEFUL "2015-2016 COLLEGE DEADLINES, FEES AND REQUIREMENTS" LIST
One of the most useful Common App resources is their yearly list of ordinarily hard-to-find, up-to-date information about member colleges including a) whether a college is coed, women only or men only, b) early application deadlines, c) US and international student fees, d) whether the Common App essay and individual college supplement college essays are required, e) what Common App or college portfolios are accepted, f) test policies for US and international students, and g) what recommendations and reports are required.

To gain access to this extremely useful document, go to the College Search tab and then click on the Application Requirements box at the top, right hand side of the Criteria page.

D. WHAT'S IN THE COMMON APPLICATION
1. The Common Application is divided into four major tabs: Dashboard, My Colleges, Common App and College Search

Dashboard lists all of an applicant's colleges and the status of the work that has been completed for each.

My Colleges notes the colleges that applicants have identified they will be applying to, a link to individual a college's email address and website, as well as contact information, application deadlines, application fees, test policy and recommendations required.

The Common App is the heart of the website and offers all of the informational questions students are asked to provide in these sections:

  • Profile
  • Family
  • Education
  • Testing
  • Activities
  • Writing

College Search is the mechanism by which the Common Application provides students to identify colleges that interest them and add to their list.

II. SOME IMPORTANT IMPROVEMENTS IN THE COMMON APP
The Common App people have made some useful changes to their application essay section. Here are the five essay questions:

A. NEW/IMPROVED WRITING SECTION

Personal Essay Prompts
In the Common Application section, left column, Writing tab, applicants can choose one of the following five essays about which to write their personal essay in 250-650 words:

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 failure can be fundamental to later success. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?

3. Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?

4. Describe a problem you've solved or a problem you'd like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma-anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.

5. Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.

New to the Writing section is that students now have Bold (B), Italic (I) and Underline (U) fonts to use in their essays.

Additional Information Essay
Like last year, applicants are invited to "Provide an answer if they wish to provide details of circumstances or qualifications not reflected in the application," using up to 650 words.

B. NEW POLICY: COLLEGES CAN DECIDE WHETHER OR NOT TO REQUIRE THE COMMON APP PERSONAL ESSAY
Unbelievably, individual colleges and universities can now choose to make the personal essay optional. Even if a college does that, Common App says you can still send in an essay to any school you choose.

On the other hand, know that many colleges require both the Common App Personal Essay, as well as their own supplemental essays.

C. NEW POLICY: NO LIMITS ON EDITING ESSAYS
Before this year, applicants were allowed to edit their personal essays up to three times after the first submission. This policy has been changed. Hallelujah! There are now no limits: you can edit the essay as many times as you want.

D. NEW POLICY: PRINT PREVIEW SECTIONS OF THE COMMON APP ANY TIME YOU WANT
Even more useful to Common App users is the change made on printing pieces of the application as you finish them. Before, applicants had to go all the way through, completing each and every section of the application, and then finally print/preview as a part of the submission process. What a hassle that was. Not any more! Print at your pleasure.

By the way, the Preview button is located on each page, just to the left of the Instructions & Help Center header.

E. NEW POLICY: COLLEGES CAN MAKE RECOMMENDATIONS OPTIONAL
Unlike any time before, member colleges can require or not require a school counselor letter of recommendation. In fact, the Letter of Recommendation form has been removed from the School Report and a new Counselor Recommendation form created.

According to the Common Application, some of the questions on the new form include: a) the duration and context in which you have known the applicant, b) the first words that come to mind to describe the applicant, c) a broad-based assessment that addresses topics such as academic and personal characteristics, comment about an applicant's performance and involvement and/or observed problematic behaviors admissions should explore. (Common Application Knowledgebase) I think this is useful information for applicants to know about.

The School Report continues to be required, and the Counselor Recommendation form is accessible only after the Report is submitted.

WHAT ELSE: RANDOM PIECES OF USEFUL INFORMATION

  1. The maximum number of colleges you may apply to is 20.

  • As in past Common Applications, for the five entries on the Honors Grid (located in the Education section of the Common Application) you have 100 characters with spaces.
  • To complete the 10-entry Activities Grid, you have 50 characters with spaces to fill in the Position/Leadership description and organization name. You then have 150 characters with spaces to answer the question, "Please describe this activity, including what you accomplished and any recognition you received, etc."It's important to pay attention to the direction "list your principal activities in order of importance to you."
  • The Common Application is for students applying for an undergraduate degree program as a freshman or transfer. It is not an application for graduate degrees.
  • The Common App website provides two lists of all the colleges and universities who make use of the Common Application:
  • I hope the information in this blog helps you complete the Common Application confidently and as thoroughly as you can. Remember, colleges only know you from what you say to them in your application. Give them the best of what you have to offer.