Higher Education: Common App makes applying to college less stressful, streamlines process

Data from the Social Security administration shows that attaining a college degree still increases one’s median lifetime earnings.

Income is one thing. Debt is another. The Education Data Initiative last put out a report on college loan debt in May. The New York Times (NYT) has documented people’s regrets about higher education. To its credit, NYT developed the Build Your Own College Rankings tool aimed at helping young people better analyze college options.

College may not be the answer for every person coming out of high school. Some choose to enlist in the military. Others may pursue employment opportunities (which can stem from high school co-ops such as Savannah's Groves High School Aviation Program with Gulfstream). For those high schoolers considering college, however, exploring the Common App can be an effective starting place.

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Fountain on the Armstrong Campus of Georgia Southern University
Fountain on the Armstrong Campus of Georgia Southern University

Why the Common App?

More than 1000 colleges now subscribe to the Common App. Consolidating the application for 20 schools at once can aid time-strapped high school students.

The Common App website offers many resources on how to plan for college. The site has a free student dashboard and essay prompts. Students can track recommendations from teachers and other outstanding items, as well.

According to Princeton Review, there are three key benefits of the Common App:

  1. Saves time

  2. Reduces senior year stress

  3. Students write and submit one essay. (Certain schools may require supplemental essays and other materials)

While the Common App does not eliminate application fees altogether, it does offer potential fee waivers. Students should confer with their academic counselors to determine if they are eligible.

Hill Hall, built in 1901, is the oldest building on the Savannah State University campus.
Hill Hall, built in 1901, is the oldest building on the Savannah State University campus.

Tell your story, chart your path

The Common App launches annually on Aug. 1 and closes the following Jan. 1. High school seniors still have time to compile their materials and work on their essays. Arvin Vohra specializes in Ivy League and top 100 university admissions and is the founder of Vohra Method, a college admissions consultancy based in Washington D.C. He and his co-author for Invitation to the Ivies, Chelsey Snyder, assert that building effective personal narratives with a unique value add will strengthen applicants' chances for success.

Snyder, managing director of Vohra Method and a seasoned counselor with 10 years of SAT tutoring and Ivy League admissions strategy experience, starts prospective college students out with writing activities. She said that the focus should not be on cramming as much as possible onto a resume. “Students don’t have to be the everything. They have to be something really specific. They don’t need to have extraneous club experiences. We work on what story can be built, over a couple of years, that will be unique to them.”

Kimberly McGuire, the director of counseling services for Savannah-Chatham County Public Schools (SCCPSS), offered similar advice about building personal stories. “If you tell me this chemistry class was difficult, and here's what I had to do to overcome that difficulty and…earn the grade. It could even be a funny story, or about how you had to collaborate with peers. Those type of stories really draw [admissions representatives] in.” She also suggested that students have trusted advisors review their stories before they submit them.

Part of a student’s story should contain some unique aspect that distinguishes them from their peers. Vorha said, “Anything that anyone has done before adds no strategic value to a college.” He advises students that no matter how small, “If it's uncharted, it's going to add value and grab attention.”

Douglas Simmons, school counselor at Savannah Early College High School (SECHS), tells students, “When they apply to elite schools, all applicants are going to have the grades and the test scores now. So, each student needs to know what they bring that is to each college’s benefit.”

The Marvin-Pittman building on the Georgia Southern University campus in Statesboro.
The Marvin-Pittman building on the Georgia Southern University campus in Statesboro.

Top tips for Common App success

Start the application process early in high school years

All the counselors interviewed for this article agreed that starting early matters the most. The application deadline for early decision for Fall 2024 is Dec. 1. Late consideration deadline is Feb. 1, 2024.

The remaining tips are seen as exponentially beneficial if started prior to junior and senior years of high school. High school seniors still have time to put in college applications, but with the deadline only 80 days away, pulling a resume, references and an essay together with time for review and adjustments may be the difference between a definitive yes or a wait list. Many teachers and counselors are already busy with the new school year and hard to pin down for recommendations. For those students who are starting now, reach out to high school college counselors immediately.

Build a resource library and network

Resources can include books, articles, online tools, and people. Establishing a digital or physical toolbox of resources can be integral to college application success. Counselors, coaches, mentors, bosses, and other people in students’ lives can provide many of the resources if asked.

Simmons said that he has been invited to many counselor-only events for colleges. He cited Georgia Tech University specifically. “They provided sample essays and we [counselors] were able to read them and to see if they were sound or not.” He also was able to share some of those essays with his students. He also noted that SCCPSS encourages students to collaborate with English teachers on their essays.

“The focus is on tapping into a network rather than 25 students going to one teacher or counselor for recommendations and help,” added SCCPSS's McGiure.

Also, events such as the Peach State Tour allow students to engage with college representatives. Peach State features Augusta University, Georgia State University, Georgia Tech and the University of Georgia. “At some of the college fairs,” McGuire said, “those are the reps that are actually going to read your application.”

She encouraged students to take advantage of opportunities to connect. Another networking opportunity she mentioned was MegaGenesis, which offers a college fair and career workshops locally.

Snyder and Vorha recommend even going so far as to cold email college professors at desired schools.

Snyder said, “It can be scary but occasionally students hear back and get connected with a grad student or the professor shares insights.”

Vorha was quick to caution that outreaching professors needs to be “an authentic communication about what they're doing and what you're doing. Don't email them ‘can you help me get in?’” The implication, again, is for students to do the research.

Practice writing essays as early as freshman year to build your narrative

Snyder said, “Almost every college’s essays stay the same. University of Chicago is a notable exception.”

Vohra mentioned that the Common App has had a question for the last 20 years or so about forming your own essay question. “Even as a freshman, you can see what questions are on the app, which are really personality tests to see if you are the type of person to explore uncharted territory.”

Snyder and Vohra suggested drafting potential essays freshman year and then revisiting them each year. “Revising your story over time can strengthen those essays when it is time to submit the app,” said Snyder.

Joseph Schwartzburt is the education and workforce development reporter for Savannah Morning News. You can reach him at jschwartzburt@savannahnow.com.

This article originally appeared on Savannah Morning News: Prospective college students: Common App makes applying less stressful