#66 TRENDING IN Student Life 🔥

The Next Step: Class of 2024's Guide to Applications

Student Life

September 10, 2023

Are you stressed out about college applications? Need any sort of guidance? If so, this article is for you!

It is that time of the year again when school is starting up and, as seniors, the reality that we are going to have to write tons of essays and apply to colleges is starting to sink into our minds. Today, we will be discussing the ins and outs of college applications, including what is the common app, the types of college applications, tips for writing your common app essay, filling out activities and awards, and getting recommendations. Also, stay tuned for a special piece of advice at the end!

Image Credit: Armin Rimoldi from Pexels

What Is The Common App:

If you’re applying to colleges, you will likely need to use the common application portal. Even though most colleges accept the common app, not all do, so you will need to do your research and check each individual college. For example, one notable college that has its own application portal is MIT.

The common app is the most widely used portal that students use to apply to colleges, though there are others such as the coalition app. In the portal, there is a common app section that will be sent to all colleges as well as the individualized information that will be sent to specific colleges. You’ll need to fill out your basic information, family information, education, and test scores, as well as information regarding the opportunities and fields that you are interested in for each specific college. On top of this, the big players that you’ll need to add include the common app essay, supplemental essays, awards, activities, and teacher recommendations. We will go over the specifics later in the article.

Types Of College Applications:

Now that you understand the basics of the common app, another key component in your application is the type of application that you choose, whether it’s early decision, regular decision, early action, or restrictive early action. Early decision is both binding and restrictive, so if you get accepted into the college that you applied for early decision, then you must go, and in most cases, you cannot apply to any other private colleges early. Also, you must withdraw all your other applications after you get accepted.

Early action and regular decision are neither binding nor restrictive, but the difference is in how early you get your results back. Generally, early action results come back in January but regular decision results can come back as late as April. Restrictive early action is in between early decision and early action because restrictive early action is restrictive but not binding, meaning that you cannot apply to most other private colleges early, but won't have to go even if you get accepted.

For the group of people that want to attend a top-tier college, my advice would be to go for an early decision because you can get your results back early and the acceptance rate is generally higher compared to the other options. Choose the college that you want to go to the most and that also fits you well, and just apply there.

While some colleges only offer restrictive early action as an early choice, such as Harvard, Stanford, and Yale, I usually would not recommend applying in this manner because the restrictive early action acceptance rate is only slightly higher than the regular decision acceptance rate. Besides, there might be a lot of self-selection bias unaccounted for, as stronger applicants may tend to apply earlier.

Writing Your Common App Essay:

The common app essay is arguably the most important essay that you will write in your entire process of college applications because the essay is weighted the most and is submitted to all or nearly all the colleges you are applying to (as some colleges do not require the common app essay). Essentially, what is happening is that you are given 650 words to explain the human side of you, including who you are, how you think, and what you love.

My biggest piece of advice for writing the Common App essay is to go through many drafts and start early, preferably during the summer as a rising senior. You are trying to send a message to the colleges about yourself, so think about what message you are trying to send and base your essay upon that. Try to create a narrative or story about yourself and also make sure to include deeper-level thinking in the reflection portion.

Anecdotes are also great to include, as they can make the narrative more personal and reveal moments in your life. You want to use a combination of showing and telling by using anecdotes and telling using the reflective piece.

When starting the common app essay, it is important to do a lot of brainstorming. Think about what you are trying to convey to the reader, including what type of student you will be and your characteristics and values. Brainstorming should involve thinking about the many specific moments in your life that have been meaningful and deeply rooted in your memory. Something important to note is to avoid cliche topics and to never write your common app essay like a resume.

Image Credit: Helena Lopes from Pexels

Filling Out Activities And Awards:

When filling out the activities and awards sections, a great general tip is to try to add lots of numbers in the descriptions so the reader will know the level of impact or difficulty an activity or award had. Also, for both sections, do not use complete sentences as you only have 100 characters per award description and 150 characters per activity description. For example, take this description "I qualified for the team and competed in the Prometheus Olympus Science Bowl Invitational.

I also had a ton of fun buzzing to questions" versus "Selected for the 5-person team out of 50+ members during tryouts; Qualified and placed in the top 32 at Prometheus Olympus and won $250 as a team". Although both descriptions talk about science bowl, one description does not use any numbers, uses complete sentences, and does not use up all the word count, while the other uses a fair number of numbers, uses phrases instead of sentences, and uses almost all the word count. Additionally, for both sections, try to make the most important items be listed first. Specifically, for the activities section, you want to go from the most to least important and also try to group the activities based on category or theme. An important thing to note is that for the common app, you have space to list up to five awards and ten activities, so staying committed to a couple of extracurriculars is important rather than spreading yourself too thin.

Getting Recommendations:

Although it is best to get recommendations the summer before your senior year of high school, if you are a current senior and still have not gotten a recommendation, try to ask as soon as possible. Many teachers will most likely have many people asking them for recommendation letters, so to get a recommendation letter from the teachers you want, it is important to ask them early. This not only gives them plenty of time to write your recommendation letter but you may also be placed as a higher priority.

Also, be sure to politely send your teachers a resume or another letter that discusses what your main accomplishments were in high school as well as what you may want your teachers to discuss in terms of personal qualities. You could include moments in the classroom that you remember that you want your teacher to reference to refresh their memory. This way, it could make their lives a lot easier, when they have more information to pull from. However, never be pushy about what your teacher will write in the recommendation letter, as at the end of the day, it is up to them to decide what to include. Another tip is to be sure to sincerely thank your teachers as they are working hard to not only teach but also write recommendation letters. Lastly, for recommendation letters, it is best to ask your junior-year teachers, but if you have an outstanding sophomore-year teacher, that could also work.

Special Advice:

Although, for many high school seniors, the college you end up going to might seem like a life and death situation, you will eventually understand that college is just a small part of your life journey. Even if you get into the worst possible college, everything is going to be okay. If you get into your dream college, congrats, but still move on with life. At the end of the day, college is important, but in the long run, it is just one of many important things in life.


I used to always think that I had to get into an elite college such as Harvard or MIT. I would not even consider the possibility of being rejected. However, as I got older, I realized the importance of other aspects of life, such as playing sports, having fun, or being kind.

Although college is an important aspect of life, it is just one of many important milestones in life. As you get older, you will soon realize that the stress and the anxiety you felt towards college applications were so silly. As a senior also applying to ten colleges this year, I encourage all of you guys to take a deep breath and tell yourselves that everything will be alright in the end. Thank you so much for reading today’s article. If you enjoyed it and read this part, please be sure to like and comment below.

Leonard Yang

Writer since Jul, 2023 · 1 published articles

Leonard Yang is a math enthusiast and a passionate writer. He is a three-time AIME qualifier, is a LIVE instructor at Daily Challenge with Po-Shen Loh and loves to post videos on his YouTube Channel. He hopes to use to The Teen Magazine platform to help middle school and high school students from across the nation to gain access to information regarding STEM opportunities and tips for being the best version of themselves.