Cracking the Code: The Common Application

In this era of overloading information, rapidly advancing competition and increasing disparities in resource availability and accessibility, how can students with higher education aspirations stand on equal footing with those granted far more?

What creates these distinctions, and how can we close the gap? What are the secrets to conquering this labyrinth?

When considering university applications, we consider two key factors: ourselves and the institution. What we show and to whom we show it matters greatly.

Crafting your Blueprint: ‘Identity’

It all begins with ourselves. The Common Application is your biography by which you will be judged for your future. How can we summarize a lifetime of accomplishments and aspirations in a document that successfully sells us to the institution of our dreams?

Your application will be a narrative of your actions, merit, and character, displayed in various ways.

1. Profile Building:

First, let’s address your involvement, your actions—how you have made yourself part of the bigger world. Did your actions extend beyond your small community, school, and college?

This offers the university a glimpse of the person you can become, someone worth investing in! Many people misunderstand what their extracurriculars should consist of—it does not have to be as groundbreaking as curing cancer or launching a rocket, nor does it require involvement in dozens of clubs and numerous presidencies.

It is a matter of maturity and self-awareness—valuing quality over quantity and engaging in meaningful activities that align with your genuine interests.

What can these activities be? For example, if you are passionate about physics, you might watch “The Big Bang Theory” and “Interstellar,” and think about what it means to work at CERN, analyzing data from the Large Hadron Collider to further understand the properties of the Higgs Boson. When you begin to think about a subject that interests you without prompting, stemming from an experience, that is when you have found your passion. Your application should reflect this.

There are several ways to demonstrate this. For instance, research: identify a subject gap and use available resources to draft a solution. This can be done as a team for a competition, solo work for a publication, or collaboration with a mentor at a local university after an email of genuine interest.

To an isolated mind, these activities may seem out of reach, yet it’s all about stepping out of your comfort zone and asking. Ask your teachers, email local professors involved in research, and request to assist them.

A common misconception is the overemphasis on privilege and funds. While having an extensive alumni network, internships at leading institutions, international forums, and top

college counselors can enhance your application, they are not the deciding factors. Your application is an evaluation of the work YOU do, not merely of the resources available to you. In today’s world, lack of accessibility is no longer a valid excuse. The Internet has democratized opportunity; everything a student needs is available online.

It’s about actively searching and paving your path to success. Countless success stories prove that individuals can achieve greatness from humble beginnings. Digital platforms like LinkedIn and YouTube showcase the journeys of successful people, providing a roadmap for others to follow.

Recent student projects exemplify this, such as EcoGen (an app promoting environmentally friendly deeds in the community), Incuba-Naari (an accelerator platform empowering women entrepreneurs towards financial independence), and participation in the NASA International Space Apps Challenge. These initiatives highlight the importance of finding like-minded individuals, developing teamwork, and honing leadership skills—qualities crucial for both international and local involvement.

And funding? It’s less of a barrier than you might think. Many resources are open to those who earn them through merit, such as the Forbes Student Research, the Conrad Challenge, or even engaging with local institutions like National Incubation Centre (NIC), that open applications for any startups that offer solution to a specific problem and how to bring it to completion. It’s a competition, and all you need to focus on is being a player.

Another crucial aspect to highlight is the importance of variety. The Common Application allows you to showcase up to 10 of your most outstanding activities. Many students get swept away by the notion of doing everything—from volunteering to sports to passion projects and dozens of clubs.

However, all of that is meaningless if it doesn’t align with who you truly are. These activities should reflect your genuine interests and passions, not just be a checklist of common experiences.

Every applicant will have a list of extracurriculars; what sets you apart is showing the university that you do things that genuinely matter to you. Your activities should tell a cohesive story about who you are, demonstrating depth and authenticity.

However, this doesn’t mean you should be confined to a single niche. For example, a public policy major shouldn’t only participate in Model United Nations. Instead, showcase a range of meaningful activities that highlight your involvement as a citizen, community member, student, or even a family member.

The goal is to present a well-rounded picture of yourself, engaging in activhities tat have true significance and reflect your diverse interests and commitments.

2. Academic Merits:

Inevitably, an application remains incomplete without the merits you earn. Your university will scrutinize everything—from your performance in class exams to your final A & O Level

transcripts. A positive outlook stems from consistent improvement and stability in your academic journey.

Of course, standardized testing can no longer be overlooked, as many universities have reinstated their pre-COVID requirement of SAT/ACT scores starting in 2024. It was good while it lasted, but now it’s time to dust off your SAT prep books and dedicate hours to practicing tests at Khan Academy. Playtime is over!

However, many universities still maintain their test-optional policies. What does this mean for applicants? At test-optional schools, your test scores matter less.

So, how can you stand out? This places greater emphasis on demonstrating your intellectual abilities through other components of your application. For instance, prioritize activities that showcase your academic interests and strengths. Engaging in extracurricular activities like writing submissions and research projects can significantly enhance your profile.

Since colleges are primarily academic institutions, your academic prowess remains a critical factor in the admissions process, even with optional tests and grades.

How can you demonstrate this strength without standardized tests?

Consider taking online courses related to your intended field of study from prestigious platforms like Yale or MIT. Participate actively in extracurriculars aligned with your academic interests and discuss these experiences in your application essays.

By using these opportunities to showcase your academic interests and strengths beyond standardized tests, you can present a well-rounded application that resonates with admissions officers, not only showcasing your intellectual curiosity but also underscoring your dedication to your chosen field.

3. Essays:

● The Common App ‘Personal Essay’:

The component of your application that truly ties together your application makes it cohesive and is the first step in captivating the admission officer is your essays. In the numerous resources found online, it’s an accepted fact that the key to making it past the first round of admission cycles is the first few sentences of your common app essay.

You would have the opportunity, within 650 words, to delve into what truly ignites your passions and defines your unique perspectives. There is a huge difference in writing just for the sake of creating an ‘excellent piece of writing’ compared to writing an ‘excellent college essay.’

The essay should not regurgitate facts from your resume or CV, nor should it attempt to present you as someone who has undergone a profound revelation or experienced the weight of the world by the age of eighteen. It doesn’t have to be a metaphorical labyrinth of metaphors of the best vocabulary and grammar you can present. It can touch on family, identity, race, gender, or class if you wish, but these topics are not mandatory.

Instead, your goal is to reveal aspects of yourself that are not captured elsewhere in your application—traits and interests that your friends, classmates, teachers, teammates, and family would recognize as quintessentially you. This is your chance to showcase your genuine self, beyond the academic achievements and extracurricular activities listed elsewhere.

Admissions officers have seen a wide array of topics tackled in these essays. Some students have shared their passion for unexpected subjects, such as analyzing and ranking all the subway locations by taste in their city, talking about their Pokemon card collection, reminiscing about their grandparents’ idyllic village, or even confessing to an obsession with keeping an excessive number of Google Chrome tabs open at all times. Others have reflected on personal rites of passage, like mastering the art of making the perfect brisket.

The beauty of the Common App Essay prompts lies in their diversity—they invite you to write about virtually anything that resonates deeply with you. Your approach should begin with brainstorming your most compelling stories and reflections, and then choosing the prompt that best aligns with your narrative.

Remember, admissions committees do not favor one prompt over another; what matters most is the authenticity and insightfulness of your response. This is your canvas to paint a vivid picture of who you are beyond the confines of grades and achievements—a chance to let your voice resonate through the pages and leave a lasting impression on those who review your application.

A commonly heard piece of advice, even from accredited college counselors, is that when one is writing a Common App essay, the student should just “be yourself,” which is quite frankly misleading. By competing with a pile of students who likely have exceptional personal qualities due to their extraordinary lives and stories, such as a student who survived cancer, you can’t win solely based on an essay about personal qualities.

If you have such stories, tell that story. However, if you are an average applicant, your story is likely to be about overcoming a challenge. That’s great, but to the admission officer, it will likely make you competitive but not compelling enough. So, don’t try to compete solely in the personal qualities section by just “being yourself.” Be bold and audacious in something that’s your strength and is unique to you. This is the time to be creative.

● The Supplement Essays:

Crafting a compelling supplement essay for university applications requires thoughtful consideration of how to effectively present oneself amidst a sea of high-achieving applicants. It’s crucial to showcase not just academic prowess but also personality, unique perspectives, and a genuine passion for your interests.

To begin with, admissions officers are inundated with applications from valedictorians and students with remarkable achievements. To stand out, applicants should aim to provide a deeper understanding of their character and personality through casual conversations on ordinary topics. This approach allows them to showcase their

humor, character, and unique worldview beyond academic accomplishments or major alignment.

So, How can one convince the admission officer to advocate for them in front of the dean from thousands of applications full of valedictorians? Admission to prestigious universities hinges not just on academic prowess but also on showcasing a multifaceted personality that enriches the campus community.

Beyond aligning applications with majors, it’s crucial to portray students authentically in their everyday lives. Imagine an applicant discussing how they would trade a significant inheritance to witness a pivotal historical moment, revealing profound passion that supports their declaration of pursuing history as a major.

Another example is a music student who writes about finding a breakthrough in music theory while flushing a toilet, discovering it flushes in B-flat—an insightful revelation in a weird way that just adds more relatability to a student’s narration of their journey of learning. These are all successful examples that have been so memorable to admission officers that they offer them as examples to students of what they should be doing.

Let’s discuss the common questions that are associated with essay writing.

How to catch the admission officer’s attention in the best way possible through your writing? 

Capturing the attention of skeptical admission officers demands more than surface-level statements—it necessitates compelling authenticity. For instance, rather than asserting a love for music, a student uses visual commentary by playing a song to show how she loves music instead of just saying she loves music.

By being original, and eloquent in their descriptions, leaving no doubt of the student’s passion and love for music, an effect created by the description of the musical notes filling the room like incense, drenching everything, evoking a sensory experience that resonates with the reader.

Compelling writing for example of how the student does not overstate her love for all music in general, but is specific to one record. She does not even say that is her favorite but simply shows her enjoyment of it by not turning it off and allowing the melodies to fill her room.

She uses understatements, neither overstating nor making life-changing declarations that feel like exaggerations but uses subtle ways to show a nuanced way of thinking like how the student picked one single record and showed her love and enjoyment of it through imagery. This approach immerses and captivates the admission officer with its visual, authentic commentary.

How to demonstrate intellectual interest? 

Demonstrating intellectual curiosity involves exploring origins and histories, such as the Lost Generation’s origins through world wars. By delving into such topics, applicants showcase a deep interest in understanding contexts and narratives, resonating with admission officers seeking passionate, knowledgeable students.

How to be compelling? 

Being compelling in writing requires avoiding clichés and overused phrases. Instead, show interest in origin because only an intellectually curious person takes the time to investigate that e.g. a student might explore the origin of lost generaton through world wars, subsequently showing interest in history.

An applicant can dissect words, taking them apart at the heart of their niche subject and track their etymology like for ‘psychology’, ‘phyllo: Love’, ‘Sofia: Wisdom”, a philosopher is a lover of wisdom.

You can nail this by talking about history of your subject for example for astronomy, you can give a nod to the first woman in space. If the student manages to even teach the admission officers something new through such anecdotes, it’s a direct flag stating that the student has done something right!

Also, Embrace understatement, especially at the end or at a turning point. Be compelling: Instead of writing that : ‘X’ was the turning point in my life, say: ‘X’ served as a last link in the chain making it the conspicuous link’ It shows the credibility of the statement, through a hint of humbleness.

At the end of an essay, we try to end with some wisdom, that lacks genuineness. To avoid it take a bromidic bit and spin it so it is understated, not overly cliche.

For example, George Orwell, the author of ‘Down and Out in Paris and London’ spent weeks with the homeless and poor so that he could write a book about it and this is how he ended his book on his grueling experience: ‘Still I can point to one or two things I have definitely learned by being a hard up…That is a beginning’

How to avoid sounding phony? 

Admission Officers are highly skepticle of everything so don’t write things you don’t believe in. Be an honest writer. Don’t try to make a good first expression, but show your best self by being honest, it’s like judging a person on a first meeting through their interaction with other people aka a waiter.

One way to identify phony writing is by reading it out loud and having your friends review it. If it sounds abstract and manufactured, don’t use it. ase compelling reasons why the applicant is a perfect fit for a specific program or university.

How to write a unique “why university” essay? 

Almost every essay mentions buzzwords like innovation, entrepreneurship, or the weather, and location. It’s always better to write about your study of interest because it’s much easier to write something unique that way instead of writing a cliche, general piece than can be applied to most colleges.

Also, avoid overstated, obsessive essays that call the college your dream school, exclamation points, perfect school for you that makes you sound clingy and desperate. Write about the professors, the research they were involved in, maybe an upcoming event at the university, and talk about your subject about the university, end it with a statement that this university is a stand-out place where you can see yourself thriving in your area of study.

How to connect a personal activity with what you want to study? 

Connecting personal activities to academic interests must be mature, avoiding clichés and resembling a research paper. An example is that for one of her supplements, a student speaks as a narrator describing her common job at the ice cream scoop centre and she shows her interest in her subject as the pieces of her everyday thought process.

She does not try to exaggerate a relation between her interest in AI to her ice cream job but allows her thinking as a programmer to shine through her assessment of her co-worker, scrutizing the possibility of her being a syntesized humanoid.

She considers the AI deepfakes while simply sharing the inner intrusive thoughts that might plague a person in their daily lives . We must use subtle and realistic ways to show a mind with an interest that it carries alongs in common aspects of their life, through thoughts and comments.

How to write about an intellectual and diverse subject that appeals to admission officers?

You will never go wrong writing about writing, reading, scientists, bookstores, authors, workshops, laboratories, research, experiments, art, language, and history because our audience, the admission officers are looking at excellent pieces of writing. These are intellectuals with an interest in these subjects and they are looking for students who can write well, their job is reading and discerning it.

People like people like them so the goal should be to show that you share their interest. Don’t overshare like listing a whole encyclopedia of complicated books. Instead be smart by listing two or three things and sharing something candid that you took away from that piece that you applied in your life, took with you, or how in terms of that university through some lecture given at it, you directly can associate the piece with the university.

By addressing these questions thoughtfully and authentically, applicants can craft supplement essays that stand out and resonate with admission officers seeking passionate, engaged students who will thrive in their academic communities.

Each essay should reflect the applicant’s unique journey, passions, and aspirations, showcasing not just academic prowess but also personal growth and intellectual curiosity. This holistic approach ensures that each application is not just a set of achievements but a compelling narrative that speaks to the heart of university admissions.

4. What else?

Another thing to keep in mind are the things a third person may add to your application. These are your Letters of Recommendation (LORs) from people who may know you best for your conduct in a learning environment, a person in your everyday life, a companion in your troubling times, and mentors who allowed you to mature and perfect in a discipline outside the ordinary subjects of education.

These people can be someone who is a person of authority to you in your school like a principal/Headmaster. It can be your college counselor who has mentored you in your application process. A letter from one of the people above is a compulsory LOR that acts as validation proof of the activities you submitted to your choices of colleges.

A letter from a counselor should include things about your conduct in high school that you may have already mentioned in your application but also things that carry more weight when coming from a person of higher standing, like your class rank, honors that you may have earned while in school etc.

You have two more letters that are compulsory in a common app, that may come from a specific teacher in a subject that is important towards your choice of major. For example, for a Political Science Major, a opinion from a Psychology or HIstory may be useful

There are more options that may also be allowed at a specific university. It can be a companion who has accompanied you through turbulent times, a peer recommendation. It can be a sports couch, a research mentor or even a family member. Any person that you feel can provide an

opinion that you feel may help the admission officers to get a better opinion of yourself, may aid them in making a conclusive decision on your application, you can ask for a letter.

So start collecting these letters and send them in! Be smart with your decision and start building a relationship with your teachers early on. Only ask teachers that you are sure are going to provide a favorable, genuine opinion of you. Be cautious and give your recommenders a list of things that you want them to mention in your letter so that they don’t miss anything.

This helps to make sure that your letter is personal and not a generic piece of writing that can be applied to every other student. Ensure to ask them as soon as your junior year rolls in so they have ample time to prepare their letter for you. Thus, when the time comes for them to provide their opinion on you, all they need to do is upload and click SUBMIT!

The Start of Beginning: ‘Destination’

Choosing the right university is a pivotal decision that requires careful consideration of various factors to ensure a fulfilling academic and personal experience. Here’s a detailed guide on navigating through these considerations and making informed choices:

Your University: Blueprint for Success

In the journey towards higher education, the decision of where to attend university is pivotal. It’s not just about finding a place to earn a degree—it’s about finding a community that will nurture your passions and propel you towards your goals. Here’s a comprehensive guide to help you navigate this important decision-making process.

1. Understanding Yourself: Crafting Your Identity

Choosing the right university starts with understanding yourself. Reflect on your interests, strengths, and aspirations. What drives you academically and personally?

Consider your academic achievements, extracurricular activities, and any unique experiences that define who you are. These elements will form the foundation of your university application and help you identify institutions that align with your values and goals.

2. Academic Fit: World Rankings and Subject Excellence

Research the academic programs offered by different universities. Look beyond overall rankings to consider subject-specific rankings that highlight excellence in your field of interest. Whether you aspire to study engineering, humanities, or business, prioritize universities known for their strong faculty, research opportunities, and curriculum that matches your academic ambitions.

Consult reputable ranking platforms to gauge a university’s academic standing like websites like Niche provide detailed insights into student reviews, campus life, and academic offerings. Scoir offers comprehensive data on acceptance rates, average SAT scores, and student outcomes.

Ensure the university offers strong programs in your field of interest like Harvard University excels in various disciplines, including law, business, and medicine. University of Toronto is renowned for its programs in engineering, computer science, and humanities.

Technical University of Munich offers cutting-edge research opportunities in engineering, natural sciences, and technology. University of Oxford is known for its rigorous academic programs in humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences.

SAT, Academic Record and Extracurriculars can be particular to each university as well. Each university posts a common data set which shows the qualification of an average student that they admit, giving information based on both demographic and academic qualification of the student. A student should consult these data set and decide their choices of colleges depending on how much of the quotas they check.

For example, uniiversities like Harvard and Oxford typically require high SAT scores and student should aim to exceed their average scores for competitive admission. They Maintain a strong academic record throughout high school or college preparatory courses andHighlight leadership roles, community service, and unique talents to stand out in the application process.

3. Location Matters: Finding Your Home Away from Home

The location of a university can greatly influence your college experience. Consider whether you prefer a vibrant city environment, a quiet college town, or perhaps studying abroad. Evaluate the campus culture and amenities that matter to you—whether it’s access to outdoor activities, cultural events, or specific facilities like state-of-the-art laboratories or libraries.

The location of the university can significantly impact your overall experience and lifestyle. Consider options such as:

●  In the USA: Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, offers a prestigious academic environment in close proximity to Boston’s cultural and economic hub.

●  In Canada: The University of Toronto in Ontario provides a vibrant urban setting with access to diverse cultural experiences and employment opportunities.

●  In Germany: Technical University of Munich (TUM) combines academic excellence with a central location in Munich, renowned for its innovation and research.

●  In the UK: University of Oxford in England boasts a historic campus and academic reputation amidst the bustling city of Oxford.

4. Financial Considerations: Scholarships and Aid

Finances are a critical aspect of choosing a university. Research scholarships, grants, and financial aid opportunities offered by each institution. Look into merit-based scholarships, need-based aid, and any specific scholarships related to your academic achievements or personal background. Understanding the cost of attendance and available funding options will help you make an informed decision that aligns with your financial goals.

Evaluate the cost of attendance using common financial calculators available for each university. Here are examples of the scholarships available, including both financial aid and merit aid

  •  Institutions like Harvard, MIT, Amherst, and Yale offer need-blind admission and generous financial aid packages through scholarships such as the Harvard College Grant.
  • Some institutions, while need-aware, also fulfil 100% demonstrated financial need of students. They calculate this need from a profile called the CSS Profile, which every student applying for aid must fill out. If admitted, they commit to covering everything you cannot afford. Examples of such universities include Pomona, Lehigh, and Williams College.
  • Some universities have separate Merit Scholarships that students can apply to in addition to financial aid. For example, Vanderbilt University offers the Cornelius Vanderbilt Scholarship, and Washington and Lee University has the Johnson Scholarship. Sometimes, students are automatically considered for merit aid if they apply early, such as the Richmond Scholars Program at the University of Richmond.
  • The University of Toronto in Canada provides various merit-based scholarships such as the President’s Scholars of Excellence Program. As a public institution, while it doesn’t offer financial aid to international students, one can still receive decent merit scholarships. These range from highly sought-after scholarships like the Lester B. Pearson Scholarship, where a school can nominate a single student to apply, to partial scholarships such as the International Scholar Award, awarded based on merit.
  • Technical University of Munich offers scholarships for international students through the DAAD (German Academic Exchange Service).
  • The University of Oxford offers a range of scholarships, including the Clarendon Fund for graduate students.
  • UCL has a Global Undergraduate Fund where students can receive aid based on their financial need.

5. Personal Growth and Opportunities: Beyond the Classroom

University life is more than just academics. Look for opportunities for personal growth and development outside the classroom. Consider the availability of internships, co-op programs, study abroad opportunities, and extracurricular activities that align with your interests.

These experiences not only enhance your resume but also contribute to your overall learning and skill development. A student should visit campuses or attend virtual tours to assess. They should evaluate diversity, campus activities, and student organizations that align with your interests and values as well as consider the quality of libraries, laboratories, housing options, and recreational facilities available to students.

6. Making Your College List:

Every avenue explored should have a strategy, safeguards for every step they perform. A smarta apply the same philosophy for their college application such so that when they are making their list, they must consider the three following categories:

●  Dream: If the common data set of a university shows qualifications slightly above your current profile and has a very high acceptance rate, it should be classified as a dream university. These are colleges that you are not guaranteed acceptance into but are worth applying to for the chance, just in case—because you never know. However, it’s crucial to include only one or two such universities in your college list, as there is a limit of 20 colleges you can apply to via the Common App, and you shouldn’t waste your spots on dreams with no guarantee of acceptance.

●  Target: If your profile matches the common data set of a college perfectly, these universities should be your target schools because you are likely to get accepted.

●  Safety: Every backup plan needs its own backup, and that’s the role your safety universities play in your college list. These are universities with higher acceptance rates and common data sets that you are overqualified for.

7. Visiting and Connecting: Making Informed Decisions

Whenever possible, visit campuses and attend university information sessions or open houses. Take advantage of virtual tours and connect with current students or alumni to gain firsthand insights into campus life and academic programs. These interactions can provide valuable perspectives and help you envision yourself as a part of the university community.

Research post-graduation support and alumni connections like Harvard’s Career and Professional Development Office offers extensive resources for career planning and networking opportunities. University of Toronto’s Career Exploration & Education provides workshops, job fairs, and networking events to enhance career readiness. Similarly, each university has their separate set of offering that each applicant should be familiar with before choosing to apply.

8. Making Your Decision: Trusting Your Instincts

Ultimately, trust your instincts when making your final decision. Consider all the factors that matter to you—academic fit, location, financial aid, campus culture, and personal growth opportunities. Remember, your university experience will shape your future in profound ways, so choose a place where you feel inspired, supported, and ready to thrive. Trust your instincts and personal preferences when choosing a university.

In conclusion, selecting the right university involves thorough research, thoughtful consideration of various factors, and alignment with your academic and personal ambitions. By leveraging resources like ranking websites, understanding admission requirements, exploring financial aid options, and assessing campus life, you can make an informed decision that sets the stage for a successful academic journey and future career path.