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CEA’s Guide To The 2016-17 Common Application

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AppBurst4We know it sounds crazy, but the Common Application release date is our favorite day of the year. It’s the day we finally get to see what the application process will look like for most of our students. It’s the day we discover what the Common App has deemed important in the realm of college application features. It’s the day when students can no longer say “It’s too early to start my admissions essay.” (Not that it ever was.)


The 2016-17 Common Application launch has finally come. You can’t escape it. Mwahahahaha.

Our love of evil laughs aside, and in all seriousness, we love this day because it is a day on which we consistently conclude that the admissions process will be manageable for each year’s crop of applicants. Sure, there will be glitches here and there, but so many tools are available to help students tackle the process. And luckily for students around the globe, the Common App seems to have put a marked effort into making some of these resources even more useful for the 2016-17 application season. The organization’s website and platform have both gotten a bit of facelift this year, aiming not only to provide students with a streamlined outlet for reaching hundreds of colleges around the country, but also for educating students and parents on the application process, college options and even financial aid.

Let’s get down to the things you really need to know as you dive into the college application process.

What’s New… 

On the Common App Website:

  1. Educational Resources: It’s clear (at least to us) that this year’s Common App aims to be more than just a vessel for the submission of apps en masse. The platform has graduated to incorporate a suite of robust educational resources, from a Plan Ahead section that details steps in the application process from grades 9 through 12 to an Explore Colleges feature that allows students to search colleges by location, review a school’s basic stats and application requirements and link directly to a school’s application within the platform. There is even an Application Dictionary for those who need the terms “Restrictive Early Action” and “FERPA” decoded. Don’t forget to check out the section aimed specifically at parents!
  2. Virtual Counseling: An entire section of the Common App website is now devoted to providing online guidance for students. Take advantage of the application-related tips, delivered via articles and video from a wide variety of high school counselors, admissions officers and application specialists. (And then visit our YouTube channel for more specific advice on how to tackle the essay, obvs.)

Within the Application:

  1. Extensive Customer Support: The Common App has been criticized in the past for its slow responses to technical issues and their inability to provide quick and personal feedback. The new platform seems to have addressed these complaints with the Applicant Solutions Center, accessible via the Instructions and Help button towards the top right of your application home screen. CA-WelcomeScreen_arrowCA-AppSolutionsCenterSome incredibly useful resources can be found in this section including:
    1. Known Issues and Progress Updates: This section allows you to instantly submit an issue report as well as read about other problems you might encounter, along with the recommended temporary solutions.
    2. Training Resources and Timely Tips: These portals offer a library of simple instructional videos to answer your questions about the online application process.
    3. Live Common App Member Schools: A pair of alphabetical school lists allows an applicant to see which participating institutions have already made their apps available – and which ones we’re still waiting on – at a glance. (So you won’t spend time searching for supplements in vain!)
  2. Integrated Video Tutorials: They’re easy to overlook at first, but once you know to zone on on in the top right corner of each section of your Common Application tab for these video guides, you will have easy access to some of the FAQ’s about the process of filling in your basic required info.CA_InAppVideoTutorial_arrow
  3. New College Search Filters: For the first time, using the College Search feature, students can screen for criteria like standardized testing policies (never required, always required, flexible) and college-specific essay requirements (or lack thereof). We here at CEA clearly don’t support dropping colleges from your list simply because they require the writing of essays; in fact, we recommend you submit your personal statement even if it is only optional, as any chance to speak to admissions in your own voice is one you want to take advantage of. Still, it is incredibly helpful for applicants to be able to see things like which schools require application fees, and get an idea of how large their supplemental essay load might look before solidifying a final target school list.
  4. Scholarship Info: It’s better than info, actually. The Common App linked up with Scholar Snapp, a technology that helps connect students with scholarships and seems to function similarly to the Common App in its streamlined submission functionality. Since this is such a new feature, our students will need to experiment with it before we give our final verdict, but we love that the Common App is making the process of finding and applying to scholarships easier for students. Individual school applications (like Vanderbilt’s!) also contain links to their school-specific scholarship opportunities, so keep your eyes open for those as well!
  5. The Additional Info Essay: Finally, the Additional Info section gets some time in the sun. Not many applicants know about this section – most breeze through the process without ever having expanded this lonely little bar in the Common App’s Writing tab. This year, however, the Common App draws attention to this glorious text box, both in the Writing Tutorial and the Activities Tutorial, suggesting students use this additional 650 word space to detail anything important that might not fit within the confines of the activity section. This is yet another amazing tool an applicant can use to set him/herself apart from other students – if, of course you have something truly valuable to add in that space.
  6. Downloaded Status aka OMG, you can see when admissions has looked at your app!!: In the bottom right corner of your app platform home screen, so discreetly placed you probably missed it, there is an expandable description labeled “Downloaded Status.” CA_DownloadedStatus_arrowApparently students will be able to see when a school has downloaded and printed an application for review. Really though: Has life ever been so exciting?!!! (Not for us, but we’re clearly nerds.) While we don’t recommend you spend every day from November to December or January through May refreshing your submission page until you see that status change just so you can “squee” and victory jump in the air when it happens, we wouldn’t blame you if you did.

With all of these welcome changes…

What stayed the same?

  1. The General Format: Students who have been experimenting with last year’s application will be happy to know that transition from the 2015-16 Common App platform to the 2016-17 app was relatively seamless – at least for us. For those of you who have been tinkering with the 2015-16 Common Application in preparation for this day, you will be pleasantly surprised to find that the general organization of the platform will be easily recognizable. Things are basically where you left them. And the functionality should feel familiar as well, with some helpful additions, mostly informational.
  2. Word Counts: Just like last year, the Activity section gives students the opportunity to list 10 of their most important activities, allowing 50 characters for the entry of each “Position/Leadership description and organization name” and 150 characters for describing each activity and any related accomplishments. This is not a ton of space, but if you have been working within last year’s platform, it’s likely what you have been expecting. The Common App personal essay word count has also remained the same, asking students to bear their souls to admissions in 250-650 words.
  3. Supplemental Essays: Just like last year, the supplemental essay situation is a bit of a free-for-all, and we mean this in a couple different ways. First of all, as we have seen consistently over the past few years, schools continue to pile on the supplements. Colleges want to hear from students in their own voices and as general proponents of the written word we understand why this is a valuable assessment tool for an admissions officer. Unfortunately, finding these supplements in the Common App is not always the most intuitive process. Cornell’s writing supplement only appears after a student fills in his/her academic details, which may wrongly lead a student to believe that there is no 650 word (max) supplement for this school in their future – and there is. Cornell also couches its opportunity to submit an extended (uploadable) activity resume in its own Activity section. Vanderbilt offers the same activity resume option in its school-specific Activity section, along with a (somewhat unexpected for the uninitiated) 150-400 word activity essay assignment. The problem continues to be both that the supplements are stored in non-obvious places and that their location varies from school-to-school. Still, given the other improvements to the platform, we’re willing to give the CA a pass on this one, with the caveat that all students should be meticulous in their search for supplements, and prepare to be surprised by at least one or two lurkers when you think you’ve caught ‘em all.
  4. The Personal Statement: Finally, and perhaps most importantly, at least as far as we’re concerned, the Common App’s essay prompts (and general structure and functionality) remain the same. The prompts are not a surprise, as the Common App mercifully announced their plan to reissue last year’s questions back in March. Still, it’s comforting to see these old friends nestled neatly in the app, as they’re questions students responded to with feeling, conviction and quite a bit of introspection last year. We are also happy to say that we have a guide to the 2016-17 Common App Essay Prompts all ready and waiting for you. With today’s app launch, we can also confirm that the text box function and formatting are also consistent with last year’s setup, restricting applicants to the most basic stylistic applications (bold, italic and underline) and allowing them to expand the text box for easier typing and Preview the essay during the drafting phase.

That’s pretty much it! At least for now. We’re sure more secrets will be revealed and more tricks and tips will be uncovered as the application season unfolds, so sign up for our newsletter in the footer below, or follow us on social media (see the sidebar!) to stay up-to-date.

In the meantime, you might be asking: “What do I do now?” Might we suggest you start with the essay? It is the perfect time to identify that magic topic and get a solid draft on the page. Do it before before the homework piles up and soccer practice kicks in. Don’t let this nice summer jump start pass you by. And if all of this information has you on overload and you don’t know where to start, try watching the first chapter of College Essay Academy to wrap your head around what makes for a winning admissions essay. It’s FREE! (And it’s fun.) Or contact us. We can help! No matter what, enjoy the rest of your (productive!) summer and good luck!

*Correction: In a former version of this article we indicated that the College Board was responsible for the Common App, which is not the case.

Excited to get started? Check out our top tips for writing a winning Common App essay.

Check out our guide to the 2017-18 Common App prompts!

Prefer to consume your advice Netflix-style? Binge watch our awesome, on-demand video Academy.

Remember, the Common App isn’t alone this year. Don’t forget to check out our guide to the brand new Coalition App!

About Stacey Brook

Stacey Brook is an accomplished writer and admissions expert who has spent the last decade helping students conceptualize, edit and refine their college essays.

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