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The Ultimate Guide to the Common App

It’s the start of application season. If you are like my students and their parents, you are probably already stressing. Maybe this sounds familiar:


  • How can my son make his application stand out?
  • How can my daughter get into Harvard/Stanford?
  • What should she write her essay about?


I know it’s a stressful experience. We all understand what’s riding on college applications. Elite colleges can lead to elite graduate schools and prestigious careers. To help you and your child, I’ve put together my most comprehensive guide to the Common Application ever, including the exact advice I give my students and I used to get into Harvard. Seniors and their parents, please use this guide to prepare a truly impressive application that helps get acceptance to those dream colleges. If you have any specific questions, please email me at jyeager@post.harvard.edu.


For everyone else, please use this guide to prepare your son or daughter for application season whenever it comes. Remember, by the time senior year comes around there’s very little you or your child can change about grades, test scores, and extracurricular activities. So start early!! In each section, I will give some tips on what to plan for and start working on early in high school. The more time given to this process, the better off you and your child will be and the more doors that will open.

Free Bonus: Click here to download a FREE PDF version of this Ultimate Guide. You’ll also get helpful worksheets and tools, a list of my favorite admissions resources, plus my awesome How I Got into Harvard Tool Kit.

This post is super long, so to make it easier for you to get the most value out of it, I’ve broken it down into 5 self-contained sections that follow the sections of the Common App with a bonus Action Steps section to get your children started on their college applications today!

Table of Contents





Action Steps


Guide Setup


This guide is designed to walk you and your child through the Common Application. Many schools, including Harvard, accept the common app. I highly recommend using it when you can. School-specific applications will have the same sections as the common app. They just may have them in a different order and call them something different. Keep that in mind if you’re using the guide to fill out other applications.


The Application’s Base


I’ve talked a lot about the need to stand out. Remember: Schools are Looking for a Well-Rounded Student Body NOT Well-Rounded Students!! I’m going to say that again because I know there’s a lot of bad information out there and myths surrounding this idea. Schools are Looking for a Well-Rounded Student Body NOT Well-Rounded Students.


Your children do not need to be president of every club, play every sport, and volunteer at 20 different organizations. They should pick something they love, their base, and build on that. If they love STEM, they could start a coding club at school, put together a science fair for a low-income middle school, and join the math team. Focus on depth not breadth. Quality over quantity. Your children should never ever do something they hate just because it will “look good” on an application. They just won’t excel at it. Parents, don’t let your students spend their free time making themselves miserable.


If you and your child need help planning his/her base and building activities and an application around it, please sign up for my newsletter so you can get my Building the Foundation to an Impressive Application Workbook. I created this workbook to make it really easy to develop an impressive application. Parents, please work with your children to discover and plan around their bases. This is critical groundwork for applications.


College List


Another important preparatory step for applications is the college list. I didn’t get very good advice when it came to choosing the colleges I applied to. My “safety” school was University of Rochester because I had a free application. I treated Wash U in St Louis and Northwestern as match schools, which was probably a little ridiculous. I applied to mostly reach schools. None of which I had visited. I want you and your child to do a better job than I did in the college selection process!


I highly recommend applying to your local state school as a safety. If your children have the credentials to get into an Ivy, they’ll probably qualify for a free ride to a state school. It’s good to keep your options open in this way. The tools at cappex.com are great. It is really easy to create a profile and compare your child’s credentials to previous applicants. I highly recommend using this to divide your child’s college list into safety, match, and dream. Sign up for my newsletter to get my Picking the Right Schools – College Selection Worksheet to help you through this process.


I want to leave you with one last piece of advice when choosing which schools to apply to: Don’t hold your children back on their dream college! 100% of the people who don’t apply to Harvard don’t get in. Parents, fully support your children in applying to their dream colleges. This doesn’t mean you or they need to be heartbroken if they don’t get in. Just don’t count them out automatically.


Minimum Academic Threshold


I’m often asked if a certain test score or GPA is required to get into Harvard. I also have students who spend dozens of hours trying to go from 760 in Math on the SAT to 800. I want to share with you the minimum academic threshold needed. There are many students with perfect GPAs and SAT scores who are rejected from Harvard every year. Once your children hit the threshold, they should spend their limited time on other things that will make them stand out. So what does your child need to do academically to have a chance at getting into Harvard? I recommend my students get at least a 700 on the SAT subjects (this corresponds to about a 32 on the ACT). I’ll talk more about testing in the testing section and how to get that 700. For GPA, it’s dependent on the high school. If your school regularly sends multiple students to Harvard, your child needs to be in the top 10%. If your school sends one student every couple of years to Harvard (or another top 5 school), shoot for the top 5%. If your school hasn’t sent anyone to a top 5 school in the recent past (like mine when I was applying), the goal should really be valedictorian or very close to it.




We already talked about the minimum academic threshold for elite colleges and I’m assuming you don’t need help with Profile and Family. The first few tabs on Education are just information gathering. These should be pretty simple to fill out. If your child has experienced an education interruption, do not skip that part. It will be obvious on the transcript, and this is the place where they can explain it. If you’re shooting for an elite college, the explanation should be very compelling.


The sections I get a lot of questions on are the next two.


For Colleges & Universities, yes your children should list any and every college-credit course they’ve taken. I recommend taking all the college-credit courses available from your child’s high school and taking at least one the summers after your child’s sophomore and junior years. Excelling at college-level courses demonstrates your child is ready for the challenges of college. Getting A’s in these courses tells the admission committee your child has already taken college courses and has done well in them. This is really important. Accepting kids into college is a gamble for admissions committees. Harvard has a 6-year graduation rate of 97% and a freshman retention rate of 97%. These are ranking indicators that they care very much about. They don’t want to accept kids who they aren’t sure will be able to hack it and graduate. That affects Harvard’s ranking. Your children need to demonstrate that they are safe bets. Excelling at college-level coursework in high school is one of the best ways to do that.


For the Grades section, have your children talk to their counselors if their transcripts don’t give class rank and class size. The GPA listed here should be your child’s more recent GPA, which for most students will be the second semester junior year GPA. Don’t worry if your kid’s school doesn’t do class rankings. My school didn’t. If it looks like your child is likely to be valedictorian or salutatorian, ask the counselor if they can say something to that in their recommendation letter. They might not be able to, but it doesn’t hurt to ask.


In the Current or Most Recent Year Courses section, your children should list all of their courses for the year. Yes, all of them. The courses should be the most challenging courses the school has to offer. If you and your child are deciding on what courses to take senior year, use this How Best to Prepare for Harvard? list. Remember, four years of English, math, and a single language is what these schools are looking for. With respect to the language, I usually advise against Latin in favor of a spoken language like Spanish or French. Just remember, your child needs a transcript that demonstrates they challenged themselves and excelled at it. If your child is not yet a senior and needs help improving their GPA, I’ve created a Skyrocket Your GPA Boot Camp to help get that GPA in shape. Sign up for my newsletter, and I’ll send it to you.


For the Honors section, keep in mind there’s only space for 5 honors, so be selective. Prioritize international and national honors.  Prioritize more recent regional awards. This should be a list of the most impressive awards your child has earned. The Honors section should solidify your child’s Base. For example, if their Base is social justice, their awards should be related to their volunteer work. If their base is STEM, include their math competition awards. If you sign up for my newsletter, I’ll send you the Impress the Ivies Honors Score Sheet tool to help you and your child narrow down their honors.


The Future Plans section should also align with their Base. I do not recommend putting “undecided.” For the highest degree you intend to earn, I definitely recommend putting higher than a Bachelors Degree. Even if your child doesn’t really intend to pursue higher degrees, it demonstrates that they have high aspirations. The truth is you and your child don’t really know how they’ll feel about higher degrees in the future.




Students and parents are always asking me about which tests to take. Should my son take the SAT or ACT? Which SAT Subject Tests should she take? So let’s start out with a little information on which tests to take.




With this simple technique, you and your child can cut the stress about test taking in half by only focusing on one test.


During your child’s junior fall (or as soon as possible if they’re a senior), have them take a realistic practice exam for the ACT and for the SAT. Only take the exams generated by ACT and the College Board. You can get them free here and here. Test prep books are great for studying, but do not use their practice exams to determine how your child will do on the test. They are not created by the test creators and aren’t usually the best indicators of what the actual tests are like.

The key is making the test taking experience as realistic as possible. No cell phone. No distractions. Set a timer. Have your child use the answer sheet exactly as they would on the actual test. I like to take a week between the two practice tests so your child isn’t totally burnt out for the second one. Once your child has taken both tests and scored them, you and your child can compare the scores using this comparison chart available on act.org. Whichever test they do better on, that’s the one you and your child should focus your efforts on. Check that all the schools to which your child wants to apply accept the test first, though.


If you don’t trust that your child can take a realistic practice test at home and can afford the extra test fees, they can take an actual test. Just don’t send the scores to any schools. Nothing is more realistic than taking the actual test.


The one caveat to this, though, is the first three rounds of the new SAT (March, May, and June 2016). In this Business Insider article, Anthony Green of Green SAT & ACT Prep discussed the new SAT and his recommendations to his students to skip the first three rounds of the new SAT (March, May, and June 2016). I totally agree, so keep that in mind when deciding SAT or ACT.


SAT Subject Tests


I’ve had students ask me, “How many SAT Subject tests should I take?” “Will 4 get me into Harvard? Will 6? What about 10?”


The reality is your child’s time is much better spent making sure their GPA is high and their ECs are solid and convey their uniqueness. In fact, Harvard just recently announced they would no longer be requiring the test. Other top tier schools are likely not far behind.


If you and your child still want or need to take the tests, here are my recommendations.


  1. Have your child take the subject test for the AP classes your child takes their junior year. I took AP Chemistry and AP US History my junior year and took the associated SAT Subject (SAT II at the time) tests. It worked out great. I didn’t need to do any extra studying for the SAT Subject tests.
  2. Have your child take practice exams for the math level 1 and 2 and see which one they do better on. They should take that one. It will probably make the most sense to take it after their junior year assuming they’ve had trig and a little stats.
  3. The tests should reflect your child’s Base. If their Base is STEM, they should take a math and science. If their base is politics or social justice, they should take history, literature, or a language.
  4. Encourage your child to take a language (with or without listening) immediately after their third or forth year of a language. This is less about getting into college and more about testing out of language requirements freshman year of college. You only need a 700 to test out of the language requirement. I WISH I had taken the French test at the end of my senior year. After 3 months of no French, I had no chance of testing out of the requirement at Harvard. Instead I had to use 2 of my very few electives as an engineering major on French classes. They were alright, but I would’ve preferred to have options.


That’s it! If you follow these recommendations, your child really shouldn’t need any special preparation. But they should always take at least one practice exam!


If you want more resources for testing, including a breakdown of the PSAT, check out some of my posts:

Improve Your Vocabulary the Easy Way

Mental Math

Techniques to Improve Your SAT Math

Demystifying the SAT Writing Section

Nervous Test Taker Tips

Get Rid of Test Taking Anxiety

How to Stay Focused for Tests

New PSAT Breakdown

New PSAT Reading Section Breakdown

New PSAT Math Section Breakdown

New PSAT Writing Section Breakdown


Now back to the application.


You have to send official scores to the colleges. I like to just self-report your child’s best score. So if they took the ACT and the SAT but scored better on the ACT, I would only self-report the ACT. Same goes with SAT Subject tests. Just self-report the highest scoring tests. Your child can send the colleges all of their scores as a official reports. For both self-reporting and sending scores only send the highest score for that test. It looks a little weird if your child has taken the SAT five times, so just send the highest. For the SAT only, if your kid scored highest on Math for one test and highest on Verbal for another test, send both and self-report only the highest for each section.


For AP Tests, your child should list all of the tests they’ve taken along with all of the tests they plan to take. If your child is in an “AP Class” list that test as a “plan to take” even if they don’t at this time. For elite colleges, AP’s should be mostly 5’s with a 4 on occasion. I recommend taking SAT Subject tests around the same time as AP tests in the same subject. That way a lot of your child’s studying is cut out. They’re using the class and studying for the AP test for double duty. Parents, help your children plan out their SAT Subject tests to take advantage of this.




Activities are another place where a lot of students stress. And for good reason. This is where your children set themselves apart from all the other high test score, high GPA students. This is where they become “that girl” or “that guy” – the socially responsible athlete, the engineer who cares about social justice, the piano player who wants to help autistic kids. If you’re not sure what your child’s Base (hook, “thing,” whatever you want to call it) is, sign up for my newsletter to get my 4-Step Building the Foundation to an Impressive Application Workbook. At this point, though, hopefully your child has already done some great impactful things. It’s all about how they share it.


First thing’s first, there is only space for 10 activities. This means forget about the 1 year of French club. Or that Hotdog Lovers club your child started. Every one of these activities should count. I prefer to sketch this out on some scratch paper or sign up for my newsletter and I’ll send you my totally free Impress the Ivies Activities Score Sheet tool. Your child should list all the activities they’ve participate in throughout high school. This includes clubs, sports, volunteer activities, jobs, everything. Once they’ve written them all down, go down the list and write tallies next to them for each year your child participated in that activity. Add another point to the tally for each year they were president/captain/leader/founder. If they won an award associated with this activity add some more tallies – 1 for a school award, 2 for a regional award, 3 for a national award, and 4 for an international award. Now if the activity aligns with their Base add a “B” to the tally. These activities will be given priority.


Now that you and your child have given all their activities some rankings, I want you to tally everything up. First do the “B” activities. Then do the other activities. Get rid of all the other activities that do not have a 6 or higher. Now put all the “B” activities in order starting with the one with the most tallies, then add the other activities with a 6 or higher. If you have more than 10 “B” activities, remove the “B” activities with a 3 or lower and add in the other activities with a 6 or higher.


Now that you have the prioritization of your child’s list down, let’s talk about how to package their activities. Activity Type should be pretty straight forward. The one that raises questions is the Position/Leadership description and organization name. Maybe your child’s port’s team doesn’t have a captain, but they were the most dedicated, coached other younger teammates, ran some of the drills, whatever. Talk to their coach or have your child talk to their coach to see if it’d be OK for them to list captain on their application. Also list the highest leadership description achieved. They were just voted president of their club last year? Put President. Craft the position/leadership description to be as compelling as possible. Use words like president, founder, chair, supervisor, and captain. The organization name should be as descriptive as possible. Let’s say your child was a martial arts coach at an academy called Smith Academy. If they just put Smith Academy, the admissions team would have no idea what that meant. Instead put Smith Academy of Martial Arts or some other descriptor for the organizations to make it clear what they do. Remember, your child is only allowed 50 characters for this section, so keep it simple.


For the “Please describe this activity, including what you accomplished and any recognition you received, etc.” section, you are only allowed 150 characters, so these need to be compelling and concise. All of the tips that apply to resumes apply to this activity list. Focus on numbers, like the number of new members your child brought into the club, the amount of money they earned/got donated/managed, the number of participants at their event. Put numbers to everything that can have numbers put to them. If the awards your child listed previously were associated with an activity, be sure to tie that back in. Be sure to make things sound as impressive as possible. One tip I absolutely love for this section is to include a website for the activity if there is one. This really only applies to clubs or organizations that your child has created, but it makes it so much easier for admissions people to find out more information if they need to.


Check every year your child participated in the activity and all year if it’s at all applicable. For every activity, check that they intend to continue to participate. This should be a primo list of activities that your child would want to continue and are in line with their Base. It also doesn’t mean your child has to continue to participate or distinguish how they will. For example, your child doesn’t have to continue to play varsity basketball, but maybe they’ll play intramural.




I could write an entire additional ultimate guide on the personal essay itself.


There are the personal essay questions are for 2015. Be sure to confirm this information with the Common App yourself.


Students always have a million questions about the essay. I’m going to share with you the lessons I learned about crafting the best possible essay and using it over and over again.

I applied to Harvard, Yale, Stanford, MIT, Cornell, Columbia, Washington University in St. Louis, and Northwestern and got into all of them. The one school I didn’t get into was Princeton. The only real difference between those eight accepted applications and the one rejected application was my essay. Now it could’ve been that Princeton felt I wasn’t a good fit, but that’s not super helpful nor is it something we have control over. So let’s assume it was the essay.


For the schools I got into, I spent over a month crafting my essay in my college composition (senior English) class, getting it peer-reviewed and graded. By the end, it was a really great essay that told my unique story and with a little bit of tweaking I was able to make it answer the questions for eight applications. Princeton had four short questions and answers that I spent one evening on. No wonder I didn’t get in. I would’ve still gone to Harvard, though, so no tears were shed.

Here’s the system your child can use to do the same. I recommend they start working on their long form essay as early as the summer before senior year but today works too! I’ll go into detail on how to choose the subject of your essay. A lot of schools also require short question and answer supplements. Don’t make the mistake I made on the Princeton application and throw them together at the last minute!


Let’s talk about the essay-writing system that will reduce your and your child’s stress and ensure they’re telling their unique story. Right after high school graduation, encourage your child to start putting all of the long form essay questions together in one document. I like using Evernote for note taking, but your kid can use whatever system they like. Most of the essay questions are already out, like the Common Application questions. Do the same for the short essay questions. If there is a school your child wants to apply to that hasn’t released their essay questions yet, make a note of that.


Once you and your child have all the long form essay questions in one place, help your child choose the one that is the most specific and that will allow them to tell their unique story that builds on their Base. Look at the other questions and make sure with minor tweaking your child can apply the essay topic to them as well. For example, I wrote my essay for MIT about being a girl who loved math and the excitement of competing with boys in that arena. Stanford’s essay question was about selecting a meaningful photo and writing about it. So I selected a photo of me as a child, added a couple of sentences to my existing essay, and submitted it. This simple system can drastically cut the amount of time and effort spent on applications, especially if a number of schools don’t accept the Common App. Your child will also end up with a much better essay if they just focus on one. Do not make more work for your child or yourself!


You can do the same for most of the short questions. You will find that many are similar or generic. Your child can use a short answer about a meaningful EC to respond to the question “Is there anything else you would like us to know?” If they are applying to an engineering school, there is often a question about why they’re interested in engineering. This can be the same for all the schools your child applies to with some minor tweaking where they mention specifics of the individual programs.


The keys to a stress-free essay experience are organization and starting early. Your child should spend at least a month with their long form essay and have it reviewed by a few people. They likely won’t need to spend the same amount of time on all their short essays, but they should definitely ask at least one person to review them. Instead of writing 5 mediocre essays and 20 lackluster responses, I want your child to write 1 amazing essay and 2-5 killer responses that tell their unique story and Impress the Ivies.


Additional resources for creating an Ivy-worthy essay:

Tips to Take Your Essays to the Next Level

Storytelling: The Easiest Way to More Memorable Essays and Interviews


Additional information doesn’t apply to most students. Use this area if your child has something they need to explain like an extended absence or non-traditional education.


Finally, don’t forget about the information your child needs to fill out for each college including recommendations, potential additional short answer or essay questions, intended majors, etc.


Action Steps


  1. Sign up for my newsletter below. I’ll send you a PDF of this Ultimate Guide to the Common App so you and your child can reference it easily plus worksheets and tools to help your child create their best application and my favorite college admissions resources and websites. That’s all in addition to my How I Got into Harvard Tool Kit, which includes my Building the Foundation to an Impressive Application Workbook, my Skyrocket Your GPA Boot Camp, and an ebook on the Secret to Raising a Harvard Kid just for parents. All totally FREE!
  2. If you and your child need personalized help with their application or just a review, send me an email to schedule a free consultation. I’d love to help your child get into the college of their dreams!

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