For as long as colleges have existed, getting in usually required one (or more) of four things:

  • Having a lot of money
  • Having family/friends of family in the college’s leadership
  • Being very very good at some sport that people care about
  • Having an exceptional academic history or special skill

If you’re looking over this list, then odds are you’re not in the top 3. You’re looking how to get into a good school, and everyone is talking about the Common App, how to use it to apply to hundreds of different colleges and university.

Which in its own way, makes the college experience more difficult. In the past, you could pick the “dream college” where you’d hope to get into like Harvey Mudd College (who was not, by the way, named after the famous Star Trek villain), and then have a fallback college like Clark College where odds are greater that you’ll get into even if you don’t have a 5.0 GPA. It’s easier to be a big fish in a small pond, than a big fish in a big lake.

how to choose a college

But what is the Common App then, and why is it both the best thing and worst thing to happen to college applications?

Entering the College App

The concept behind the Common App is one of those “why didn’t this come earlier” moments. Every college has their application process, and everybody — including the Common App — needs the same information. Your name, what schools you went to, what clubs or extracurricular activities you were part of, so on and so forth. Pro tip: I learned that colleges don’t care about your action figure collection. So — leave that off your list.

Rather than typing the same information over and over again for one college after another, the Common App login system lets you a complete that process once. The Common App questions go through all of the necessary information like any other college application. There are essays, questionnaires, and so on.

The process is made to be as simple as possible:

  1. Create an account. Like most web sites, you’ll need a valid email address to get started. Don’t have one? There are plenty of free email services, from Google’s Gmail to Microsoft’s Outlook.com.
  2. Set up your account? Great! Now you need to figure out what schools to go to. Best to select between Dream Schools and Alternates. Shoot for your dreams — but keep your feet on the ground. This way you’re not putting your eggs all in one basket.
  3. Follow the Requirements Grid. Some schools want an Application Essay, others want proof of extracurricular activities. Once the schools have been selected, the Requirements Grid tells you what you need to finish to meet every school’s requirements. Just because it’s a Common App doesn’t mean that every school is the same.
  4. Get all of the required information. Don’t skimp on something just because you think it’s important. For example, some schools require residency requirements, so keep hold of those utility bills.
  5. Fill out the application. Now you know what to do, you’ve got the information you need — now it’s time to just do it.

Once all of the information is gathered, the Common App then lets you apply to over 700 colleges in one go. No sending out letter after letter, or getting your school to give you official copies of transcripts 10 times — just one application, you know, a common application (did you see where they did there?), and you’re on your way.

But think about the issue now. That small college that you wanted to apply to would get a fraction of candidates compared to someplace like Harvard. Fewer are trying to get into Western Michigan University Cooley Law School. But now everyone can apply to all the schools. What makes you stand out in a smaller environment isn’t going to work as well when people from across the country can now easily apply with you.

To combat this, we need to get more creative. We have to stand out.

Standing Out in the Common App Essay

As we go through the Common App prompts, the most important thing shouldn’t be just filling in the applications just to fill them in. We have to focus on getting attention, and keeping it.

There are going to be a thousand people who have high GPAs.

write an essay

The real way to stand out is during the Common App essay. And the advice to roll with is: tell your story. Not someone else’s not what you think people want to hear. Find that part of you that’s unique, that no one else has.

Here’s an example. There was a man who had gone for prison, and after his release wanted to go to college. People counseled him not to have that in his college applications, because it would make him less likely to be admitted. And overall they were right. Most colleges denied him because of his past. But at the same time, he had some colleges reach out to him when he explained how he had learned to control his former bad influences through meditation, learned from a fellow inmate, and how he wanted to use what he learned to keep other people from going to prison. His story caught the attention of people who saw the same things from people who had the same experiences, and made them look over the rest of his application with more interest than the other 99% of applications.

He turned his greatest weakness into a strength, something that made him unique to stand out. There will be a hundred other students who were in drama club or got high scores on the SAT. How many took care of their family while their single parent worked, or wrote a novel?
Tell your story, and not anyone else’s.

Dealing with Writer’s Block

All right — maybe you don’t have the most unique story out there. You went to school, you went home, you had a part time job. Nothing special to talk about, right?

essaysabout yourself

You’re not alone. An article on The Princeton Review with topics to consider. There’s some good examples with International Student of what other students have written.
But whatever you do — don’t just use someone else’s story. Plagiarism is one sin that will get you booted out of a college faster than nearly anything else. Decades later researchers have been removed from their positions for claims of copying someone else’s work. Resist the temptation. You need to find your own voice inside.

It’s all About Learning

Whatever college you choose, remember it’s not about the grades or the accolades that are the most important thing. It’s learning things that make you a better person, someone who knows more about your chosen profession and the world in general.

And — make sure you have a good computer. These days you need your computer to get things done. If something happens to it, the best option to recover files or damaged drives is Disk Drill by Cleverfiles.

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