52 Weeks to College: Week 5 — Get Started on the Common Application

This week marks the official launch of the college application year because the Common Application (Common App) goes live on August 1. Thanks to the work you’ve done over the last four weeks, you are ready to go. Congratulations! This week, you’ll get started on the Common App, while continuing to make progress on other application related tasks.

Week 5 To-Dos

This Week and Every Week

  • Check your email, voicemail, texts, and snail mail for any communications that relate to applying to college. Read them and take whatever action is necessary.
  • Update your parents about what you’re doing. This regular communication will work wonders in your relationship with your parents during this stress-filled year. 

This Week

  • Get your Common Application account set up. You have to register online and enter some basic information about yourself. Take your time with your data entry — it will be the data that gets pulled into all of your applications!
  • Gather the essay questions from all of your applications. You should be able to access all of the applications for the colleges on your list this week. Even if the application isn't out, the essay questions are published. 
  • Create a Master Essay Plan for yourself that identifies where you can use one essay for multiple applications. Even if you discover that there are 25 essays required among the various applications for the colleges on your list (a relatively common number), you won't have to write 25 essays. Look for questions that are the same or similar, and note those as essay questions that can be answered with one essay. 
  • Choose your topic for your Common Application personal essay. This essay will be a foundational essay for you, so it is the place to begin.
  • Begin working on supplementary materials, such as portfolios, audition materials, research abstracts, and the like. Note: very few of you should have this to-do on your list because you are following last week’s advice about exhibiting restraint when it comes to these kinds of materials.
  • Register for standardized tests. Fall test dates fill up quickly, so don’t delay registration. Get it done now for all the tests you expect to take.
  • Choose your test preparation method and add your test preparation into your calendar. People who prepare for the standardized tests do better on them. It is as simple as that. So build time into your calendar for test preparation. Check out this post about what study methods work best.

Tips & Tricks

Use College Essay Organizer’s free, online Essay Questions tool to save time in gathering all of essay questions.

College Essay Organizer's free, online Essay Questions tool will do the hard work for you. All you have to do is enter your college list and the tool will retrieve all the essay questions into one document for you. Hooray! Using it will save you all kinds of time and heartache. Their application database is updated rapidly, so it's accurate and reliable. We encourage everyone to use it.

Don’t get carried away in reusing answers.

As you are making your Master Essay Plan, you are looking for opportunities to reuse answers so you can work smarter, not harder (a core Ivey Strategy that we discuss more in our book). But don’t get carried away when it comes to reusing answers. Remember that your goal is to get into the colleges on your list, not to complete your applications with the fewest essays possible.

You should only reuse an answer as-is if the questions are nearly identical. If the questions are similar, but distinct, you should revise your answer for each question. This is especially true for the “Why College X” questions. A generic answer will add nothing to your application and might even detract if it is inaccurate or non-responsive for a particular college, which often happens. (Note: this is why we recommend College Essay Organizer’s free tool and not their premium tool, the Essay Roadmap, which will cost you about $35. The premium tool will encourage you to reuse short answers and essays when you shouldn’t. Not good.)

Use your story (from Week 3) as your guide for choosing the best topic for your Common App personal essay.

You have a choice of five topics on this year’s Common Application. But before you spend hours analyzing the pros and cons of each of these topics, we want to remind you that the real topic of all of the essay questions is YOU. No matter what the stated topic is, it is nothing more than a prompt to get you to write about the real topic, which is YOU.

Since your goal in your application is to “tell your story” (another core Ivey Strategy), your story is your guide for choosing which topic is best for you. Referring back and forth between your story and your choices for topics, choose the topic that will allow you to speak to your most essential qualities or your most formative experiences. That’s the best topic for you.

Once you’ve completed this week’s to-dos, you can consider yourself officially launched! And if you’ve been dawdling, we hope you’ll be encouraged to get caught up before you find yourself way behind.


About the Authors:

Alison Cooper Chisolm heads the college admissions consulting practice at Ivey Consulting. She came to private consulting after working in admissions for more than 10 years at three selective universities (Southern Methodist University, University of Chicago, and Dartmouth College).

Anna Ivey is the former Dean of Admissions at the University of Chicago Law School and founded Ivey Consulting to help college, law school, and MBA applicants navigate the admissions process and make smart choices about higher education.

You can find more college admissions tips in their book How to Prepare a Standout College Application (Wiley, August 2013), follow them on Twitter @IveyCollege, and join the conversation on Facebook.


About the 52 Weeks to College Series:

52 Weeks to College is a week-by-week plan for applying to college. It breaks this complex and difficult project down into weekly to-do lists with supporting tips and tricks for getting it all done. Based on the Master Plan for applying to college found in our forthcoming book, How to Prepare a Standout College Application52 Weeks to College is designed for any applicant who intends to apply to top U.S. colleges. For those of you who are just discovering the 52 Weeks series and want to catch up, click here.