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Common Sense College Application Tips, Part I

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The fall semester is upon us!

If you are a Junior in High School, this marks the start of Common App Personal Statement or the Common App equivalent in the Coalition App.

Most schools take the Common Application, while some will require the Coalition Application. A few, for example, MIT and the University of California, schools will have you apply through their own website.

Common Data Set

Last summer, I was in this position exactly. During the admissions cycle, my most prominent self-rejecting comment was, “My grades are too low.”

The grades and test scores any university in the United States requires is not a mystery. Most provide a Common Data Set, which has data on GPA, ACT/SAT scores, rank and demographics of each graduating class (the common data sets for the top 20 aka T20 schools for 2019-2020 can be found here).

If you prefer the most recent data, common data sets for individual schools can be found by the following Google search: [“common data set *Insert school here*”]. has also compiled key CDS details from a number of schools. 

This data is useful to assess your “common data fit”. You are more likely to attend schools whose common data set aligns with yours. The higher the percentile your scores are in, the better “common data fit” you have. If your stats don’t fit the common data set for a desired school, don’t give up on applying just yet.

Beyond Common Data Set

While these are the initial application filter, they are not going to doom you. Many schools having gone test-optional since the pandemic.

I will say this: if you have good test scores and are applying to a test-optional school, include them if they’re above the 25th percentile in that school’s common data set. Why deprive yourself of an additional asset in your application?

The narrative that you create with extracurricular achievements/long-term involvement, and your personal convictions throughout your application essays and activities section can compensate for subpar GPA, ACT score, etc. 

In addition, if there were adverse events like a health crisis or long-term family emergency that impacted your ability to succeed at school or in your extracurriculars — dips or “negatives” in your application — mention their cause in the additional information section. Admissions officers will only be able to recognize any struggles you’ve gone through if you tell them about it. 

Amrita Arora

Junior at Jefferson County Int'l Baccalaureate.

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