Planning to study in the US? Here’s what you should know about the common application

  • The platform allows you to apply for undergraduate university admission at Ivy League schools, private colleges, and more
  • Extracurricular activities and a stellar essay will help you stand out
Amalissa Hall |

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Thinking about going to university in the US? You might need to use the common application.

Broadway shows in New York City. NBA games at the Staples Centre in Los Angeles. The Grand Canyon in Arizona.

For those planning to move to the US to pursue tertiary education - and have a bit of fun - now is the time to start planning.

Why many recent graduates are taking a gap year

You’ll most likely apply for your dream school through the Common Application (also called the Common App), an application platform for undergraduate US college admission. It allows you to apply for more than 900 institutions, from the Ivy League schools to other private colleges.

To help you get a head start on your academic future, Young Post spoke to Jonathan Ault, an admissions consultant at The Edge Learning Centre, who helps students prepare for the big move abroad.

Make sure to get everything ready before you make the big move!

What is the Common App?

The Common Application is a way to centralise American undergraduate applications - but not all schools will use it, especially public schools such as the University of California system. Double check the requirements for each college you are applying to on their respective websites.

When applying, select a few schools of varying levels of difficulty to ensure that you can secure a spot. Separate them into three levels: reach schools (top colleges you hope to attend), target schools (second choice colleges that are less selective), and safety schools (backup colleges that you can almost definitely get into).

Books you should read before starting university in the US

What do I need to include in my application?

A transcript of your grades is essential. Whether or not you need to take the SAT (Scholastic Assessment Test) depends on each college, so make sure you check their websites.

As well as your academics, US schools are just as interested in skills gained outside the classroom, and your personal development.

You’ll also need to show your extracurricular activities. Schools will look for participation (such as sports or choir), achievements (competitions you’ve won), and especially leadership (clubs you have formed or hold a position in).

Make sure to choose extracurriculars you actually enjoy, not just ones you think will look good on your applications.

Anything outside of school is also important - local clubs, volunteering, summer activities and internships.

Ault also points out that schools take note of the length of your commitment, so he says that it’s not much use joining clubs or activities at the last minute to boost your application.

And don’t just choose random extracurriculars to join - make sure the activities on your application show something unique about you and your interests.

Does studying abroad do more harm than good?

Depending on the requirements of the college you apply to, and the language of instruction at your secondary school, you may need to complete a test of your English abilities, such as the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL).

Most schools require letters of recommendation and essays, that may ask you to write a personal statement and explain why you want to attend their school. Ault says that more selective schools may require up to five additional essays.

The benefits of taking a gap year

How can I give my essays an edge?

This is a creative writing assignment, so avoid standard essay format. The most important thing is to lay out interesting details about yourself. Here are some major topics to avoid:

  • Don’t write your essay about other people - it should be about you!
  • Avoid writing about boring stuff that applies to everyone else.
  • Don’t focus on short experiences, such as holidays or school trips. Instead, write about something you’ve committed to for a long time.

A great essay will really set you apart from other candidates.

When should I start?

The application is due in the winter (usually January) of the year you wish to start studying. So if you want to begin your undergraduate studies in the autumn of 2022, start planning this summer.

Start by researching schools you want to apply to and courses you want to take. Focus on getting experience related to your interests. You can begin this process as early as Year 10 or Form Four if you already have an idea of your long-term academic and career path.

Should university education be free?

Some schools offer the option of applying under Early Decision, which is binding if you are admitted. This option is usually due in November of the year before you want to start.

If you have one top school in mind that you seriously want to get into, applying Early Decision can raise your chances of acceptance by 10 to 20 per cent, but be certain you want to go to this school if you’re accepted.

Good luck, and remember, being prepared and thoughtful will serve you well in the application process.

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