By Carol Barash, PhD
This is the sixth article in a series about the New Common Application Essays by college admission essay expert Carol Barash. You can read the other articles here.
When I served on the admissions committee at Douglass College, Rutgers, we kept seeing young women from under-served high schools who had the top grades in their school but mediocre test scores. Often these students worked after school or took care of their siblings or did as part of everyday life what more affluent students think of as “community service.” I was one of the faculty advisors, and it was our job to decide who was academically qualified. We decided that we would admit every New Jersey valedictorian. Our thinking was that if you rose to the top of whatever situation you were given, you were a good bet for success in college and life, and we should provide not only admission but also funding so you could succeed.
That was 1993, which is a full generation ago in terms of college admissions, and a lot has changed: charter schools are helping reimagine education in urban areas; programs like the Wight Foundation in Newark are making it easier for academically talented, low income students to attend top independent schools; and services like College Greenlight are working to make best in class admissions tools available to all students. But there is still a long way to go and many academically qualified, first-generation college students don’t even apply to the best colleges they are qualified to attend.
When the Common Application was created, the goal was to remedy that problem, making college admissions more accessible to students from all backgrounds. At the time a shared — i.e., “common” — and all-online application system was largely a dream. On August 1, 2013 that dream became reality. Well almost: there are still a lot of technical glitches, and many of the college supplements won’t be available online until September.
However imperfect the Common Application is, there are several things that make this version much better for students who are the first in their family to attend college in the US.
If you are a first generation college student, here are 5 things to remember as you complete the new Common Application:
1. Most important, if you qualify for a fee waiver based on your family’s net income, you only need to apply for the waiver once. With that waiver you can apply to as many colleges as you want using the Common Application. Make sure to talk to your guidance counselor as soon as you get back to school to apply for your fee waiver.
2. The new Common Application has a built in smart forms and a robust Help function, so many of the basic questions that students found daunting in the past can now be handled much more easily. In working with students since August 1 on the new Common Application, there are new complexities that have arisen. Questions like: What activities should I list for college? What if I want to explore different activities and majors in college, will I be penalized? My recommendation is to use the application process to explore different majors and extracurricular options. Research different possible majors online; talk to friends—and community members—who have pursued various paths; read biographies of people who have chosen different careers.
3. What if I have to work and take care of family responsibilities? First-gen students often have different types of “activities” than other students. If your main activities are paid or unpaid work, that is part of who you are, and you should share that honestly in your college applications and interviews.
4. “What if I just don’t know what I’m going to do in college?” students ask me all the time. When you are not sure, be honest about that in your applications. No one in college admissions expects you to have your whole life figured out at age 18! The people who work in admissions are looking for students who will take advantage of all that college has to offer. Dare to be a person who is becoming, and share your ideas about what you want to do and who you want to become in your application.
5. The other big change — perhaps the biggest and most important change — in the new Common Application is the new approach to the essay questions. The new questions are more straightforward than the old ones, more direct and less analytical. Either the first question — Some students have a background or a 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. — or the last question — Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family. — can be answered successfully with a simple and honest story from your own life experience. The most important thing is to take the time to find a variety of stories that reflect different parts of your character:
- Your defining moments
- People and events that have influenced you
- Issues that are important to you
- Your sense of community
- What are you committed to make and do in the world?
Then use each essay — both the 650-word essay in the Writing section and each of the supplement essays, whatever the length — to tell your unique story in a way that reveals who you are today who you will be in the future.
Make sure to apply to the most selective colleges you are qualified to attend, as well as the honors programs at the Public Ivies. The most selective colleges often have the most financial aid and also the most student services for all students, smoothing your path to graduation. All colleges are looking for academically talented first-generation students; they can only admit you if you apply!
Have more questions about the new Common App? Download the Story To College Free Guide to the Common Application to get tips on scholarship applications, activities resumes, interviews and more.
Carol Barash, PhD, founder and CEO of Story To College and author of Write Out Loud, has taught over 8000 students–from first-generation college students, to the children of bankers and CEOs–and teachers from around the world how to tell their stories and write essays that win admission and scholarships at their top choice colleges.