AMA: Crafting a Successful Common Application

The Common Application makes it easier to apply to multiple colleges, but submitting one application to several schools means it’s really important to nail each section of the application. How do the students who gain admission to top colleges answer the essay prompts, fill in their Activities Lists, and report academics?

To shed some light on this process, we’re hosting an AMA with Crimson Education’s Founder, CEO, and Harvard and Stanford Alum, Jamie Beaton (@jamiebeaton_crimson). Ask Jamie anything and everything about the Common App, college admissions, and exactly what it takes to get into top schools.

Jamie Beaton founded Crimson, a college admissions company, in 2013 after accepting an offer from Harvard (having been admitted to Princeton, Yale, Columbia, and many more). He graduated Magna Cum Laude from Harvard and went on to become one of the youngest in the world to graduate from Stanford’s Graduate School of Business.

Despite the all-time low admission rates for many top colleges this year, Crimson has had a record number of students (118 and counting) admitted to the Ivy League in the Class of 2026. You could be next!

Ask your most pressing questions anytime from Wednesday, April 7th to Friday, April 15th, and then join College Confidential and Jamie Beaton on Monday, April 18th at 6 pm PDT/9 pm EDT for a free webinar to learn more about how admits to Harvard, Stanford, Yale, and more fill out their Common Apps!

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Hello! I was wondering if there are any pros and cons to applying on a college portal versus applying on the common app? I know some universities like Georgetown and MIT, etc. have their own application systems.

  1. When listing ECs, is it better to collapse related ones under a general heading or spread them out as separate ECs?
    Our example is classical ballet, including group lessons, private lessons, practice at home, rehearsals, performances, summer intensive…. It all adds up to many hours/week. Should this be one EC, showing many hours? Two, separating summer? Or list lessons separate from rehearsals/performances?

  2. Still EC question: how would you list a 2 week summer art intensive that is 40 hours/week between 10th and 11th grade? Is that 10th grade summer or 11th grade summer? Do you average the hours out over 10 weeks? Or say 40 hours/week, and mention that it was two weeks long in the description?

Our goal is to be :100: honest, while not accidentally underselling her work.

Thank you!

Hi @rachelb06 …There is basically no advantage or disadvantage. With MIT and Georgetown you have no option but to use their own application portal as they are not on the Common App. The good news is, every MIT and Georgetown applicant is in the same boat - they cannot use the Common App either…so it’s an equal playing field regardless.
However, as you probably know, the great majority of schools use the Common App which is why it is so important to nail things like your personal statement that goes to every one of the schools you choose to apply to. At Crimson for example, we have specialist essay mentors who went to the Ivies and other top schools and know exactly what admissions officers are looking for in the personal statement and the supplemental essays. In a test optional universe, elements like your essays become even more important as they are used to distinguish and assess different applicants.

Hi @Parent42 …great questions!

So, a few things on the EC listings.

You don’t want every Activity you list on the Common App to be about the same activity. This shows a lack of breadth no matter how good you are at that one activity. It’s fine to maybe add a few with a common theme - if that two or three are significantly different and allow you to report a different level of achievement or leadership.

Given your description my first response is that it would be best to list your lessons, practice, rehearsals, recitals as one (unless you were at a really amazing state or national recital which was of some significance and were given a certain place, rankling or award) and then you could list the summer intensive as a separate activity). Under these activities, you may also be able to add some detail about your leadership or community efforts eg: did you leads a dance class for younger children, did you raise money for a disadvantaged dance group?

On your second question, if the programs were basically identical but over two summers, I wouldn’t list them twice as you are sort of wasting an activities slot by repeating yourself. You would probably list the activity as occurring over two years but for 40 hours… detailing your improvement or progress from art intensive 1 to art intensive 2. So for example, did you start a project in the first summer that you finished or added to or expanded upon in the next summer? Once again…did you support younger art students? How did the first experience develop in the second? What was the end result?

Great sentiment on the honesty - try to find that balance so that you assert the accomplishments without bragging.Of course the character count on the page is so low - so most importantly you need to use every character/word carefully. If you would like more information on how Crimson’s EC experts do this, just book in a free meeting on our website.

  1. @JamieBeaton_Crimson, what are some ways students can show academic enrichment when reapplying after a gap year (having been rejected)? Apart from standardized test scores and CC classes (not available in my country), is there anything I can do? Also, are there any summer programs I can pursue?

  2. How much does reapplying after a gap year you handicap you (If presentation of application was the issue)

I am curious if we should report AP scores on the common app or not. My kid will have completed 6 AP courses by application time but he did not sit for all the exams (variety of reasons, poor online instruction during COVID one of them). So should he report his scores (4s and 5s)? Or does reporting scores for 3/6 courses look like he failed the rest rather than just choosing not to take them? Does it look better or worse to just not report AP scores at all?

We are going to extend this AMA until Monday, April 18th, so keep the questions coming! And don’t forget, you can attend the webinar with Jamie Beaton and Crimson Education on Monday, April 18th at 6 pm PDT/9 pm EDT. Click here to register for the free webinar .

@HCO27 … There are many things you can do to enhance your application during a gap year. Academically you can seek out some reputable online courses - at Crimson we offer for example classes in coding and. Reputable summer camps are also a great idea - especially ones that may focus on research or academic enhancement on your area of interest. Once again at Crimson our Crimson Research Institute offers a summer program called CRISP which offers research opportunities with top school professors.Make sure you don’t waste money on camps that may not add to your application. Be careful where you choose to apply and as a rule think of reputable options like yale’s Young Global Scholars or MIT’s RSI (Research Science Institute).

As for any gap year handicap, it can be a disadvantage if you cannot show that you used the year to advance yourself in some way - be it research, a philanthropic project or endeavor, a year working at something meaningful or perhaps necessary to support your family etc. Your main aim should be to build a gap year that evidences how that year saw you grow as a person or contribute to others around you.

@Techno13 … If you have good scores you should report them. If there are only a few of them perhaps you can look at supplementing with other online courses where your child can excel. Are APs his main curriculum? Did his school offer other academic options? Are there other grades on his transcript that will resonate with admissions officers and has he sat the SAT or ACT?

If he hasn’t sat either and he is reasonably confident in doing well, he should sit one of these and report the score to supplement his AP scores.

Admissions officers will look at his academics overall and it is best to load up with better scores than under-report. I hope this helps.

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Hi @JamieBeaton_Crimson! I’m currently a student at an Australian Uni looking to transfer to the US. I was wondering how different crafting a compelling common application is for transfer students – specifically for extracurriculars. Since I would have only been in Uni for 1yr, would colleges take this into account when I am applying? For instance, understanding that since I’m in the beginning of my degree, I wouldn’t necessarily be in senior leadership roles, and my extracurriculars may be more personal projects because of that?

Also, does Crimson provide admissions support for transfer students? Thank you!

Thank you. Yes he is primarily an AP student. Has taken Honors when APs not offered. He has a 35 on the ACT and 4.0 UW GPA. So I suppose he will report the APs he tested for. Thanks again.