A Guide To The Additional Information Section Of The Common App
(中文) There isn’t much talk about the Additional Information Section of the Common App (and of other Apps like the UC App), but it’s a very important section of your application. We find that most students don’t fill it out very well, precisely because they don’t believe it’s important or they don’t really think deeply about what to write. Hopefully this guide will help you do a better job.
The Common App gives you 650 words to explain anything that you haven’t had the space or opportunity to communicate in the rest of your application. We find that most students have a few valuable things to write in this section, but remember that it’s optional; you definitely do not want to write anything that colleges don’t perceive as valuable. You also shouldn’t fill the whole section up with another essay. If you have something that requires more than 250 words to say, then you should work it into your personal essay or your supplemental essays.
Before sitting down to write this section, we recommend that you first:
- Finish writing the rest of your application. The goal of this section is to fill the gap on anything that the rest of the application didn’t cover, but you can’t really know that until the rest of the application is complete.
- Develop a Strong Candidacy Story. You should have clarity on how you’re pitching yourself to colleges and therefore how colleges will remember you. See our blog post on this topic to learn more. When considering what to write into this Additional Info section, you should only include things that reinforces your story. If it confuses or distracts from this story, then you should leave it out. A great college application is all about smart curation: being strategic about what you don’t communicate is equally important as what you do communicate.
- Develop a Prioritized List. Review the categories below and write a preliminary list of all the additional things that you think are important to include in this section. Then prioritize the items on the list with the most important ones at the top. Finally review them to make sure all the items are truly important.
Below are a list of the most typical things that students will include in this Additional Information section:
If you have worked on a project or developed a skill that you think is quite exceptional and will help you stand out to colleges, then this section is usually the best place to expand on it! Read this blog post for a more thorough explanation of what we mean by a Spike. The Activities section of the Common App only gives you 150 characters to describe each activity. This often isn’t enough room to do your Spike justice. Furthermore personal essays tend to be more focused on creative storytelling that brings a student’s personality to life rather than the more factual elements of your Spike. So this is a great section to elaborate on (i) your achievements, (ii) your upcoming, anticipated achievements and plans, and (iii) meaningful context, like obstacles you’re proud to have overcome or your reason for doing it in the first place.
For example, if you are an accomplished Electric Violin player, then you might write something like this:
Electric Violin (4 years)
- Recorded my first album this past summer called “The Homecoming” and have already sold 10,000+ records.
- Donating all proceeds ($11,500 so far) to benefit victims of Hurricanes and Typhoons.
- Numerous articles written on me and my music in local Taiwanese newspapers. Here is a link (bit.ly/examplelinkthatisnotreal) to a folder with those articles.
- Frequently invited to perform concerts in many locations throughout Taiwan and internationally. My performance schedule and more information is on my website at www.mywebsitethatisnotreal.com.
Take note that this and all writing in the Additional Information section should be:
- Organized — bulleted out with the most important points at the top
- Factual — explain what happened. Don’t incorporate deep insights, tell extended stories or analyze the facts too much.
- Concise — this is not the place to write a beautiful essay. Keep it short and to the point.
You shouldn’t feel limited to only expanding upon your Spike. If there are other activities in your life that you consider important to your candidacy profile to colleges, then this is also the place to provide any additional information. We don’t, however, recommend that you expand upon all your activities: just the most critical ones that are foundational to your identity and only if you haven’t already had the chance to sufficiently explain them in the Activities section of the Common App. For example, if the hypothetical student above who plays the electric violin also started a Synthetic Biology Club at school, then she might need to use the Additional Info section to explain it.
Major Life Events or A Critical Personal Attribute
Were you fighting a serious illness for much of 10th grade? Did you and your family move to the US making your transition to 10th grade very difficult? If there is anything significant that blocked your ability to achieve academically or non-academically, then you should explain it here — if you haven’t already chosen to write your personal essay about it. Unlike the personal essay, don’t tell a story here: focus on the facts of the situation. Also focus on the impact it had on you. Be specific about things like how many weeks of school you missed or how you needed to work everyday after school and therefore couldn’t participate in school clubs.
Here is a list of the most common types of things that students mention: sickness/health matters, family tragedy/sickness, gender or other identity issues, physical or learning disabilities, moving countries or regions, economic hardship (working while in HS), abuse and more.
Anything Atypical About Your Schooling System
Use this section to explain anything that colleges should know about your schooling system. Many students, especially international students, go to alternative or specialized high schools (or are homeschooled) and/or have atypical grading systems. Others need to explain why they switched schools or why a certain detail on their transcript looks strange. Don’t assume the college will already know. Even if the counselor is already explaining it to your colleges elsewhere, it’s recommended to explain again in your own words.
Atypical or Exemplar Academics
Use this section to underscore and describe any academic achievements that deserve further mention. For example, if you did a major research paper (i.e. IB Extended Essay) that you’re particularly proud of and that reinforces your candidacy story, then you should mention it here. If you are involved in other academic activities or competitions or even if you took a really high-rigor and fabulous class but that might not seem so great to colleges, then you might explain it here. For example, if you took a class in high school called “The History of the iPhone”, an admissions officer might think it sounds like an easy and silly class. To clarify, you could provide a three sentence explanation summarizing its rigor, some highlights of the readings, and any special projects that give it more credibility to colleges.
A red flag is anything that hurts your application or gives admissions officers reason to be concerned. For the most selective colleges, it sometimes takes only one or two red flags to get your otherwise amazing application thrown into the “reject” file. So it’s your job to manage your own application, preemptively anticipating and mitigating the damage of a potential red flag. Did you get poor grades in 9th grade and need to explain why? Were you missing a grade on your transcript? Did you take a gap year and need to explain why and how you’re making the most of the time? Were you involved in almost zero extracurriculars and need to explain why? Did you drop an important extracurricular activity? Did you get a disciplinary action at school and need to explain what really happened? This is a catch-all section for all the things that might unfairly look bad and require further explanation.
In summary, the Additional Information section can be very useful to students so we encourage you to make use of it. But remember to keep it succinct, organized, and factual. Make sure everything you include is important; it annoys admissions readers when they read things that seem unimportant or redundant. Lastly if you have a topic that you feel strongly deserves all or most of the 650 words allotted to you in this section, then we highly suggest you rework your application to make this the focus of one of your other essays (Personal or Supplemental).
If you have any further questions about this blog post or the Common App’s Additional Information section, then feel free to sign up for a free consultation.
There’s more to filling out the Common Application than just doing the essay, answering the questions, and completing those nasty supplements that seem to be a sadistic add-on by many colleges these days. If you have taken the time to ponder your life, as it relates to “marketing” yourself to colleges, you may have noted some things about yourself that haven’t made their way into the Common App, because there are no prompts concerning those things. Even if you’re applying to a school that doesn’t use the Common App, you can still enhance your overall profile by conjuring some “additional information” that could very well pique the interest of the admissions staff.
The purpose of the Common App’s Additional Information (AI) section is to capture aspects about yourself that aren’t found elsewhere on your application. In the case of a non-Common App application, you may add this additional data on a separate piece of paper or even by an email. However, being the conservative person that I am, I lean more toward a piece of paper mailed to the admissions office rather than sending an electronic missive that may well end up floating, lost forever, in cyberspace. Of course, you could always use the Department of Redundancy Department’s method of sending both, which should assure success.
But, back to the Common App. What kinds of information about yourself might you include in this section? Well, You are allowed 650 words’ worth of text. That’s a lot, so I would caution you here not to wax aimlessly about something that’s really not all that important. From my own family’s experience, I recall my son’s “additional information.” He wrote about his sense of humor. If I remember correctly, his introduction to some anecdotes about how he likes to have fun included words something like, “I hope that you can see from the rest of my application that I take my academics seriously. However, I want you to know [here comes some important “additional information”] that I am not one of those annoying over-achievers who has his nose stuck in a book all the time. I like to have fun and enjoy a good laugh now and then. I’d like to tell you about my sense of humor …”
This is the kind of information that helps to fill out your profile. You have to remember that the admissions committee can’t “hear” you speak these extra words. You have to write them. Giving them as much information as possible about who you are and how you think can go a long way in pushing your application into the “Admit” pile. What other kinds of information might you care to inform your colleges about? Let’s take a look at those possibilities.
Here’s some sage wisdom from Sally Rubenstone, College Confidential’sAsk the Dean (ATD) writer:
Most admission officials will tell you that students who provide unnecessary information are annoying. The admission folks don’t want to see your toilet-training certificates from pre-school; they don’t need newspaper clippings from every lacrosse game you ever played; and they certainly don’t need to read your “Additional Information” if you truly have nothing meaningful to impart.
The Additional Information section, which you’ll find on the Common Application and many others, can be a handy, catch-all place to explain the sorts of things that the rest of the forms may not cover. Are there irregularities on your transcript, such as a repeated class–or a skipped one–that require clarification? Did your parents go through a nasty divorce that torpedoed your sophomore grades? Did you win a highly competitive curling competition that is virtually unknown to anyone but avid curlers? The Additional Information space might be just the spot to provide insight into such anomalies …
… Don’t, however, confuse optional additional information with the optional essays, which some Common App supplements (or other applications) include. In most cases, an optional essay isn’t really optional unless the college is treating it much like the “Additional Information” section. (In other words, if the instructions tell you to write it ONLY if you have critical extra information to share.) …
One ATD inquisitor asks:
>>I have 17 extracurriculars, but there aren’t enough spaces for them in the “activities” section of the “Common App.” Can I use the “Additional Info” space to list the rest of them?<<
If a student has more than 10 meaningful activities, then it’s fine to use the “Additional Information” section for the overflow, provided it’s not being used for other more critical reasons (e.g., serious illness, foster care, frequent moves) or even to report some less dire anomalies (strange schedule choices, a confusing school profile …)
But … and it’s a big “BUT” … many of the teenagers I’ve known over three decades who are itching to submit more than 10 activities are not focusing on the most meaningful ones, and sometimes the significant endeavors can get lost in the shuffle when an applicant tries to include pretty much EVERYTHING he or she has done outside of the classroom since stepping off the bus on the first day of high school. So I repeatedly warn students to be thoughtful when pruning their lists.
I also urge students to submit what I call an “Annotated Activities List,” which is basically a résumé on steroids. It provides a brief explanation of any entry that requires it. (This could be because the activity itself is uncommon or because the student’s role in an otherwise familiar activity is actually atypical.) It can also add occasional, judicious (and often much-needed) doses of humor (“Promoted from second flute to first–and only–piccolo player by desperate director of world’s worst high school band.”) But, like the application itself, the Activity List should be carefully edited to include only the more meaningful undertakings.
The Activities List can be snail-mailed to colleges or copied and pasted in the Additional Info section (if it’s not already full and if the student is willing to deal with some inevitable formatting snafus).
Note that a handful of colleges specifically forbid résumés, so students should check each college’s instructions carefully. Others, however, actually provide room in their supplement’s “Writing” section and specifically invite a résumé. Thus, as with most aspects of this crazy process, expect inconsistencies.
Bottom line: It’s often fine to use the Additional Information section for overflow activities, but students should be careful not to drown out their biggest commitments with nonessential ones.
These are very practical and useful ideas for using the AI section. The point to keep in mind is that you are trying to reveal as much positive and unique information about yourself that isn’t revealed in other places on your application. One specific example from a previous counseling client of mine involves a special motivation. This young man was fascinated by all things American Civil War. His passion was collecting Civil War-related model-soldier figurines. Apparently, there is a hidden market out there for cast-lead Civil War soldiers, kind of a metal forerunner of those GI Joe toys.
Anyway, this high school senior chose to use his AI section to tell about his method for collecting these unusual pieces. He explained how he worked several part-time, minimum-wage jobs to earn enough gas money to drive across his region in search of these tiny soldiers at flea markets, antique shops, and private collections. He had been doing this since he was in middle school (collecting, not driving all over the place) and he had amassed quite a formidable set of armies. In fact, he was featured in some specialty magazine articles, which garnered him national exposure. He included some clippings from those published interviews.
Ultimately, he was admitted to several Ivy League schools and a few other elite institutions. He enrolled at Yale.
So, you can see how it pays to think about your life and try to identify something significant about which you can write in the AI section, assuming, of course, that nothing pertaining to this information appears elsewhere on your application. Avoid redundancy at all costs. Repeating information is not only a waste of time, it annoys the admissions staff. They’re the last people on earth you want to annoy.
Be sure to check out all my college-related articles at College Confidential.