How to Approach the Common Application

Tell us your story, your way

Photo of Michael Durant
Two students working on laptops.

Fall has arrived. The holidays are approaching and we are in the thick of college application season. Exciting! By now, you’ve done the research and you’re ready to shoot your shot with all of your colleges of interest. If you have already started working on your profile on the Common App, great! If not…uhhh…you should start. Like today! Either way, I want to offer some thoughts about presentation and your individual approach to the common application.

As an admissions officer, I am excited to see a number of things in your application. Getting to know you personally is one of the highlights. Many institutions (NYU included) use a process that is holistic, or comprehensive. This means in addition to academics, we are also looking at personal qualities. These qualities are assessed through parts of your application such as activities and recommendations. Let’s talk about how this portion of the application represents you and shows fit for the college of your choice.

This is your application, your process, and your story!

Option #1: Depth

The first approach to your Common Application is a narrower approach. I’ve read a number of applications where the student has chosen to hone in on one aspect of their life. Maybe they focused on a particular skill or one part of their identity. They are careful to make sure we know just how crucial this part of their lived experience is. I, as the reviewer, will get the sense of how important this thing is because it will show up multiple times.

Let’s suppose you are an applicant that is eager to study physics.  You are excited about science and want to highlight your research in the application. So you mention the summer programs and individual research opportunities you’ve had. You may also choose to write your personal statement (essay) about how scientific inquiry has led to a general curiosity in your life. You then list your award as a finalist in a national robotics competition. Finally, your counselor talks about how you tutor other students after school – maybe specifically in the sciences.

After reviewing this application, I clearly and easily understand the value of research in your life. I can make a connection to what it is you plan to study and you have articulated why this is important to you. While we like to see that students are engaged outside of the classroom, there’s no expectation that you’re doing everything.

Option #2: Breadth

The second approach to your Common Application can be the breadth approach, which gives a wider perspective about yourself. Yes, you have been a dancer for the last ten years, but you’re really excited for us to get a broader sense of what makes you, well, you. Given the role dance has played in your life, you list as your first extracurricular on the activity page. Pro-tip: always list your most important activity first. However, we gain another perspective of you by seeing that you are also part of an affinity club at your school. While your “Why NYU” speaks to your interest in Dance, your essay shows how running track has impacted you. One of your recommendations adds a layer of perspective by detailing your community service involvement.

With this approach, we get to see several aspects of your world – all of which you feel are important. Applicants will often express fear that this approach makes them seem scattered. Absolutely not! While some students choose to maximize in just a few areas, others opt to show their varied interests.

Students at a college fair.

The Conclusion of the Matter

Here’s the main point: There’s no right or wrong way to do this! This is your application, your process, and your story!  Of course, use your own voice, be thorough and PLEASE proofread! Apart from that, avoid the trap of trying to fit into any box. The box of what everyone else is doing or the box of what specifics you think we’re looking for.

 

It really doesn’t matter to me which approach to the application you take. What matters to me is what matters to you.

I often tell prospective students that what you’re passionate about is what needs to come through in your application. Test scores and transcripts are more like data points – and pretty fixed by the time you’re applying. But your story, your passions, your experiences all leap off the pages of the application when you are excited about what you’re sharing. That’s what I want to see!

I wanted to share this information with you so you can be at ease about your approach to the application. It’s important that you feel comfortable about the information you are submitting. And as much as possible, have some fun with your application! Also, check out some more helpful tips for applying to NYU and other colleges and universities. Happy applying!