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Ask the Experts: College Application

By Peterson's Staff updated on Sunday, January 27, 2013

Question I have a question concerning the Common Application. Do schools prefer their own applications to the Common App or do they not care? It seems as though they would think that a potential student was more interested if he/she applied with the school's unique application. What are your thoughts about the Common Application? Should I use it? - Anna

AnswerColleges and universities that sign on to use the Common Application commit to a non-discriminatory policy regarding how they view the Common App versus their own application. In fact, many institutions, including Harvard, Williams, Dartmouth, and other top colleges utilize solely the Common Application. In other words, their application is basically the Common Application.

Many schools do have supplements to the Common App, typically including a question/essay that allows you to indicate why you are applying to that particular college. Here is where you can be more detailed, focused, and personalized in your efforts to show interest in particular colleges and to establish a "logical fit" between you and the institution.

These days, it is a myth that there is any difference between using a school's own application versus the Common App. You can show interest in schools in many ways, including visits, interviews (where offered), meetings with school reps who visit your area or high school, careful attention to supplemental essays, and so on.

 

Question Should you send extra material (references, etc.) with an application that does not request them? - Ali

 

AnswerAdmissions committees in the majority of colleges are happy to receive appropriate additional information that has not been required. The most helpful kinds include recommendations from a teacher, employer, coach, or specialized instructor out of school (music, art instructor, etc.). Another category is a portfolio of your special talent and interest, such as an art portfolio, music CD, or sampling of creative writing. Make sure that any of these items enhance your personal profile for the admissions committee by demonstrating your abilities, talent, or commitment.

 

Question i am a freshman in high school. I wanted to know if there is any way to get a college application to see what it looks like and to practice writing them. - Natalie

 

AnswerVisit www.commonapp.org and take a look at the Common Application, which is accepted by a few hundred colleges, some of which require supplements in addition. This will give you an idea of the kinds of questions asked and information you'll need to provide. In general, we would encourage you not to worry too much right now about application writing. Putting that on the radar screen during the spring and summer of junior year is early enough. Now, and during the next two years, your focus really should center on good grades in strong classes, in addition to pursuing activities you enjoy during the school year and summers.

 

Question Will the admission committee accept my supplementary material like additional essay after the deadline whereas my major application forms have been submitted before the deadline? - Joe

 

AnswerYour best course of action with supplementary materials is to send an update letter toward the end of January or early February. Such a letter can discuss your current activities and academic progress, and serve as a cover letter for a graded paper, or new piece of writing, news of an award, newspaper article, etc. You should really consider the value of any supplementary information or materials you are sending in. If you prepared a good application, you don't want unnecessary information to detract from your initial presentation.

 

Question I am trying to figure out how to include on my application short-term, one-time projects that weren't associated with any organizations. For example, I have organized several one day drives for a homeless shelter or care packages for troops but also things like being a group leader on an annual weeklong trip. Is it even worth including that kind of information? I feel like I am lacking things in community service, I do a lot but not in a long-term and organized way. I am just not sure how to include it on my application. (The specific school I am applying to uses the common application.) Thank you! - Ellen

AnswerOn the Common Application, the extracurricular section is very broad. It asks for school activities, but also volunteer, summer, hobbies — basically anything you spend your time doing. There probably isn't enough room to put all the short-term specific projects in the boxes on the activities list. But, you can put something like "Volunteer Service" or "Community Service Projects." Then on the online Common Application, you can note "please see additional information section" and in that section/page, specify the range of projects in which you have been involved.

Showing leadership and initiative in carrying out these projects is fantastic, and will be appreciated by colleges. If you would like to feature them more centrally, you can focus your personal statement, or the short "tell us more about one of these activities" question on discussing some of your service activities; why you have engaged in them; and what you have learned through them.

 

Question What can happen if I don't turn in my paper work for college on the deadline date? - Yen

 

AnswerYou can lose the opportunity to apply to that college for the particular semester you are interested in, or under an Early Decision or Early Action program if that is what you are considering. It is usually not essential that all your materials arrive at the college by the deadline date, but your personal application, the fee, and normally all your essays need to be in. School transcript, teacher recommendations, test scores, etc., can follow later, though a college will not read your application unless it is deemed "complete," and that won't happen until all materials are in. If the remaining application pieces take too long to arrive, then you might not be considered in this round of admissions. You could be deferred from ED/EA, or waitlisted in regular admissions.

 

Question If you aren't sure about what you want your major to be, what should you put on your college application? - angel

 

AnswerMany colleges report that "undecided" or "undeclared" is one of the top choices indicated for major. You don't have to be sure of your major when you apply to a liberal arts college (college of arts and sciences). That said, you probably do have some particular strengths and interests, and know where you don't want to concentrate. So, if you are able to, narrow yourself down and indicate one (or two or three in the case of some application questions) major option that can help provide a roadmap for admissions officers as they read your application. Should you choose a major because it seems like colleges are looking to fill that spot and it will help you get in? Generally no, especially if there is no backup evidence to show you are qualified for or interested in that major. Sometimes, it does make sense, if you have particular talents and qualifications (and relevant courses and test scores) to point to a certain major area (or college within a university) which fits you, and which could be a niche for you as an applicant.

 

Question If you are a junior in high school, when is the best time to start filling out college applications? - Deborah

 

AnswerDuring the summer before senior year, so that you go back to school in the fall with the Common Application, perhaps one particular public university application, and one Common Application supplement pretty well completed.

 

Question Hi, I'm having trouble deciding what to leave out and include on my application. Some awards are not that difficult to receive. And things like science olympiad medals-- must I write about each and every medal I won from that? (I have multiple medals at the state and regional level, so... it just seems annoying to write about all of them). I have other awards for activities such as research, and athlete of the week-- but are those worth putting on my application? How do you draw the line between frivolous awards and meaningful awards, especially if they're given within the school or county (I know that national awards are generally alright to put on the application)? I'm looking at the top/ivy schools. Thank you! - Susi

AnswerThis is a good problem to have — too many awards indicates a lot of success in one or more areas. You should indeed be somewhat selective about what makes it on the application lines, but should consider adding a resume or filling out the "additional information" section of the online Common Application, for example, in order to categorize your awards by content area (sciences and research, athletics, etc.).

For the key awards to list on the main form, choose those that are: 1) most recent; 2) most selective (possibly also largest category, such as state or national); 3) most meaningful to you, in that they represent a significant interest/involvement/talent. Again, group by category, and if you need more space, say please see attached resume or additional information. Cut off your awards at middle school at the earliest, and most likely just keep high school on there.

 

Question Resumes-- yes or no? I've been hearing a range of opinions on whether or not to submit a resume along with my application. Is it presumptuous, or will it help me stand out in the applicant pool? Thank you! - Susi

 

AnswerThis is yet another in the "it depends" question and answer series. If you have nothing really to add by including a resume in your applications, then you shouldn't send one. It could only call attention to a limited set of non-academic involvements. If, however, you have a significant number of activities, hobbies, volunteer involvements, work experiences, etc., which cannot be accurately or comprehensively detailed in your applications, or one or two significant activities that bear further expansion, then you should include a resume. Or, include in resume format more information on the "additional information" section of the online Common Application, for example.

Also, having a resume could be helpful to: give to teachers or others writing you recommendations to show all the things you do in and out of school; give to interviewers, on campus or alumni, to have an information sheet to talk off of in an interview (though many will choose not to use it); and to send in to employers, internship opportunities, summer programs, and so on, that might require it. So, start a resume in 10th or 11th grade and keep updating it. You might use it in your applications, and you'll likely keep adapting it and adding to it for the rest of your life!

 

Question When is one of the best times to go pick up a college application? - Sierra

 

AnswerYou should go to colleges' Web sites anytime now and sign up by e-mail to request an application as a prospective student. Even if you are not a senior this year, signing up as a junior, for example, puts you on a college's radar screen and they will begin to send you literature that will help you explore programs and requirements. If you are touring a college campus, you can pick up not only applications in the admission offices, but often also more in-depth catalogs/bulletins as well as brochures specific to academic and extracurricular programs.

 

Question Some colleges provide for the submission of supplementary arts materials (such as a CD of a musical performance). Yet even some of those schools appear to discourage such submissions. Is it your experience that it is possible to damage an otherwise strong application with an arts submission? - Ed

AnswerIf the supplementary art or music material is substandard, it could potentially take away from an otherwise strong application. In general, though, if a student is working with a school teacher or outside instructor who helps prepare and approve the material, the material is likely only to help, or perhaps not count at all. In a recent survey of about 100 selective colleges and universities of a diverse nature, a colleague of ours found almost all encouraged the submission of a music CD and resume from students applying to a liberal arts track, and potentially not even considering a music major. These extra materials can help the colleges get a sense of what makes a student special, and what he or she will bring to campus outside the classroom.

 

Question I have been reading a few books related to applying to colleges, and I can't help but question some of the advice they give. One of the biggest discrepancies I read was that one book advised you to handwrite your college applications, giving them a more personal touch, while another said that your applications (the actual common application and supplement, not essay) have to be typed because it will be expected of you. Which viewpoint is correct? It seems difficult nowadays to type applications because typewriters have become so obsolete and on most college websites it is not possible to type directly into the application in its pdf format. - Katherine

AnswerYes, you'll find conflicting advice on a lot of topics related to college admissions. Sometimes that's a difference of opinion, and other times it is because the college world is so diverse that one black and white answer doesn't cover every situation. In the case of handwriting versus typing applications, most colleges now prefer typed applications for purposes of legibility. A few, like Brown, have continued to ask you to handwrite portions of the application.

You are right that manual typewriters are a thing of the past, so the way to type your applications is to fill them out online (such as on a college's own Web site, or on a site like commonapp.org) and then either print them out nice and neat and mail them in, or submit them electronically. Alternately, you can type and print the essay portions of an application using word processing software, and then either print out on the application form itself or print on paper and paste the paper into the appropriate space. It is fine to handwrite personal information and short statement portions of an application as long as you write legibly and check your work carefully. You will not be penalized either for handwriting these portions, or for submitting the Common Application or another online application.

 

Question I'm asked on college applications to write about my favorite extra-curricular activities: athletics, hobbies, clubs, and community service, including offices held and honors won. But I don't know what should I write here. Could you please give me sample information to be written in this field? - Neeraj

AnswerColleges are interested in how you spend your time. Curriculum (the courses you choose in high school) establishes academically where you are focusing. The activities list allows you to let colleges know where you passions are — what you do outside of class, even outside of school, with your time, energy, and resources.

An important note is that the lists ask you for personal activities and hobbies, not just organized, school-related, or community-oriented involvements. So, stamp or coin or card collecting, gaming, fitness, taking care of an elderly relative or disabled sibling, or reading can all be listed, and then detailed elsewhere in the applications (such as the meaningful work or activity short answer question or in your main personal statement). Additionally, work and volunteer experience should be detailed, and you are asked to list how many weeks per year and how many hours per week you have participated.

School activities are often a key piece, including whether you have received honors or awards, or held leadership positions (such as captain of a sports team, editor of a school paper or literary magazine, or first violin in the orchestra). Don't worry if you leave some lines or sections blank. It's what you do, and what that says about you, that matters most, not that you did everything (which nobody really does).

 

Question When I was recently looking at some of the college applications. Something stuck out. One of them said that it would be nice and helpful, if I made a resume sort of for the admissions people to look at. Okay so,  at my high school it is a requirement for us to do portfolios of our high school life  (like courses, accomplishments we've achieved it's not like a big scrap book or anything crazy like that but it's more like something you'd take to a job interview. So here's what I was thinking what if I sent that in so that the admissions people (and scholarship people) could get to know me better. What do you think? I would send in like on a disk for PowerPoint or just make paper copies. - Jane

AnswerGood idea — you're on the right track thinking about using your portfolio as a more complete and effective way of presenting yourself. As long as it is well organized and the materials well thought out, it can tell a lot about you and represent you positively to colleges. You can bring it to an interview (in hard copy) or send in to colleges (either hard copy or on a CD). Remember to fill out the college applications (or Common Application) completely, following all instructions. That includes filling out an activities list according to the specifications given, and prioritizing your most important activities and involvements. The portfolio then is an additional supplement, but not a substitute for what you are asked to do.

 

Question One of my main interests is writing, both prose and poetry. In order to show my interest and pride in my work, is it recommended to send a sample, say a single poem, even if my declared major is not English or Literature? - Harry

 

AnswerYes, you should consider adding even a few samples of your work to show your skills and the breadth of your interests — poetry, analytical writing, creative work. You may attach these to your applications as a simple supplement — no fancy binders or plastic clips. You might introduce each piece briefly to tell when you wrote it, for what class, or whether you did it on your own. Some colleges ask or suggest that you submit a graded writing sample, so you could go that route as well. You might also submit a writing resume if you have attended writing programs, received prizes, taken outside classes, and so forth, to detail the time you have spent on this area of interest to you.

 

Question when should i have all my applications done? - Alanna

 

AnswerThe very basic and successful formula to follow is simple: submit each application several weeks ahead of the particular college's formal deadline. You should make a list of all the colleges you plan to apply to and the deadline for submitting your application next to the college's name. Set up a schedule to complete the applications according to the deadlines. If you apply on any of the early decision plans, of course you will want to complete and submit that application first.

Give yourself plenty of leeway time in completing your applications so that you can revise and edit until you have a terrific presentation.

 

Question I am going for a semester abroad to Germany next year and was wondering when I should start my application process. Should I do it this spring and summer before I leave? - Christina

 

AnswerYou are very wise to consider starting your application process before you go abroad. If you will be a senior next year, you should use this year to research colleges and visit campuses of potential interest. You can then work preliminarily on the applications over the summer before leaving for Germany. By getting an early jump start on these two critical steps you would be positioned to apply on one of the early application procedures depending on which college you have your sights on. But this is not a requirement of any college.

We urge students who will spend their senior year abroad to add further material to their application about this experience into the first term. Know that whenever you submit your application you can follow up with further information later.

 

Question I am an international student from the U.A.E. I am talented in various fields and I have around 150 certificates to my credit. Apart from mentioning my activities and awards in the application form, how can I evidence my achievements? (Whether I can submit them hard copy, in a CD or in other ways to the college) Thank you for your help. - Ranganathan

AnswerWe always encourage students to submit a separate resume that lists and details their activities and recognitions and awards in all areas. The resume should be organized by several specific categories:    school clubs and committees; leadership positions in school; athletics; arts; out of school activities; work experience; summer experiences; and special academic awards. Performing arts students or artists can submit a CD showing examples of their work.

 

Question My mom was explaining to me recently that once you get into a college, some programs require separate applications, for example education because I want to be a teacher. How do these processes generally work so I can get into not only a college but their College of Education? - Ellen

AnswerIndividual colleges differ in regard to enrolling in their pre- or professional schools of study. In many instances you can apply directly into the school of education, if this is your definite field of interest. In other instances the education major only begins in your third year of college and you have to qualify for acceptance by the education department. The best strategy to pursue if you are certain of your career goal is to concentrate your search on those colleges or universities that have nationally accredited majors in education at the level (early childhood, elementary, or junior or high school) that interests you), and allow you to apply directly as an entering student into the school of education.

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