Should I Use the Common App Additional Information Section?
The Additional Information section on the Common App appears to be a 650-word oasis amidst the desert of Draconian character limits found elsewhere in the application. Yet, this inviting expanse of brag-sheet real estate should not be mistaken for an invitation to spew random musings on T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land or chronicle the reasons you quit the mandolin when you were eight years old. In fact, the Additional Information section’s purpose is so gravely misunderstood, that it will probably be most helpful to begin with an explanation of what it is not meant for.
How NOT to approach the Additional Information section
Admissions officers are genuinely busy people and are, during the heat of application season, under immense time constraints. Only at very small schools will an admissions officer spend more than 15 minutes reviewing a single application and, at many schools, a complete application review will take eight minutes or less. Further, at some selective schools such as Georgia Tech, the University and Pennsylvania, and Bucknell University, staffers divide up single applications by section, like a good old-fashioned Ford assembly line.
All this is to say that while every word on your application genuinely matters, very rarely is an admissions officer left lamenting, “If only he/she could have written more!” after completing a review. In truth, the opposite complaint is uttered with far greater frequency. The impetus for opening up the Additional Information field should be a feeling of: “My application would be incomplete without X, Y, and Z” versus a mindset of: “Hmm, 650 free words of space to fill. Let me think…” If you keep this distinction in mind as you weigh whether or not to include extras on your application, you will end up making a sound choice.
If a life event truly impacted your academic performance, then the Additional Information section is a perfect place to succinctly and effectively explain the hows and whys. Common events that would fall in this category include:
- Parents got separated or divorced
- A serious illness of an immediate family member
- The death of a family member or close friend
- A personal illness (physical or mental)
- You were diagnosed with a learning disability or ADD/ADHD
- You had to work an extraordinary number of hours due to an adverse financial situation
- You were impacted by a natural disaster
- You were the victim of a crime
- You transferred high schools
No matter the challenging life event being discussed, it is best if there is a positively trending arc to the narrative. For example, if your grandfather unexpectedly passed away in the first semester of your junior year leading to a dip in your grades, hopefully, your academic performance improved the following semester.
If the event in question had a deep impact on your life, it may very well be worthy of being the subject of your Common App essay. In that case, there is no need to be redundant by rehashing it in this section. It’s also okay to mention something relatively minor here if it actually had a major impact on your performance, even briefly. For example, you had a migraine when you took the SAT the first time in the winter and scored a 1090; you took it again in the spring and scored a 1300. Even though your prospective colleges “Superscore” the results, you want to provide an explanation as to how your score when up 210 points in three months.
Additional activities or awards
One common reason to utilize this section is to include additional awards that wouldn’t fit in the five allotted spaces within the designated Honors & Awards section. This is always a perfectly acceptable use of this space, provided that the additions add value and are not mere “filler.” Most commonly, high-achieving students who have earned more than five honors, have a chance to include a few extra awards. These can be things like:
- National Honor Society membership
- National Merit Semifinalist
- AP Scholar with Distinction
- Honor Roll/Principal’s List
- President’s Volunteer Service Award
- Any award in music, art, poetry, journalism, photography, or community service
Typically, it’s rare that an activity that didn’t crack the top 10 is going to be worth forcing into your application. If activity #11 is a one year of JV soccer in 9th grade or a four hours of volunteer work in 10th grade, it is very likely not worth including. After all, the Activities Section is ultimately about depth, not breadth.
Links to performances, publications, or research
Try fitting a URL into an activities or honors field—we dare you! If your Tedx Talk, musical performance, comedy reel, or debate championship is available on YouTube, the Additional Information section is the place to include it. This is a perfectly acceptable use of this section and the worst outcome is simply that the admissions officer elects not to watch it.
You can also include things like a local paper’s coverage of the charitable organization you founded or an op-ed you penned on the dangers of vaping. If you’re a high school superstar who has already gotten their name on published research, feel free to link to it here.
Explanations of transcripts, grading practices, or curricular abnormalities
International students or home-schooled students are the prime candidates for this category, but anyone who attends a high school with an atypical curriculum or alternative ways of grading can and should include a neat and tidy explanation here. Some examples include:
- Your school has limited AP/IB offerings
- You took or are presently taking a course with a mysterious title that requires further explanation
- Your school has extremely unforgiving grade ranges—an 87% is a C+
We would not suggest including less concrete items like, for example, complaining that you received a D in physics due to a teacher conflict. This section should only be used to convey factual, tangible information.
The COVID-19 Question
For the 2020-21 admissions cycle, the Common App has included a separate area within the Additional Information section where applicants can discuss any ways in which they were impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. Our advice for approaching that prompt can be found in our previous blog: How to Address the COVID-19 Question on the Common App.
College Transitions’ final thoughts
The Additional Information section is an excellent tool for students who truly need the extra space in order to impart every important facet of who they are and what they achieved. It is also an ideal place to explain circumstances that have impacted one’s educational progress that are not otherwise discussed anywhere in the application. If you are experiencing lingering doubts about whether something warrants inclusion in this section, take that as a sign that it may not be a worthwhile addition. A judicious approach will undoubtedly be appreciated by harried admissions officers.
Dave has over a decade of professional experience that includes work as a teacher, high school administrator, college professor, and independent educational consultant. He is a co-author of the books The Enlightened College Applicant (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016) and Colleges Worth Your Money (Rowman & Littlefield, 2020).