Additional Information on the Common App: 5 Do’s and Don’ts
Spewing TMI (too much information!) on your application might seem innocuous, but exceeding limits can actually be quite detrimental to your candidacy. When I was applying to college, I presumptuously believed that admissions officers were exaggerating when they implored visiting students to follow the word limits precisely and not send unsolicited additional information. Turns out, this view about including additional information on the Common App is actually quite common.
Students pour their hearts into applications, and try to chronicle all of their impressive achievements while cohesively tying together their aspirations in a memorable way. Doing so is extremely difficult with the 650 word essay limit. The Common App activities list and honors section have a character allowance lower than that of a Tweet! Still, the difficulty of the challenge does not mean you can ignore the Common Application directions. Exceeding limits is frequently viewed as wasting the admissions committee’s valuable time. Ignoring the rules shows that you aren’t able to be concise or strategic, and can’t follow directions appropriately. None of these are good signs for a potential college admit!
One common place that students try to squeeze in something extra is in the Common App’s “Additional Information” section depicted below. This section is intended to gather any data points that are critical to evaluating the context of a given student’s application. Admissions officers are always interested in context; in other words, how did a student perform in light of the circumstances in which he or she grew up? This may include constraining rules or regulations, family responsibilities and background, illnesses, or other specific life events that impacted the student.
Deciding what to include—if anything— for additional information on the Common App is a highly individualized endeavor, but below are 5 guidelines with examples of Do’s and Don’ts.
5 Do’s for Additional Information on the Common App
1. Illuminating Context to a Featured Activity – This could be especially useful if the college you’re applying to does not provide the opportunity to write about a meaningful extracurricular opportunity in a supplemental essay. For instance, many students lead clubs at school or pursue interests that are unique in some respects. If you did an interesting internship and want the admissions committee to understand that you weren’t just a “gofer,” you can convey that with additional information on the Common App. You might use additional information on the Common App to go beyond descriptors or quantitative metrics and provide a brief synopsis of the founding story or mission, describe what this activity meant to you, or share what you had to go through to get a project off the ground. Of course, you don’t want to include such info twice if you’ve already discussed this in your personal statement or elsewhere.
2. Including Details about Publications or Research Efforts – If your work has been published somewhere or your research efforts have otherwise been recognized, you’ll likely include that information first by introducing the underlying activity that led to an impressive end result. For instance, maybe you were a research assistant to a professor or did an internship and your work developed into something more than that.
You could record that job or role (which is impressive in its own right!) on your activities list and include a cross-reference to the additional information section, like the student in the above example has done. In your additional information on the Common App, you could write a short paragraph explaining exactly what kind of research you did, describing your contribution, and perhaps include an abstract or publication link so that the admissions officer can look into it further if he or she so chooses. Stick to facts, and be as concise as possible.
3. Include additional standardized testing information you want to share that didn’t fit elsewhere – If you have taken the SAT Subject Test in Korean with Listening in addition to the two or three required Subject Tests, you could elaborate on this information here. However, it would usually be more effective to send official score reports of this information!
4. Elaborating on Extenuating Circumstances (Family, Health, etc.) – If you experienced some kind of critical life event that had significant impact on your studies or your performance, this is where you need to let the admissions office know. Maybe you took the SAT twice and the first time you did significantly better than the second because your grandmother passed away the day before the second test; maybe you had an abnormally low GPA during one of your semesters because you were dealing with a difficult family situation. Remember, this is not a place to make excuses, but it is an appropriate place to provide important context and address any anomalies in your application which admissions officers might find peculiar. If you’re going to include such information, state the facts plainly, do your best to quantify the impact it had on you, and try to get your counselor or a teacher to include some kind of corroboration of this information in his or her recommendation.
An important note here is that more and more schools are offering students the opportunity to provide an additional “Diversity Essay” or “Diversity Addendum” through which you can explain your upbringing and how it impacted your life, your motivations, interests, and goals. If a school offers you this opportunity, they probably want you to limit additional information to pithy statements of fact rather than longer form explanations (except in the most extenuating circumstances).
5. Explaining Curricular or School-System Differences – If your school has some kind of system other than traditional semesters (quarters or trimesters) or has completely replaced its Advanced Placement curriculum with Independent Study work one-on-one with professors at a local college, this type of information will be communicated in the Secondary School Report sent by your guidance counselor. However, you may communicate in your own words how this impacted your studies and provide any information that might help the admissions committee evaluate your grades or activities. While most admissions officers at selective universities will have a basic sense of your school context, it’s still information you might want to briefly include to shed light on your academic experience.
5 Don’ts for Your Additional Information Section
1. Use It To Add >10 Activities: I’ve seen students attempt to add three or four extra activities in their additional information section that were not meaningfully different from the ones already listed. It would be better to combine similar activities into one entry with a concise description and title. For instance, if you wrote that you have been a Varsity Soccer player for four years on your activities list, it wouldn’t be necessary or prudent to add an entry for “Club Soccer” or “Travel Soccer.” Instead, you could just say “Soccer” and include a description that says “Four-year Varsity starting midfielder; traveled with club team to regional competitions weekly.” This compendium would also allow you to encompass the combined time commitment in the Hrs/Wk and Wks/Yr fields. Students who genuinely have more important activities to discuss should weigh the inclusion of that information (under the same space constraints and conventions of the activities section) or the submission of a 1-2 page resumé.
2. Use it to Artificially Extend the Word Count of Another Required Essay. I’ve also seen students try to write something like “[to be continued in additional information]” at the end of an essay that they couldn’t wrap up within the word count. Admissions officers will not continue reading a truncated essay, and the attempt will leave a bad impression that taints their reading of the rest of your application. The last thing you want is an admissions officer having a negative impression of you before he/she makes a recommendation to admit or deny.
3. Certificates, Pictures, or Complete Works – If you have something genuinely impressive that adds an important dimension to your candidacy, you can include it with a link. If the admissions officer wants to read your article or watch you star as Macbeth in the school play, they can follow the link. Art students and others have portfolio options such as ZeeMee. Under no circumstances should you be sending in Certificates of Completion, pictures of you doing an activity, or other things your parents might keep in a family photo album.
4. Random Musings About Your Personality – The additional information section isn’t an invitation for random information about yourself unless you think it is absolutely critical to understanding other information in your application. This is not a diary, this is your college application! Be professional and compelling.
5. Information or further details about an Honor or Competitive Success – When I applied to college, I included a one-page addendum of most of my notable successes as a high school debater; I strategically left out over half of the actual awards or prizes I won, but took a few sentences to explain how the national tournaments differed from the regionals and provided information about the qualifications necessary for participating in some of the more notable competitions. Because there are so many different local, regional, national, and international student events across a wide variety of subjects, admissions officers sometimes need context to appreciate an honor or award. Unless it’s something like the Siemens Competition, you shouldn’t necessarily expect admissions officers to understand its significance. To provide critical context, you should be brief – no more than 2-3 sentences and a hyperlink, if necessary. The keyword here is brief: the additional information on the Common App is not a space for you to detail everything you have ever done!
The question you should be asking yourself when deciding whether or not to include additional information on the Common App is: “What does this add to my application that isn’t already here?” If you can’t answer that question about something, don’t include it. If your information enhances or explains the application you have put together, it might be worth composing a thoughtful and concise addition. Take time to reflect about whether additional information on the Common App would help or harm your application!
Okay, So What Do I Write?
As with everything application-related, there is no one right way to go about using the Additional Information section. At its core, this section is designed to give students the opportunity to discuss aspects of themselves or their application that are vital to understanding the applicant and aren’t presented in their personal statement(s). Thus, for many students, it is quite clear what should go into the Additional Information section.
If you are a person with a particular story or history that has defined you or affected you significantly, then the Additional Information section is where you can write about it. Oftentimes, this can be a personal story that did not make it into your personal statement.
Another approach to this section is to use it as an opportunity to clarify aspects of your application that you feel need explanation. If, for example, you found that the 150 characters allotted in the activities section was not enough to explain your most time-consuming or important commitment, you can elaborate on that here.
Likewise, if you think that some aspect of your application looks unflattering or inconsistent, and that you could be served by providing some sort of explanation of that aspect, the Additional Information section is an apt forum to further explain your situation.
If, for example, your grades dropped one semester because of some extenuating circumstancesoutside of school, or you consistently spent your summers doing something meaningful that you think admissions officers would like to hear about, you can talk about these topics at a bit more length. Bear in mind that while this could be academic or extracurricular in nature, it often won’t be.
Indeed, the Harvard initiativeMaking Caring Common emphasizes that the application process should not be an exercise in desperate over-exaggeration on the part of students who feel the need to posture themselves as overachievers. Instead, it should simply allow applicants to elucidate their personalities and interests for admissions committees. In this light, any summer experience that you may have had that taught you something about your family, yourself, or the world is worth sharing, even if it didn’t come with a hefty price tag.
If it made more sense for you to work a job in your hometown rather than travel abroad, the Additional Information section is the perfect place to expound upon this — you surely learned plenty at your job that you couldn’t have learned elsewhere, and adcoms would love to hear about this!
Likewise, if you spent your summers watching your younger siblings or caring for an older relative, here is the place to talk about it! Your summer experiences certainly do not have to be expensive to be valuable, and if you haven’t already discussed them in your personal statement or a supplemental essay, the Additional Information section is an apt opportunity to write about them.
Words of Caution
Most importantly, you want to make sure that you are using this section wisely. Do not write an essay for this section simply to fill up space. Adcoms will not appreciate being provided with “additional” information that is actually redundant. If you have already mentioned something in your personal statement, the Extracurricular Activities section, or in another supplemental essay, leave it out of the essay you write for the Additional Information section.
In addition, you should be careful to prepare this section with as much care as all the others on your application. Just because it is optional does not mean it is unimportant. If you decide to make use of this valuable forum, you should do so with care. Edit and craft the essay you write for the additional info section with as much care as you devoted to your personal statement. You should fill in this section because you need to, not because you think you should.
Still have questions about filling out the Common Application? Check out our blog post How to Write the Common Application Essays 2017-2018.