The Revised Common App

Here is a timely guide that will help you make the most of the Revised Common Application and its new essay prompts.


The Common Application, or “Common App” (, was designed 35 years ago by a group of 15 colleges as a way to streamline the American college application process. Since then, it has grown steadily in popularity each year, and more than 520 member institutions now utilize the application. A tool like the Common App makes sense: applications to colleges have increased exponentially in the past decade; today most high school seniors apply to seven or more schools.

The new Common App includes the following sections, each of which can be filled out online and saved until the application is complete:

  • Profile (contacts, demographics, geography)
  • Family (household, parent/guardian, siblings)
  • Education (current school, history, academics)
  • Testing (results of college entrance and other exams)
  • Activities (10 slots maximum, a new limitation)
  • Essay (250-650 words in answer to one of five questions, or “prompts”)
  • Explanations (a way to explain disciplinary actions, criminal activity or interruption of education)
  • Additional Information (optional, where you can provide information not covered in the rest of the application)
  • College Page One (general information needed by the colleges you are applying to. There will be one of these pages for each of your colleges.)
  • College Page Two (an additional writing supplement if required by your selected colleges)

Although the Common App has been offered online since 1996, until this year it was also available in paper form for those who eschewed the online process. But the current (2013–2014) application season marks the start of a paperless, completely Web-based process.

With this change have come a number of other changes to the application. Of these, the most important are in the new Writing section, including revised prompts and a more generous length.

That’s the good news. Unfortunately, the new Common App is also full of glitches—some merely inconvenient, others serious enough that dozens of schools have pushed back their application deadlines. More about those later.

The entire application has been revamped to make it more interactive and user-friendly.

What Works Better For You This Year

  • The entire application has been revamped to make it more interactive and user-friendly, with a new look and feel designed to be intuitive for a teenager. The questions are customized so applicants don’t have to answer or even look at questions that don’t apply to their situation. For example, if you click on your parents’ status as “divorced,” you’ll automatically get a pop-up question to determine which parent you live with.
  • A new auto-fill feature speeds up the process of finding high school and college names and addresses.
  • The word count for the personal essay has increased substantially. Earlier versions of the Common App limited the main essay to 500 words. Now, students have 650 words to tell their stories.
  • The five new essay prompts give you a lot of leeway in your topics, and are more creative than most of the old prompts. They also demand more thought and depth in your response.

What to Watch Out For

  • The essay prompt “Write on a topic of your choice” is gone. Not only did this choice give you more freedom, but in the past you could easily write your essay before the start of senior year and know that it was usable even before that year’s Common App was released.
  • There is no prompt that focuses specifically on academics or achievements, and the former extracurricular short essay, which allowed students to write 250 words on their favorite sport or hobby, has also been discontinued. However, many colleges require their own supplements to the Common App anyway, and quite often those are centered on extracurricular activities or academics.

The five new essay prompts give you a lot of leeway in your topics. They also demand more thought and depth in your response.

  • You may no longer upload a resumé unless a specific college requests it. And most do not. The question under Testing that reads, “Is promotion within your educational system based upon standard leaving examinations given at the end of lower and/or senior secondary school by a state or national leaving examinations board?” may apply to you if you are at an overseas school.
  • Check with your school guidance counselor. As mentioned above, the paper application has been discontinued. While it’s understandable to want to digitize all materials, there is reason to believe that the Common App might have discontinued the paper application prematurely because of all the…


Word on the street is not good: the newly revised Common App launch has been a bit of a disaster. A few of the more frustrating irritations included login and format problems, and some member institutions’ supplemental applications not “going live” on time. When the first early-decision deadlines approached, a high volume of students finishing up applications often crashed the system, causing some colleges to extend their early deadlines.

As Colleen Desmond, Resource Counselor at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School in Bethesda, Md., puts it: “The ‘new and improved’ Common App was obviously put forward before all of the glitches were worked out. Their updates were well-intended, but instead of making things simpler and more streamlined, they have actually created a process that is even more complicated and frustrating for students, parents, counselors and colleges.”

As of this writing, the Help Center on the Common App website and the CA’s Facebook page give updates on the status of repair work.

The Help Center on the Common App Web site and the CA’s Facebook page give updates on what has been fixed, and what is still being worked on.

Tips on the New Essay Prompts

Although there are revisions throughout the Common App, it’s the Writing section that showcases the biggest changes—and gives students the best opportunity to control the process. Here are some tips on how to proceed.

First, do not compose your essay on the application screen itself—there have been too many cautionary tales of essays being garbled or lost. If you’ve composed it in Word, some experts suggest pasting it into low-format software such as Notepad (Windows) or TextEdit (Mac) and then pasting it onto the online application, as word counts can vary depending on software. Only paste in your essay when it’s completely revised and ready to go, of course.

Now, let’s go through the five new essay prompts, one by one:

  • Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
          If you grew up in the Foreign Service, your experiences are likely unusual compared to those of other applicants. You can speak in general about growing up as a “diplomat’s kid,” or you can home in on one colorful experience that casts your background into context. Generally, I recommend the latter; talking about your FS experiences in general doesn’t make for as compelling reading as a specific example does, especially if your writing utilizes as many of the five senses as possible. Remember the prompt, however—whatever story you tell must be “central to your identity.”
  • Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?
          Almost all members of the Foreign Service community have experienced failure, most often in communicating in a foreign language or understanding the culture of one’s host country. Essays based on this prompt can run the gamut from the comic to the serious, but should spell out those “lessons learned” in the second half of the essay.

The new Common App is also full of glitches—some merely inconvenient, others more serious.

  • Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?
          This essay basically asks for a demonstration of critical thinking, which is a hot topic with universities these days. Why? Recently many college professors have noticed a decline in writing and reasoning skills among their first-year students. Again, living or having lived overseas lends itself beautifully to the topic of challenging a belief, simply because Foreign Service kids are exposed to other ideologies throughout their childhood.
  • Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?
          Again, a perfect “Foreign Service” question. Describing a place where most Americans have never been will instantly set you apart from other applicants. Try to be as specific as possible in choosing this place, however. If it’s a library, for example, make sure to play up what’s different about it in comparison with an American facility.
          If you love going to a special beach on the Indian Ocean, don’t spend too much time describing waves, sand, etc., unless there’s a way in which the setting is different from the beach at any other ocean.
          Instead, focus on evoking the history of the place (the spice trade?), mention the colors of the shells and wildlife, or talk about the local people who also go to “your” beach.
  • Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community or family.
          Here’s where the average stateside American student is going to discuss how hard he worked on the football team for that big victory, or how the family pulled together when a sibling or parent was ill. There’s nothing wrong with these topics, of course. But again, use your overseas experiences here if you can.
          This is not an easy prompt, however. Rarely does one event take the average person from childhood to adulthood. But if you can show how an event or accomplishment served as the catalyst for the process of maturation, go for it.

Although there are revisions throughout the Common App, it’s the Writing section that showcases the biggest changes.

The Additional Information Section

This new, general section near the end of the Common App gives you a chance to write up to 650 words on anything that you feel is important for the admissions officers to know. This is an optional section, so if you use it, make sure that you’re not wasting the admission reader’s time.

Most counselors do not recommend that you paste your resumé here, unless there is something unusual on it that is not mentioned elsewhere on the application. Your achievements, grades and activities will all be listed elsewhere, and your main essay will be showing something of your character and personality.

Here you can add something extra, but again—only if it’s something new. If you have not yet cited your Foreign Service lifestyle and all the places you’ve lived, now’s your chance. If being overseas meant that certain courses or activities weren’t offered to you, such as U.S. history, or American football, you could explain that here—especially if you have taken an online course, done extra reading or started a local American football club in your host country, as a way of dealing with the deficits in your education or experience. If you’ve experienced an evacuation, for instance, or have developed an unusual passion overseas that isn’t reflected in the rest of the application, you can use this space to elaborate on it.

Do not compose your essay on the application screen itself—there have been too many cautionary tales of essays being garbled or lost.

Give Yourself Extra Time

Finally, remember that while applying from overseas may give you an advantage in the application pile, a poor Internet connection in a Third World country may well put you at a disadvantage, given the Common App’s current online glitches.

If the Common Application wants to set itself up as the gateway for all U.S. college applicants, it will have to ramp up its customer service and engage in a little “public diplomacy” for the sake of its national image. Meanwhile, the new essay prompts are a definite improvement, and they lend themselves well to the Foreign Service experience.

So, take advantage of that, and be sure to give yourself extra time to complete and submit your application—just in case.

Francesca Kelly, a Foreign Service spouse, is a writer and college essay application tutor. She writes frequently on education issues, and is a former editor of AFSA News.