The Common App: Activities and Recommenders Sections

Moving on from our overview of the Common App online portal in the previous post, I want to address some typical areas of confusion concerning how to fill out the Common Application itself. The application is mostly self-explanatory; however, students typically have questions for me when filling out the Recommenders and FERPA as well as the Activities sections.

The Recommenders and FERPA section:

This section is located under each individual College that you have added to your “My Colleges” list. Please see this link, which will highlight all that you will need to know to properly complete this section.

The Activities Section:

You may list up to 10 activities and may include a short description of accomplishments and recognitions within each activity. Before you start the activities section, sit down with your resume or a blank sheet of paper and start listing the 10 (or less) activities within which you were the most involved or accomplished. Once you have a list of activities, write about each summarizing your accomplishments and/or your involvement. You have a 150-character limit, so make sure every character counts by making your statement as concise and direct as possible. In this statement, use action words like “Co-created,” “Maintained,” “Organized,” and “Represented,” keeping the statement impactful and results-oriented. (see: word bank below). Colleges want to know what you’ve done, so make sure you convey depth in your involvement and results as your accomplishments. Here are a few examples:

“Competed in Model UN senior year, placing fourth nationally and first in women; elected president junior and senior year.”

“Educated children about the voting process as their parents vote during local, state, and national elections; led team of 6 other volunteers.”

“Led team on and off the field; encouraged all players; chosen by team as Captain junior and senior year; head of recruitment with coach.”

After drafting your descriptions, the last step is to figure out how many hours a week you spent on each activity, how many weeks per year (36 weeks in a school year), and which years you participated in that activity. This should all be pretty simple to procure, and remember that estimations are okay as long as they aren’t unfounded exaggerations.

While initially overwhelming, with all of this information in hand, you are ready to plug in your activities into the Common App. When you done, please make an appointment with me so that we can review your Common Application together.

Word Bank

Leadership Collaborative

On The Common App: Introduction and Orientation

When first encountering the Common App dashboard, a lot of students feel overwhelmed and confused before they even start the application itself. However, the Common App is intuitive and easy to navigate with a bit of guidance and knowhow. In this series, we will provide tips and instruction on how to navigate the Common Application interface and how to fill out the Common App itself. To begin, the Common App web interface has five sections: the dashboard, “My Colleges,” the Common App itself, college search, and financial resources. When you first log-on, your dashboard and “My Colleges” tabs are empty. By switching over to your college search tab, you can find your desired schools and add them to your “My Colleges” list, which will populate your dashboard with individual schools’ supplemental requirements. Your dashboard will be an important space for keeping track of writing prompts and upcoming deadlines. Notification and submission of college-specific requirements and essays will be managed through the “My Colleges” section, separate from the Common Application section and your Common App essay.

Having set up our account and dashboard, the rest of the interface itself should be self-explanatory from that point forward. Having orientated ourselves with the platform, we’re ready to move on to navigating the Common Application itself. In the following blog, we will address the structure of the Common App and some common student and parent questions.

The Updated 2017-18 Common Application: Outside Advisor Access, Self-Reported Transcripts, and Spanish Language Resources

In addition to changes in essay prompts and new Google Drive compatibility, the Common App has added outside advisor access, self-reported transcripts, and Spanish language resources. Outside advisor access will encourage greater oversight on my part of student application completion, and self-reported transcripts will allow students to communicate their academic history to colleges without having to wait for their high school transcripts to be processed, sent, and delivered to their choice colleges. For those who need it, Spanish language resources will open the Common App to a wider audience of applicants, providing clarity for those whom English is not their first language.

Reprinted from IvyWise College Admissions Blog:

Outside Advisor Access

Now, students who work with independent consultants, community-based organizations, or other advisors will be able to collaborate with them within the Common Application system just like they would with a regular recommender or their school-based counselor. This will allow students to share a view of their application while they’re working on it in order to get feedback and suggestions from whoever is advising them through this process.

Self-Reported Transcripts

The new Courses and Grades section will allow students to fill out self-reported transcripts directly into the Common Application. This feature will be available when the new application opens on August 1, 2017.

Spanish Language Resources

For families that speak Spanish as their primary language, a number of important resources on the Common Application as well as how to apply to college, how to apply for financial aid, and more will be translated into Spanish in order to help students and parents better understand the application process.

The Updated 2017-18 Common Application: Revised Essay Prompts and Google Drive Integration

With the updated Common App, we have for the third year in a row an expanded offering of essay prompts for the personal statement section. With the addition of 2 new prompts, including the return of the “Topic of your choice” prompt previously removed 3 years ago, students have more flexibility to tell their story and showcase their abilities, choosing the structure or prompt that best enables them to express their narrative. Additionally, Google Drive functionality has been integrated into the Common App, allowing students to easily transfer their documents into the app, including resumes, personal statements, and supplemental materials.

Reprinted from IvyWise College Admissions Blog:

Revised Essay Prompts

Here are the 2017-18 Common App essay prompts:

  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. REVISED: The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
  3. REVISED: Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
  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. REVISED: Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
  6. NEW: Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?
  7. NEW: Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you’ve already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.

Here’s What to Expect on the 2017-18 Common Application

Reprinted from IvyWise College Admissions Blog:

The admissions cycle for the class of 2021 may be over, but the college preparation journey is just starting for current juniors who are planning to apply to college this fall. Students are getting started on their applications earlier than ever, and it’s important to stay informed on the latest Common Application changes before the summer and fall.

Every year the Common Application makes changes and improvements in order to enhance the application process for college bound students. These changes are even more critical as competitors like the Coalition application gain traction in the admissions process.

The announced changes for the 2017-18 Common Application include revised essay prompts, Google Drive integration, Spanish language resources, self-reported transcripts, and over three dozen new member schools. In the following blogs, we will shine a light on what each of these changes are, and what it means for our students.

Closing the Gender Gap: Liberal Arts Colleges Where Gender Plays a Part in Admissions

Traditionally, liberal arts colleges have attracted more female applicants than male applicants, and this reflects in their gender-specific admissions rates. Unlike universities, top liberal arts almost exclusively favor male applicants.

The following lists were originally published by the Washington Post as part of their “Grade Point” coverage. To look at statistics for more colleges, please click here.


Liberal Arts Colleges with a Gender Gap Favoring Men:

College Admissions Rate Gender Gap
Vassar College 19% of women

34% of men

15 points
Wheaton of Illinois 64% of women

77% of men

13 points
College of the Holy           Cross 39% of women

49% of men

10 points
Davidson College 19% of women

26% of men

7 points
Bates College 23% of women

28% of men

5 points
Pomona College 10% of women

15% of men

5 points
Swarthmore College 15% of women

20% of men

5 points

Closing the Gender Gap: Universities Where Gender Plays a Part in Admissions

The following lists were originally published by the Washington Post as part of their “Grade Point” coverage. To look at statistics for more universities, please click here.


Universities with a Gender Gap Favoring Men:

University Admissions Rate Gender Gap
College of William and Mary 28% of women

42% of men

14 points
George Washington University 41% of women

48% of men

7 points
Brandeis University 33% of women

39% of men

6 points
Wake Forest University 32% of women

38% of men

6 points
Tufts University 15% of women

20% of men

5 points
Brown University 7% of women

11% of men

4 points
Vanderbilt University 11% of women

15% of men

4 points


Universities with a Gender Gap Favoring Women:

University Admissions Rate Gender Gap
Georgia Tech 41% of women

30% of men

11 points
American University 49% of women

41% of men

8 points
Lehigh University 39% of women

31% of men

8 points
U. of Wisconsin – Madison 61% of women

53% of men

8 points
Massachusetts Institute of

Technology (MIT)

13% of women

6% of men

7 points
U. of Texas at Austin 43% of women

36% of men

7 points
Carnegie Mellon University 28% of women

22% of men

6 points

Closing the Gender Gap: Can Gender Play a Part in Admissions?

Most people don’t think of their gender as playing a roll in a modernized admissions game defined by numbers and percentiles. However, as universities work to improve the diversity of their student bodies, gender, like ethnicity, has become a factor of consideration that can either hurt or benefit a student, depending on the institution. This is because schools seek a balanced population, roughly half male, half female. Of course, not all universities have an application pool that is half male, half female. Accordingly, to achieve a balanced population, admissions offices must accept a larger percentage of the applicants in the less prevalent gender pool to have an equal gender representation.

To cast an example, MIT has many more male applicants than female applicants. For the class of 2019, the acceptance rate for male applicants was 6%, while the acceptance rate for females was more than double that value at 13%. This is not to say that it’s not difficult or competitive to get into MIT as a female, considering that the females in that range are surely extraordinarily qualified, as qualified as any male candidate. However, the numbers do say that it is statistically more likely that MIT will accept a female candidate over a male candidate, given equal credentials. Thus, a competitive female candidate would stand a higher chance of admission compared to a competitive male candidate.

In the second half of this series, I will publish two separate posts, a post for universities and another for liberal arts colleges, sharing lists of top universities and colleges that have a significant gender gap in admissions (4% points or higher).

Chasing the Clean Sweep: Not All That Prospers is Ivy

Previously in this series, I have dedicated posts to exploring what makes each Ivy distinct in an attempt to provide an easy way for students to find their “right fit” school(s) within the League. However, most students are not Ivy bound, and even for those who are, some might find that they don’t quite fit any of the eight schools. Before the panic sets in, take comfort in knowing that there are more options for a top-tier education than what is contained in the “Gang of Eight.” Despite the hype, the Ivy League is ultimately a regional, Division I sports league. As such, colleges in the Northeast with Division II or III sports teams and universities outside of the Northeast cannot join the League’s rank, despite providing an equivalent level of academic rigor and general excellence.

Below is a list of the top 10 “Ivy Alternatives.”

  1. Amherst College (MA)
  2. Duke University (NC)
  3. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, aka MIT (MA)
  4. Middlebury College (VT)
  5. Pomona College (CA)
  6. Stanford University (CA)
  7. Swarthmore College (PA)
  8. University of Chicago (IL)
  9. Wellesley College (MA)
  10. Williams College (MA)

*Schools are listed alphabetically and not numerically ranked, as they are mostly equivalent to each other.

Chasing the Clean Sweep: Yale University

For students wanting an undergraduate experience that embodies the intimacy achieved at smaller schools like Dartmouth and Princeton without dealing with the “bubble” effect of being located on a small campus, Yale offers the perfect solution. Resting at a comfortable 11,300 students, of which 5,500 are undergrads, Yale has the offerings of a large university with a dedication to undergrads usually exclusive to schools half its size. While most introductory courses are done in a larger lecture hall, professors make an effort to be accessible to every student, and lectures are not led by graduate students like they are at other large Ivies. However, graduate students are utilized in small discussion sections meant to complement larger lectures, breaking down the concepts addressed in lecture in a more open setting that encourages inquiry.

Of course, no discussion about Yale is complete without addressing residential life, both on and off campus. Harvard, Columbia, UPenn, and Brown enjoy easy access to the largest cities in the Northeast; Princeton is located in a chic, safe town; and Dartmouth and Cornell are surrounded with awe-inspiring natural beauty. Yale is located in New Haven, a small city in Connecticut traditionally known for having some rough neighborhoods. This means that the gates blocking Yale’s campus from the rest of New Haven are more than decorative wrought-iron. New Haven is steadily improving and the area surrounding Yale has a college town feel. Students can of course venture further out into the city, but with many feeling uncomfortable with doing so, most of student activity takes place on-campus. Accordingly, Yale has given students reasons to love being on-campus, creating communities called “houses” that both act as social hubs and foster a feeling of comradery some describe as “family-like” between housemates. The entire campus has 12 houses, each with its own library and dining hall. However, your keycard only gives you access to your house, so while Yale breaks down the large campus for intimacy it also somewhat isolates the student body by the House system.