How to Use the Common App Additional Information Section: Guide + Examples (2023)

How to Use the Common App Additional Information Section: Guide + Examples (1)

TABLE OF CONTENTS

(Click to skip ahead)
  • What is the Additional Information section on the Common Application?
  • What SHOULD you put in the Additional Information section?
  • What should you NOT put in the Additional Information section?

In this post I’ll cover the “Additional Information” section, which is basically the place on the application that asks some version of “What else would you like us to know?”

According to Susan Tree, a former high school counselor, admissions officer at Bates College, and our very own college counselor, the hidden agenda is this: “We really want to distinguish you from other applicants—please help us!"

Important: This is not meant to scare you into feeling like you have to put something in the Additional Info section. It is only supporting information. You do not have to include anything there.

I’ll say that again, but I wanted to mention it right at the start.

But students are often baffled by what to do with this section. So here goes:

What is the Additional Information section on the Common Application?

It’s a section you’ll find on the Common App, Coalition Application, as well as other applications where students can type in extra information they want colleges to know. Keywords: “can” (you aren’t required) and “information” (not fluff, filler, or even stories).

Where do you add additional info to the Common App?

Log into the Common App website. Go to the “Common App” tab, select “Writing” from the sidebar, and click on “additional information.”

How to Use the Common App Additional Information Section: Guide + Examples (2)

So what should you put in the Additional Information section?

Step back and take a look at the information you’ve already included in your application. What’s missing? What might not make sense and need an explanation? You may need help seeing what’s missing. Ask someone who knows you (and, ideally, the college process) well to offer their editorial perspective.

Words of Wisdom from a Former Admission Officer

“Reading applications for a research university (after many years as a college counselor), I was shocked to see how many applicants failed to distinguish themselves. Their strong academics and hard-earned personal credentials could come across as predictable and lifeless. Occasionally I came across an Additional Information section that was like a cold splash of water or an electric shock; it made the student come alive. Two examples that come to mind were a fascinating research project ending in epic failure, and a classically-trained singer’s out-of-the-box foray into performance art via shape-note singing. Format ranged from research abstract to spoken word and power poetry. What engaged me as a reader was the personality and energy that came through this section of the application; these students seemed to know that in order to understand them, I HAD to know this dimension of their experience, personality, upbringing, bliss, or adversity. This insight made their applications memorable. It made me believe they had something important to contribute to the university."

“Is Additional Information the place to take a risk? Perhaps, if that’s who you are. You might use this space to be creative, nerdy, or funny—but make sure it has a purpose and is done well.”

- Susan Tree, college counselor and former admission officer at Bates College

What follows are about a dozen possibilities for items you might include, written with input from some of my wonderful colleagues on both sides of the college admission desk.

1. Important details about your activities that wouldn’t fit in your Activities List.

Let’s say you did a really cool fundraiser that positively affected both the people you were donating to and your local community. And let’s say you decided not to write an extracurricular essay on this, either because you wrote on something else or the school didn’t request an extracurricular essay. When you look at your Activities List description, however, it doesn’t capture how incredibly awesome this experience was for everyone. So you might write a short bullet point description in your Additional Info section that looks like this example:

“Stand for Haiti” Fundraiser

- Raised $3,500 to benefit victims of the recent earthquake in Haiti

- Proceeds provided disaster housing for displaced persons whose residences were heavily damaged or destroyed

- Event also galvanized local community, leading to a second fundraiser, “Hillsboro High for Haiti,” to take place next month

Quick tips for writing activity descriptions in your Additional Info section:

  • Be brief. You’re on borrowed time in the Additional Info section, so give us the condensed version. Imagine your reader is a very important person with a hundred more applications to read before Friday. Because they are and probably do.

  • Be specific and focus on impact. In this case, how much money did you raise? Whom did it help? How?

  • Put your details in descending order of importance. The most important stuff should go at the top, since the reader may be skimming.

  • Avoid special formatting. Formatting like bold and italics may not show up, so make sure you’ve emphasized the information you want without those fancy tricks. This goes for your personal statement too.

Or let’s say you did write a 150-200 word extracurricular essay for a particular school and you really want other schools to know more about that activity even though they haven’t asked for a 150-200 word essay ... While you could paste your whole short essay into the additional information section for those other schools, I wouldn’t recommend including essays the school didn’t request. Instead, create a bullet point version of your essay so the reader can get the information more quickly. How?

You can turn this (short extracurricular essay version):

The Huntsville Youth Commission is a teen-led faction of the Macon County government that was created to provide youth input in local politics. To get into the Commission, applicants must submit a thorough description of their extracurricular and academic interests as well as answer questions about what they would like to see accomplished during their time in office. Out of 100 applicants, I was selected to serve on the commission two years in a row along with about 25 other high schoolers attending school in Huntsville. Along with promoting efforts to combat gun violence during my time serving in the HYC, we also pursued advocacy projects to address mental health challenges and food insecurities. The Commission was regularly updated by various city officials about the nature of their work, including the Mayor of Huntsville. The HYC also attended several conferences hosted by other city youth councils to build leadership and communication skills as well as encourage active community involvement. I volunteered over 60 hours each term I served on this commission for organizations like Mobile Market, Peace Toys for War Toys, Habitat for Humanity, and Kids Voting. (187 words)

...into this (shorter, bullet point version):

Huntsville Youth Commission:

- The Huntsville Youth Commission (HYC) is a teen-led faction of the Huntsville government created to provide youth input in local politics.

- Out of 100 applicants, I was selected to serve on the commission two years in a row along with about 25 other Hunstville high schoolers

- Promoted efforts to combat gun violence, mental health challenges, and food insecurities.

- Regularly updated by city officials and Huntsville Mayor about the nature of their work.

- Attended several conferences hosted by other city youth councils to build leadership skills and encourage active community involvement.

- Volunteered over 60 hours each term for organizations like Mobile Market, Peace Toys for War Toys, Habitat for Humanity, and Kids Voting. (106 words)

See? The bullet points version is shorter and easier to read.

Important: Please don’t expand on every single activity in your Activities List; make the most of your descriptions using the tips I’ve given.

2. Health stuff.

Did open heart surgery keep you from getting the best grades possible in 11th grade? If so—and if this isn’t already in your main statement—say a few words about it.

A few tips:

  • Focus on information. Not fluff. Don’t tell a story here. Just the facts.

  • Focus on impact. How did it affect you? Be specific. How many days/weeks/months did you miss? How’d you make up the work? Did your grades go up afterward? If so, say so. (Example: “Although my grades dipped during this time, one year later I’m happy to report that I was able to receive straight As.”)

  • Mention it even if your counselor is mentioning it. Michelle Rasich, a counselor at Rowland Hall Saint Mark's, points out that “Reps have shared that they like reading explanations in the student's own words even if I too am dedicating time to it in my letter.” Again, be brief, factual, informative.

  • If you choose to discuss mental health issues, be sure to run it by your counselor before submitting, as depression and anxiety can often raise more questions than they answer. Admission officers want to make sure their future students have the resources they need on campus. To be clear: I’m not saying you shouldn’t mention mental health issues; I’m saying that “if” and “how” are important questions to discuss with your counselor. If you do not have a counselor and identify as low-income, you can sign up for one.

3. Any potential "red flags" on your application

What might be a red flag? Something in your application that could raise questions in the mind of the admissions reader (e.g., a bad grade you received in science, why you dropped two sports last year, or the fact that you want to major in math but didn’t take math last year). Anticipate questions the reader may have and offer an explanation that provides context. Did you drop the sports to focus on academics, for example? Or maybe you had a complex schedule conflict? If you’re not sure whether you should include something or not, ask your counselor.

In terms of length and tone, be as concise as possible and explain rather than complain. Here’s a successful “explaining”example:

I dropped water polo and cross country after sophomore year due to chronic back problems. My back healed by Junior year and I returned to water polo as an assistant coach, but chose not to return to cross country so I could focus on academics and get a job to help pay bills at home.

4. Circumstances that have made it difficult for you to get more involved in extracurricular activities, such as working to support your family.

I’ve had students, for example, who have to take two buses plus the Metro to get to school, commuting almost two hours each way. Others have their parents drive them that far. This means extracurriculars have been relatively tough to participate in. But colleges can’t know that if you don’t tell them.

(Note that some of this information can be communicated in the counselor recommendation letter, although you aren’t likely to know what’s in that letter (since counselors don’t usually show these to students). If don’t have a counselor, use this section to advocate for yourself.

Independent counselor Leslie Cohen offers this great advice: “Students need to repeatedly ask themselves: ‘If I was reading this application, am I getting enough information to understand the applicant’s situation and experiences?’ Often students assume what they list is clear, but sometimes it’s not. I've had many admissions officers say ‘I wanted to know more.’”

Words of Wisdom from an Admissions Officer

"At Smith College, we view the Additional Information section of the Common Application as a good place for students to either explain in further detail something we'll read in other parts of the application or tell us something about themselves we won't necessarily see anywhere else in the application. We actually encourage students to use the Activities area to list paid jobs and any caretaking of younger siblings or older relatives, or tasks relating to household management, etc. Then, if they'd like to emphasize that significant household responsibilities have prevented their involvement in other activities (or other extracurricular activities) in the Additional Information section, they can.

This section should not be perceived as required. But it should be used when there is a significant circumstance requiring clarification or emphasis, such as coping with learning differences, physical challenges, family crises or other hardships. Understanding the student's individual context is an important aspect of the unique selection process here in the U.S., as part of our holistic approach to reviewing applications."

-Meredith McDill, Assistant Director of Admission, Smith College

5. Physical or learning disabilities or differences

Physical disabilities should be diagnosed by a health professional. You may consider specifying the diagnosis, when you received it, and how long you’ve navigated the effects overall.

If you have a diagnosed Learning Disability, you might include a bit of context to help clarify and describe the learning challenge. How has the disability impacted your academic performance and what steps have taken to navigate your disability? If you are dyslexic, for example, do you use audio books as a work around? Indicate when the disability was diagnosed and what you have accomplished or navigated since the diagnosis. Here’s an example:

I was diagnosed with ADHD at the end of ninth grade, which helped me understand some of the academic difficulties I’d faced in middle school. Pharmacological treatment, however, led to a complete change in academic performance. Although it sometimes takes me three times as long to comprehend reading material, I’ve become extremely motivated and self-disciplined and I believe my academic record reflects this. Unfortunately, I do not believe that standardized tests reflect my ability, especially as someone with ADHD, as having more time on a test can be difficult when focusing is the issue.

Important: Not everyone has to disclose. Ask your counselor what makes sense for your application.

6. Family member disability or parent unemployment

If a family member is disabled or has been unable to work and this has had an impact on your life or academics, consider including a few sentences of context. Here are three examples from separate students:

I would like the admission committee to know that my younger brother has spina bifida and my family and I devote a considerable amount of our free time to his care and trips to the doctor. It also means that my mother has not been able to work outside of our home since he was born.

In 2018 my father suffered a series of strokes which left him partially paralyzed and with severe cognitive impairment. He was obviously unable to continue his career as a professor at the local university. With the help of many therapists and medical professionals my father has slowly gained back some of his faculties, but it is rare that he is left at home alone. My mother and my brother and I are typically by his side making sure he has what he needs and that he is safe. For the first half of last year while my father’s condition was critical my mother was unable to work at all.

My mother is a beautiful, warm, and passionate person. Sadly, she also suffers from schizophrenia which she allows to be treated only periodically with medication. She is rarely able to hold a job for more than a few months at a time, and our family depends on my father’s job driving heavy equipment for the city for income as well as insurance. Dad isn’t able to take time off on those days or long periods of time when mom needs extra attention. My sister and I have taken over household chores and bill paying to fill in some of the gaps.

7. Unusual grading systems

One example: “We have a trimester schedule that is not accommodated by the drop-down menus,” notes veteran counselor Tara Dowling. “For example—we have numerous two-trimester courses and there are only 10 slots. So our students put in 'fake date' indicating that courses are full-year courses. Then they explain in the additional info that the classes actually two-terms long.” Would the admission officer know that if you didn’t tell them? Perhaps not.

Another example: counselor Barbara Carletta Chen points out, “For 12th grade students who attend School Year Abroad [a high school study abroad program], this space is a perfect place to clarify all the details of the two high schools, two CEEB, and why their official documents will be coming from their sending school. For others with more than two high schools, this space can clarify why there was a switch if it wasn't obvious (say, due to a move).”

Other examples: a performing arts, religious, or trade school with a specialized curriculum.

8. Unusual classes or Online courses

What do I mean by unusual classes? North High School in Newton, MA, once had a class called "The Art of the Graphic Novel." If I was an admissions rep I’d be curious to know more—wouldn’t you? You might include a 2-3 sentence blurb on what that class entailed (course objective, highlights of the reading list, and any special projects). Other weird/awesome high school classes I wish I could’ve taken include: “Great Books,” where students read books like Ulysses and (my favorite) The Brothers Karamazov; and the “Wise Individualized Senior Experience,” in which seniors can avoid senioritis by designing their own 10-week curriculum.

In terms of online courses, not all online classes are created equal. That’s why it’s important to add context to help the admission officer get an accurate picture. Was it a one-week course that required just a few hours work? Or a rigorous eight-week course that required 10+ hrs of reading and group work per week, culminating in a final project that you had to sing in front of 300+ people and oh-by-the-way here’s a link? Also, maybe say why you took the course(s). Was it because the class wasn’t offered at your school? Or did you take it to make room for another class you really wanted to fit into your schedule? Show the reader you were thoughtful in your decision to learn online.

Words of Wisdom from an Admission Officer

“Students may use the additional info section to talk about an independent study or research project that may not be accurately or completely reflected on their transcript. This gives us a chance to follow up and learn more about their project, passion, time commitment and depth of research. For example:

“Arabic were discontinued at my school due to the unexpected leave of a teacher as well as low program enrollment between my sophomore and junior academic years. My junior year, a provisional program was set up for remaining students who needed to fulfill language credits as a way of gradually phasing out the Arabic program. Now, to ensure I do not lose the progress I have made in the Arabic language, and to continue to pursue my passion even though it is no longer offered at my school and will no longer appear on my transcripts, I attend private tutoring weekly in the subject.”

In other situations, students may use this section to reference traumatic events, like bullying or a serious illness or death of a close family member, which allow us to have greater context when viewing their academic and extracurricular records. In these cases, we sometimes follow up with the student for additional information to have a better understanding of the circumstances. One student referenced a parent’s recent job loss, which gave us the chance to follow up with information about the possibility of adjusting financial aid options.

Also, if a student is at a large public high school where the counselor rec letter may not be particularly personal, this was a perfect opportunity for the student to self-advocate:

“Currently I am in a household where there is no access to Wi-Fi and very little financial means. I have been a student who has been private about my circumstances but has also been responsible for many of my personal and family expenses such as paying bills, medical expenses for my sibling, and paying for my own expenses. As much as I wish I could engage more in my extra-curricular activities, I cannot because of challenges related to my home's financial status and lack of access to the internet.”

Finally, some students provide links to YouTube videos of their band performances, Amazon links to their self-published books and web links to their Etsy shops and online art blogs. As a reader, I don’t always have the time to fully explore these external links but I try my best to skim through or have the music playing in the background while I’m reading the application. It helps me “get inside the student’s head” and better understand their personality.

- Lauren Blalock Sefton, Senior Associate Director of Admission at Rhodes College

9. IB Extended Essay Topics

Parke Muth, counselor and former associate dean at the University of Virginia, writes, “I suggest that people doing an IB extended essay share the topic and title of the essay and maybe a little more info. So few students do projects like this in secondary school and the topics themselves often say something good about the student.”

Here’s an example from my younger brother’s actual college application:

For my IB extended essay requirement, I wrote a 4,000-word thesis arguing that French art film director Gaspar Noé breaks the conventions of classical narrative structure as defined by story theorist, Robert McKee. My close reading of Noé's film Irreversible (2002) seeks to prove that Noé defies McKee's principles of the inciting incident, law of diminishing returns, and balance of high and low pace scenes by Noé's manipulation of the Russian Formalist elements of fabula and syuzhet.

10. Other information that simply won’t fit on other parts of the Common App

Kate Coddaire at Cheverus HS reports, “I have students with so many siblings they cannot fit them all on the Family page of the Common App.”

What else might go here?

What else might go here? Anything that may give the reader a more full understanding of who you are and what you’ll contribute on a college campus and beyond.

High School Context:

  • “I’m one of the first students to apply to U.S. universities from my school OR my school doesn't have experience with U.S. school applications.”

  • “We don’t have a college counselor, so two of my teachers volunteered to complete the counselor recommendation.”

  • “My English teacher and I worked together to create our School Profile (not only for me but also for my younger classmates)”

Note that the following details are important to include in your application somewhere, but I’d recommend trying to work them (and their impact on you) into your personal statement or other parts of the application:

  • Single-parent household

  • Low-income family or large family with many dependents, straining family income

  • Language spoken at home is other than English

  • You’ll be the first generation in your family to attend college

How do you know if you should put something in the personal statement or Additional Info section? The personal statement describes who you are and what you value; your Additional Info often describes external things that have happened to you. (Hat tip to my colleague Hollis Bischoff for this distinction.)

Having said all this, don’t misuse this section. What do I mean?

Five Important Misuses of the Additional Info Section

1. A second personal Statement

While some counselors argue that the Additional Info section is a GREAT place to put a whole essay, I side with those who feel like this section should be reserved for, well, additional information. The exception is those 50 to 100ish-word statements that add factual, succinct context or information (see tip #7 above).

“When we see that a student has completed the additional information section, we surmise that the student has something to share that could not fit anywhere else in the application,” says Patricia Peek, Ph.D., Dean of Undergraduate Admission at Fordham. “If a student takes the time to complete this section, it should signal that the content is important. This is also a good place to share context about an element, or elements, of the submission that may need explanation (change in grades, extra activities not reflected or lack of activities, etc.). We do not ask for an extra essay, but even if we did we would not see this section as a place for that type of response.”

2. Details that show you might be overly obsessed with academic perfection

If you have straight As, or near straight As, and you got a B+ in one class, don’t explain that B+. Why? It may backfire, revealing qualities that are not super flattering. It’s like when you walk into someone’s house and it’s in immaculate condition (but it’s clear someone has cleaned the place recently) and they’re like, “Sorry the place is such a mess...” and you’re thinking, Come on, really?

3. Excuses

If something happened during high school that might raise a red flag on your application or transcript and it’s appropriate to take responsibility, do so! But don’t make it sound like you’re whining. Make sure to confidently and matter-of-factly explain the problem. Example:

“Freshman year I wasn’t ready for the rigorous course load of high school. Because of this, my grades during the first semester don’t reflect my true potential. Second semester I worked hard to develop new study habits and became more disciplined. As a result, I brought my grades up.”

You can take responsibility in many ways—this is just one way.

If you can’t give a good explanation for something (e.g., you got a bad grade in math because you didn’t like your teacher, you dropped football because you wanted to chill more during the summer), it may be better to not mention it at all. Will the reader wonder about that thing? Maybe. But if you really can’t come up with a good reason, maybe don’t write anything.

4. An overly complex abstract from a scientific paper

Telling the reader that you worked with metastatic malignant neoplasm involving the cervical region of the esophagus may not mean that much without context. If you’re going to share information that sounds like it might be from an abstract, consider offering a short explanation.

A small exception to this rule: you can use a little geeky language to explain the particulars, especially if applying to a highly specialized program. But just a little.

Example: I contributed to Dr. Li’s review article to give an overview of the types of skin diseases typically seen with IBD and their respective pathogenesis, proposed mechanisms, and treatments; my contributions were significant enough to earn me recognition as a second author.

Notice how succinct, how factual.

5. Pasting a resume that repeats everything you’ve already said in your Activities List

Why is this bad? Because:

  1. It’s redundant.

  2. Admission readers are reading SO much and this wastes their time.

  3. It looks insecure, like you’re saying, “See what I did? Wait, look again!”

  4. It’s redundant. (That’s a joke, btw.)

Sometimes students will even paste a resume (or a link to a resume) instead of filling out the Activities List. Don’t do this.

On that note, some students provide a link to information such as a scientific abstract or published work. The reader often won’t get that information because they can’t click the link or don’t have time. Basically, assume the reader won’t click it. Instead, write a short summary of what’s at the link.

What if I feel like I’m struggling to come up with stuff to add?

It’s your call, but if it starts to feel like you’re stretching to add random things, stop, take a breath, and remember what I said at the start:

You do not have to use the Additional Info section.

That’s right: leave it blank! In fact, see if you can be really succinct and fit all your information into the areas provided in the Activities List descriptions. It’s possible! And your college reps will thank you.

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