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Conquering the Confusing Common App: These Tips Will Help

How do you fill out the parent information section if you live with a foster family?

Does babysitting your little brother after school count as an "activity"?

The questions that come up while filling out The Common Application can be confusing, but we've compiled a list of tips to help.

First, an overview: The Common Application exists online. Almost 700 colleges and universities nationwide belong to the nonprofit organization that created it. Usually, a school that accepts the Common App will also ask for other information, or "supplements," which in some cases include an essay about why you want to attend that particular school.

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These supplements are also available on the Common App website, so that after completing them you can easily send them along with the main application to the colleges of your choice.

Some general tips:

  • Start early. Beginning this year, you can create your application in your junior year and roll it over to your senior year. This gives you time to get familiar with the application and to begin your schools list. You can also create a practice application if you just want to explore.
  • Ask for help from a knowledgeable source such as a school counselor or volunteer. You can also contact the Common Application organization directly at appsupport.commonapp.org. You can send an email or you can live chat Monday-Friday, 3-9 p.m.
  • Be aware of deadlines. Download the mobile app to help you with reminders. Give yourself an ample time cushion to submit your application in case you hit technical snags. Don't submit your application five minutes before midnight on your deadline day!
  • Less is more. Admissions counselors will be reading thousands of applications. Be brief, honest and clear in your answers to questions. Don't send extra recommendations or materials unless they add something specific to your application.
  • Don't try to impress in the essay; be authentic. Don't just repeat information listed in your transcript; tell the college something special about you that may not be obvious from the rest of your application. Write in your own voice, but have someone else — a teacher or counselor — edit and proofread.

Now, the details: The main application consists of six main sections — Profile, Family, Education, Testing, Activities, Writing. This year, each section has a video tutorial that gives an overview of questions and possible trouble spots. Required questions are marked with a red asterisk. A green check mark appears when a section is complete.

Profile

This section asks for information about you. It begins with basic demographic information, such as your name, address, contact information and date of birth. The "sex assigned at birth" may be confusing for students who are transgender or transitioning. If your current legal gender differs from your gender at birth, you may report the legal gender instead. There is also a space for you to explain more about your gender identity if needed.

You will also find questions about religion, race, ethnicity and citizenship. The religion box gives over 40 choices, from "agnostic" and "atheist" to "Wiccan" and "Yazidi." The race box offers five choices. You can check more than one. If you choose "American Indian or Alaskan Native," you will then be asked which tribe and whether you are officially enrolled. You are not required to report your ethnicity.

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This section also asks for information to establish whether or not you can be excused from paying the application fee. To qualify for a fee waiver, you must meet one of eight indicators of economic need. For example, you won't have to pay if you qualify for free or reduced-price lunch in public school or if the SAT or ACT waived your fee.

If you qualify for a fee waiver, this year, for the first time, you will be asked if you would like a free online mentor through Strive for College, a California-based nonprofit. Your school guidance counselor will have to verify that you qualify for the waiver.

Family

In the household information section, you will be asked to provide information about your parents and siblings. Even if you are an adult or an emancipated minor or live with a foster family, you will need to list at least one parent. If you have limited information about one or both parents, you can choose that option from a dropdown menu. If the occupation of one of your parents isn't listed, you can choose "Other" and write in the occupation.

Education

Here, you provide the name of your high school and of your guidance counselor, and list your grades and any honors you have received. If you can't find your school name using the search tool provided, you can choose the option to enter it manually. If you were home-schooled, you can choose that option. You can also let colleges know if an organization, such as KIPP or Prep for Prep, helped you.

If you took time off from high school for any reason, the Common App gives you an opportunity to explain why in 250 words or less. Be honest and brief when you explain your reason.

List any college classes you've taken in high school. But don't worry if you leave it blank. Most high school students haven't taken college-level classes.

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When reporting your grades, don't worry if your school doesn't calculate class rank. Just leave that spot blank. To complete this section, you will need to know the size of your graduation class and if your GPA is weighted (gives extra points for Advanced Placement or IB classes) or unweighted. You can then list any academic honors, but don't worry if you don't have any — many students don't.

Colleges also want to know about your future plans and career goals. Do you plan to get an advanced degree? What occupation are you contemplating? You can choose from a list or select "undecided," which is fine.

Testing

In addition to sending official standardized test score reports, you can also self-report scores on the Common App. Some schools require scores and others don't; you can customize each application you submit. Click on the college's application details on the My Colleges tab to see test requirements for individual schools.

Activities

This section asks for details about after-school and extracurricular activities. You can list up to 10, but you don't have to list that many. Family responsibilities such as babysitting siblings should be listed here. List paid work, too. The form asks for a description of each activity and an estimate of the amount of time per week and per year that you spend on the activity.

Writing

Take a deep breath. It's time for the personal essay, the centerpiece of the writing section. You must choose one of five essay questions and write a 250- to 650-word essay. The essay is a chance to give an admissions officer a sense of who you are, to tell a story about yourself. If you are a low-income or first-generation college student, you should consider letting colleges know about the challenges you've overcome.

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The writing section is also the place to explain any disciplinary history you have had, either at school or in the criminal justice system.

Finally, under additional information, the application offers space to write another 650 words on any topic. Only use this if you feel like you have something specific you need to explain — such as a bad grade or a gap in your schooling. Do not just use it to write another essay about yourself. There's nothing wrong with leaving it blank.

The Supplements

Under the Dashboard tab, you can list all the schools to which you're applying. When you click on one, you'll see the supplementary information that school requires.

Some schools, like Yale, require a lot, including several more essays. Others, like the University of Massachusetts, require you to declare a major with your application. Most just ask for a sense of what you might study and a short essay on why you'd like to go to that particular college.

Image: Vanderbilt Hall on the Yale University campus in New Haven
Vanderbilt Hall on the Yale University campus in New Haven, Connecticut, on June 12, 2015. Yale requires several more essays in addition to the Common App. Bloomberg via Getty Images

The University of Chicago is notorious for its arcane supplementary questions, such as "What is square one, and can you actually go back to it?" and "Describe something vestigial (real or imagined) and provide an explanation for its existence." Try to get advice from a successful applicant before answering those questions.

Finally, virtually all schools ask for recommendations and that's where you'll see the obscure term FERPA, which stands for the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. Under federal privacy law, you have the right to see the recommendations your counselors and teachers write. But colleges trust the recommendations more if you waive that right. So check that box before you send the recommendations, and good luck!

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. See more on higher education.