Product Highlight: How to make your Common Application a lot less common

CommonAppGuideImage Last week, we released “How to Make your 2011-12 Common Application a Lot Less Common:  The Collegewise Guide to the Common Application.”  Today, I thought I’d share a little more about the piece, how and why we created it, and offer up some suggested uses for students, parents and counselors. 

What was the big idea?

We knew the Common App guide was something that we needed ourselves at Collegewise.  Every year, our counselors sit down individually with our students to walk them through the Common Application.  Spending that hour with each of them helps our students get it right the first time and lets us share our advice that’s come from years of helping students and, for many of our counselors, from reading Common Applications as admissions officers.

But some of our counselors have more experience with the Common Application than others.  How could we make sure we all had access to their perspective?  How could we best train new counselors who needed to learn the Collegewise approach to the Common App?  And what about those students whose schedules limit the number of meetings they can have with us?  How could we distill all our best advice and put it into one easily accessible place where any Collegewise student or counselor could access it?  We knew our Common App guide could address all of these issues.  And we knew if it helped us, it would probably help other students and counselors outside of Collegewise, too.

The process

After the 2011-12 Common Application was released in July, we held two 2-hour trainings at our office in Irvine for our counselors and assistant counselors.  Allison walked us through every line of the Common Application and addressed all the common questions our students tend to have.  Arun then shared all of his insights he’s gained after spending years reading Common Applications as an admissions officer, and then from later helping students on this side of the desk as a college counselor.  He’d created a sample Common App to really show all of us—visually—the noticeable difference it can make for a reader when a student follows our Collegewise advice.  And as the elder statesman at Collegewise, I chimed in with extra tidbits about the Collegewise way of doing this, and how our students could use more of our advice to make their Common Applications stand out.  I had my laptop with me to write down all of our thoughts and suggestions, and at the end of the training, I got to work organizing all of that information.

Getting the right permissions

While Arun reviewed my write up and added his own suggestions and revisions, I contacted the research department at the Common Application, told them about our idea and what we were trying to make, and asked for permission to use screenshots of our sample Common App in the piece.  Once I got authorization from the Common App folks, I got to work inserting the screenshots and formatting the piece. 

Our finished work

It took nearly two months for us to finish the piece, much longer than we expected.  But in the end, we were really happy with the result.  We’ve produced thousands of pages of material for our programs since 1999, and we think this is the best, most comprehensive thing we’ve ever made.

How we’re using it

We’ve shared our Common App guide with all of our counselors in our four offices.  Now everyone has access to the same Collegewise insight, and they can share it with our students.    Every family in our Collegewise program also gets an access code to download a free version.  So for students who’d prefer not to add another meeting to the schedule, or those who’d rather spend their meetings with us talking about other things, they can use the guide at home and complete the application on their own for us to review.  We’re also using it in our new online counseling programs to minimize the number of hours a family needs to buy to actually meet with us online (students can do the app on their own and use our meeting time to review it).  And in the future, we’ll update the guide each year to reflect any changes to the Common Application.  And we’ll use the feedback we’ve gotten from students and counselors to make our new version even better.

How you can use it 

Here are a few ways students, parents and counselors could use it.


  • If you’ve already finished your Common App, use our guide to do a line by line review before you submit.  Take our suggestions and revise your app as you see fit.
  • If you haven’t started your Common App, complete each section with our help.  We think your app will be stronger, and you’ll actually spend less time on the application by just getting it right the first time.
  • Maybe you’re struggling with just one particular section?  Our guide can probably help. 


  • Some parents take the role of the college application manager and reviewer in the house.  If that’s you, use our guide to review your student’s Common Application.  Better yet, pass it along to them and let your student use it from the start. 

High school counselors

  • Even if you’ve never read a Common Application before, you can be a virtual expert in just an hour if you read our guide. 
  • Do your students come to you with questions about the Common App?  Keep a copy of our guide on your desk to use whenever you need a second opinion.
  • Read our guide and then do a Common App workshop for your staff or your students.
  • Encourage your fellow counselors to buy their own copy of the guide, or have your school buy a 30-copy license so each member of your counseling and teaching staff can have their own copy.

Private counselors

  • Our guide will teach you exactly what to look for when reviewing each of your students' Common Applications.
  • Buy one or more 30-copy licenses and share our guide with all your students for them to use at home while they complete their applications.   
  • Do you have partners, counselors or interns who work with students?  Read our guide and then train them yourself.  Or buy a 30-copy site license to distribute our guide to them. 

The finished product
We’re proud of this product.  We worked hard on it.  The high school counselors and admissions officers we’ve shared it with have given us great feedback.  And the general public is buying it.  We’re selling 5-10 of them a day, and we expect those numbers are going to increase as we get deeper into application season and thousands of students who haven’t yet started their applications get down to business. 

Where to get it
Our Common App guide is 62 pages, sold as a downloadable PDF for $12.99, or $99 for a 30-copy license.  You can buy your own copy here, or view a free preview version here:

Download PreviewCollegewiseGuideToThe2011-12CommonApplication