How to Conquer the Common App – Chris Z.

Ready to tackle the Common App?! Our star tutor Chris Z. tells all!

My name is Chris Zhang and I’m a rising senior at Harvard College studying Chemistry with a possible secondary in Statistics. Although my academic focus is primarily in the sciences, I’m also part of a number of groups revolving around public service and education. This past year, I directed an after school program for elementary age students in Boston’s Chinatown and joined the Harvard Association for US-China Relations. As a part of HSA, I had the privilege of teaching at the Learning Lab in Singapore over Thanksgiving break. In my spare time, I enjoy running, going on crazy food adventures and having late night conversations with friends.

Imagine this: It’s 11:53PM, six minutes before the application for your dream school is due. You hastily tidy up the last sentence of your essay, (whew, everything looks good), ready to submit. All of a sudden the page freezes and you’re looking into the face of death: a white page with the message “Error: Page Cannot Be Loaded.”


Start Early.


Just like that, countless hours of work go down the drain. Start early. Start early. Start early. Here are a few tips on how I recommend you should start.


  1. If you haven’t already, familiarize yourself with how CommonApp works and how to navigate the website. They have a comprehensive tutorial on their website that’s definitely worth checking out.


  1. Be clear on the deadlines you are dealing with. Are you applying early action? Is it restrictive early action? Early decision? Don’t know what the difference is? Different colleges set different deadlines, and whether you’re applying early or regular greatly affects the timeline you’re working with. Take a moment to make sure you understand exactly when things are due.


  1. Ask for recommendations early.


As far as when you should start, that’s really up to you.  Some people need months and months of constant planning, revising and drafting before producing that flawless final essay. Others may only need a couple weeks. By this point in your high school career, you should know better than anyone else how you operate – just make sure you heed this advice: the deadlines WILL sneak up on you.


Asking for Recommendations


The art of asking for recommendation letters is one you will be honing for the rest of your life. Different people differ on the specifics of how to go about asking, but you should always keep this in mind: recommenders are taking time out of their busy lives to write you a letter because they believe in you. As such, they deserve nothing but the utmost respect and courtesy from you.


Who to Ask

  1. Please be certain the person you’re asking has good things to say about you!
  2. The status of a person is less important than the insight they can provide on an aspect of your character. It doesn’t matter who the person is, it could be a sports coach, a teacher, an employer, a religious leader, etc.
  3. Ask a wide variety of people who know you in different settings. For example, it’s not a good idea to have all your recommendation letters written by your teachers, even if they all have great things to say.


How to Ask

  1. It’s common courtesy to give your recommender at least three weeks of time from when they agree to write the letter to when it is due.
  2. Start with a polite email/letter and explain to the person why you would like a recommendation, why you think they would be a great recommender and any additional information they may need to write a the letter.


Additional Tips:

  1. Surprise, surprise. People may not respond to you or refuse to write you a recommendation! Thank them anyways for their time and move on. Always be prepared for this scenario.


  1. Make sure you know how to instruct your recommenders to upload their letters on CommonApp. It’s your job to be responsible and accommodating – they’re taking time to write you a letter, after all.


When you first start the CommonApp, the sheer volume of information you need to grasp may seem overwhelming. Break it down bit by bit. Over time you’ll find that not too bad. Just make sure to give yourself enough time! Good luck!


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