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  • Writer's pictureCortney Dowdle

Best Practices for Filling out the Common Application as an International Student

Happy back to school!

This blog dives into some of the details and questions international students encounter on the Common Application.

Many students around the world are getting ready to go back to school in the next month, but here in Florida, we go back to school in early August. That means we are already beginning university planning sessions with final year students.

If you’re short on time…

  • The Common Application opens August 1

  • Many top universities in the USA have November 1 deadlines for students to submit all their applications

  • While there is no centralized system in the USA to apply to university, about 900 universities accept the Common Application.

For the Common Application, here are some of the biggest tips:

  1. Input information, then review, edit, and review again before you submit

  2. Be honest and accurate about the information you report on the Common Application

  3. Use each piece to tell a different story - do not repeat information two or three times in the Common Application

The Common Application gives students the chance to complete ONE application and submit it to all of the universities on their school list. Again, it doesn’t cover all universities, but many students can apply to all or nearly all Common Application schools.

Some popular schools that are NOT on the Common App are the University of California system schools (they accept the UC app), MIT, and Georgetown, to name a few. Schools not on the Common App will have their own university application that you can submit. There are tons of great schools on the Common App, and many students can apply to all their top choices via the Common App.

The Common App will gather all student details in one place, and then it will detail what each school requires that you submit in addition to the admissions application. This is where they may differ. Some schools will ask for one counselor recommendation and a personal statement. Some schools will want two teacher recommendations and no essay. Some schools will want the essay plus specific supplemental essays (short answer essay questions).

I find myself counseling international students through some of the same questions over and over each year, so I want to share some of the common questions that students who are applying directly from foreign countries and foreign education systems might encounter.

International students working on a laptop as a group
Read more for best practices while filling out the Common Application as a foreign student!

If you are a counselor and guiding students, here are some of the biggest questions student ask while completing the common application by each section:


-Common App Fee waiver - most international students select “no” for this unless they get a letter showing that they have significant financial need.

“You can provide a supporting statement from a school official, college access counselor, financial aid officer, or community leader." Family - this one is fairly straightforward and students do not usually have as many questions. *The biggest question I get in the family section is about entering parents' foreign education. I tell students to talk to their parents and complete as much of the information as possible. Education - students usually have lots of questions here!

  • Students can enter several schools (including international ones) if they have attended more than one secondary school.

  • In the USA, we typically look at the final four years of secondary, but if the home country education system is different, students can account for this in the education details - just know that most universities will review transcripts and recalculate school records per their own policies.

  • Colleges and universities - only add information here if you earned credit at a university that was not part of your secondary school program.

  • Future plans - so many students get worried about this questions! This is just a feeler for what student interests might be - universities are not holding students to their answers here, and they can put exactly what they are most interested at that time, knowing that it might change as soon as they get into university courses.

Testing - know going into the application process that most universities will require proof of English proficiency or at least proof of English proficiency testing prior to an admissions review.

  • *Some universities will give waivers/passes to students from primarily English speaking countries or even primarily English speaking secondary schools, meaning they do not have to submit proof of English proficiency.

    • If you have taken the SAT or ACT, you can self report your scores in this section.

    • *Note that you can put your highest scores in this section and if you choose to apply test optional to any universities on your list, they will not see your scores.

Activities - this one also stumps a lot of students. I think the biggest question becomes,

  • Students often ask, “What qualifies as an activity?”, and the answer is simple - anything you enjoy and spend time doing. This can make sewing, sports, card games, video games, science experiments, volunteer work, etc., are all “activities” that you can put on your applications to university.

  • The Common App leave space for 10 activities, but you don’t have to fill up all the space. Put the things that matter and put them in order of importance to you, not necessarily in chronological order.

Writing - there is no doubt that writing the personal statement for the Common App can be daunting. Many students worry about their English proficiency if they are non-native speakers and have a hard time starting the process of writing. Don't worry!

Check out this blog on writing a winning essay to see some top tips to get started with this piece!

  • *There are seven Common Application topics, and students can choose the final one, which is a free topic. The most important part of the essay is that students share who they are and that they share something the admissions readers can't tell from the other parts of your application.

  • Students can submit the same personal statement for all universities that require a personal statement. Students - remember that if you finish your essay by talking about why that university is the best fit for you, or with any information that is specific to that university, you should change/edit it for all schools on your list. They care if you do your research!

Courses and Grades - once students add their universities to the Common App, it will say if they need to list courses and grades for secondary school.

  • If students are inputting grades for an international school, just know that the university will likely require a transcript evaluation from a third party company (I recommend a NACES approved company), or they will at minimum ask for your original official records plus an official English translation of the records.

  • If students use a different grading scale than a US grading scale (usually a 4.0 scale), they can note this when adding courses for each grade level.

Phew! Those are the biggest questions that my international students typically ask while completing the Common Application. The tips can certainly be applied to other application systems as well, but I would recommend always reaching out to get support from your international school counselor, an EducationUSA advisor, or even the application system support team if you do have questions. There could be other best practices for the University of California, California State University system, or the UCAS (UK) application system, for example.

Applying to universities can be overwhelming and daunting, and usually the biggest pieces for students are narrowing down their choices to select a school and then gathering and submitting the best materials for their applications. I always recommend that students spread out the process so they don't get too overwhelmed, ideally starting in their second to final year of secondary school. Getting outside support (research EdUSA centers near your home city if you do not have strong school support, or if students have the financial ability, working with someone privately can be a huge help in the process).

Good luck savvy students - until next time!


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