The 2013 Common App: Don’t Hit Submit Without Reading These 10 Tips!

frustrated student

Written by Purvi Mody for StudentAdvisor

There has been quite a bit of grumbling in the media about the new version of the Common Application, the main application system for more than 500 colleges and universities.

Admissions officers, high school counselors, and admissions experts around the country have all weighed in on the Common Application’s improvements and the new bugs that it introduced. If you are a high school senior trying to use the Common App, don’t get distracted by the commotion.

Use these 10 Tips that I share with my students, and you too will be able to maneuver the Common Application like a pro:

1.         Paste your essays into Notepad or TextEdit first and format them properly before pasting them into the actual application.
I recommend a format with line breaks and spaces between paragraphs and no paragraph indentations. I think it looks the cleanest. In the application, those line spaces will not appear, but they should appear when you view the PDF version of your application.

2.         By far, the worst change to the Common Application is that you cannot Print Preview your Common Application and Writing Supplement together.
Since there are no plans to change that functionality, you have to work around it. First, complete the Common Application and the questions specific to one school. Print out the PDF version of your application and scour it thoroughly for mistakes. Once you are happy with it, submit your Common Application to that one school. Do the same for the Common App Writing Supplement next. Skipping the PDF version may cause you to miss some errors.

3.         Many of the Writing Supplement questions do not appear until you complete the college-specific questions.
Fill out the college-specific questions immediately so you can plan well for all the essays.

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4.         Under the Testing section of the Common App, there is a question for International Applicants regarding leaving exams.
Unfortunately, you have to answer this question even if you are not an international student. Click “No” or the system will not let you submit.

5.         Be thorough in your Activities section.
Make sure to include the name of the organization in the Position/Leadership Box. I know that is not intuitive, but I have reviewed many applications where I don’t know which organizations students have been involved in. Also, use the Details section to describe what you did, not the organization.

6.         Order your Activities.
It is hard to see the order activities selection in the application itself. Do a print preview, think about how you want your activities ordered, and make the appropriate changes on the online application. You don’t want your most important activity trailing at the bottom!

7.         You CAN change your essay on the Common Application for different schools.
If someone tells you otherwise, they are 100% incorrect. Once you submit your Common Application, you can make as many changes to any part of the application that you want, except the essay. You can unlock your essay twice and upload new essays, but be strategic. You are only allowed three versions and you cannot go back to an older version. It gets locked once you submit the new version. This might mean that you have to organize your Common Applications submissions not just by due date, but by essay topic.

8.         You do have to complete the Demographics section under Profile.
Regardless of the politics of whether or not you should or should not include your background and religion on the Common Application, this section is required.

9.         It is very easy to miss information on the application.
Most of the information on the Common Application is self-reported, and because print preview does not show blanks for questions you did not complete, it can be easy to omit test scores, activities, or additional schools attended. Once you read your application, ask yourself if it is absolutely correct and if it represents everything you want the application to convey about yourself.

10.         Submit your Common Applications early.
I stress this every year, but I cannot stress it enough. While some schools have been generous and extended deadlines due to submission problems with the new Common Application, do not assume that to be the case for all schools. Give yourself a buffer to review your supplement carefully, and aim to submit at least two weeks in advance. It is likely that the server will slow, maybe to a halt, on popular submission days. Avoid the stress of seeing the “spindle of death,” as some of my students call it, by submitting your Common Applications early.

While you cannot change the new Common Application process, you can educate yourself and others on what to expect and how to complete the application properly. Remember that the Common Application is a tool to a more important goal—getting into college! Don’t lose sight of the priority.

 purvi mody headshot 2012 Purvi Mody is the co-owner of Insight Education ( and  Education contributor to the Daily News, Mercury News, and and  has been interviewed for several articles, books, and radio and television shows.  She has worked with students across the US and other countries including India,  China, Korea, Dubai, and the UK on the increasingly complex college admissions  and financial aid processes. 


Should ALL college application due dates be extended because of the problems students have had submitting the 2013 Common App? Tell us what you think.


One Comment

  1. Art Nov 16, 2013 at 8:03 PM

    Excellent post. I will be dealing with a few of these issues as well..