Common Application Masterpost

The Basics

The Common App: What it is & How to Make Yours Amazing

- The Common Application

- Common App FAQs

- Five Things Applicants Need to Know About the 2016-2017 Common App

- Complete Guide: Which Schools Use the Common Application?

- Virtual Counselor

- How to Apply

The Essay

5 Common App Essay Tips That Will Actually Help You

The Common App Essay: What Matters and What Doesn’t

The 2016-17 Common Application Essay Prompts

Examples of the Essay

- Background and Identity

- Failure and Success

Challenging Beliefs

- Accomplishment or Event

What Matters Most To You, And Why?

adapted from this response

1. Write your notes in a way where you can test your retention and understanding. 

Many people write notes that do a great job summarizing their materials but their notes are not designed to promote learning, retention or diagnosis of their weaknesses. But my notes can – and so can yours.

Simply put my notes can be used like flashcards because I write them in a form where I separate a “stimulus” from a “response.”  The stimulus are cues or questions (think: front side of flashcard), while the response is the answer to the cue (think: back of flashcard).  But the stimuli are to the left of a margin, while the responses are to the right. The key advantage of this is that just by putting a sheet of paper on top of your notes, you can hide the responses, while leaving the stimuli visible. You can have multiple margins and multiple levels of stimuli and response for greater information density. When you get good at this you can write notes in this form in real-time. To get some idea of what I’m talking about google for “Cornell Notetaking method”. My notetaking method is a variant of this. I usually use completely blank paper to do this because regular lined paper has too small a margin.

To give you an idea of how powerful this notetaking method can be, I learned several courses just hours before the exam and still got an “A” in all of them during a difficult semester where I had too many competing priorities to spend long hours studying. Had it not been for this notetaking method I don’t think that would be possible.

2. Develop the ability to become an active reader (this is the perhaps the most important advice I have to share). 

Don’t just passively read material you are given. But pose questions, develop hypotheses and actively test them as you read through the material. I think the hypotheses are part of what another poster referred to when he advised that you should develop a “mental model” of whatever concept they are teaching you.  But a mental model can be much more than simple hypotheses. Sometimes the model resembles a story. Other times it looks more like a diagram.

But what they all have in common is that the explain what is going on.

Having a mental model will give you the intuition and ability to answer a wider range of questions than would be otherwise possible if you lacked such a mental model.

Where do you get this model? You creatively develop one as you are reading to try to explain the facts as they are presented to you.  It’s like guessing how the plot of a movie, before it unfolds.

Sometimes you have to guess the model based on scarce evidence. Sometimes it is handed to you. If your model is a good one it should at least be able to explain what you are reading.

Having a model also allows you to make predictions which can then be used to identify if your model is wrong.  This allows you to be hypersensitive to disconfirming evidence that can quickly identify if your model is wrong.

Oftentimes you may have two or more models that can explain the evidence, so your task will be to quickly formulate questions that can prove one model while disconfirming the others. To save yourself time, I suggest focusing on raising questions that could confirm/disprove the mostly likely model while disproving the others  (think: differential diagnoses in medicine).

But once you have such a model that (i) explains the evidence and (ii) passes all the disconfirming tests you can throw at it then you have something you can interpolate and extrapolate from to answer far more than was initially explained to you.

Such models also make retention easier because you only need to remember the model as opposed to the endless array of facts it explains.  But perhaps more importantly, such models give you intuition.

Of course, your model could be wrong, but that is why you actively test it as you are reading, and adjust as necessary. Think of this process as the scientific method being applied by you, to try to discover the truth as best you can.

Sometimes you will still be left with contradictions that even your best models cannot explain. I often found speaking to the professor after class to be a time efficient of resolving these contradictions.

I discovered mental modelling as a survival mechanism to pass my studies at the University of Waterloo – where their teaching philosophy is misnomer because their teaching philosophy is to not teach as well as they could.

You can see this from their grading philosophy. Although they don’t use a bell curve or other statistical grade adjustment, they make their exams so hard that the class average is usually between 68 (C+) and 72 (B-) in spite of the fact that their minimum admission grades are among the highest in Canada (you need more than A+ to get into several of their engineering programs).

The only way they can achieve such low test averages from otherwise high performing students is by holding back some of what they know, and then testing what they didn’t explain well in lecture on their exams; or by not teaching to the best of their ability.  

This forces students to develop the ability to teach themselves, often from materials that do not explain things well, or lack the introductory background knowledge needed to understand the material.

I realized I could defend against such tactics by reverse engineering the results into theories that would produce those same results; i.e. mental model induced from scarce facts.    

Then when I got to MIT I found myself in a place with the opposite teaching philosophy. Unlike Waterloo, if the whole class got an “A” the MIT professors would be happy and proud (whereas at Waterloo an “A” class average would be the cause for a professor’s reprimand).

The mental modelling skills I developed at Waterloo definitely came in handy at graduate school because they enabled me to learn rapidly with scarce information.

3. Be of service to your fellow classmates.

I’ve personally observed and heard anecdotal stories that many students in highly competitive programs are reluctant to share what they know with their peers; a good example being the vast number of students in a top ranked science programs competing for the very few coveted spots in med school. I’ve seen people in such situations be afraid to share what they know because the fear it could lead to the other students “getting ahead” while leaving them behind. I would actually recommend doing the opposite: share liberally. You can’t expect help from others if you are unwilling to help others yourself.

I spent hours tutoring people in subjects I was strong in. But, conversely those same people were usually happy to help me with my weaknesses when I needed it. I also found it easier to get good teammates – which is essential to getting good grades in team-based classes. I found I learned a LOT from other people. And their questions helped me to prepare for questions I may not have thought of – some of which would appear on the exams.

4. Understand how the professor grades. 

Like the real world, the academic world is not always fair. You need to understand who is grading you and what they are looking for. Oddly, if you actually answer questions as written, you won’t get full marks from some teachers. Some professors expected more than the answer. Some only accepted the answers taught in class as opposed to other factually correct answers – which coincidentally can easily happen if you rely heavily on mental models. Some expected you to not even evaluate whether the answers to their multiple choice answers were true or not; only to notice which answer choices aligned or did not align with the theories taught in class.  Some highly value participation in which case you ought to have a mental model of what they are teaching based on their assigned readings. The sooner you know who you are dealing with, the sooner you can adjust to their way of grading. Thankfully I considered the vast majority of my professors to have graded in a fair manner.

5. Get involved in research while still in undergrad.

Academics is a means to an end. To me that end was “solving problems” and “building stuff” specifically systems and organizations.  Depending on the school you apply for, your research may be just as important, if not more important, than your grades. In fact if all you have are good grades your chances of getting into a top ranked CS program with a research component (e.g. MIT, CMU) are slim to nil; though you might still be able to get into a top-ranked courseware-based Masters (such as Stanford where there is no masters thesis).

I did an Artificial Intelligence research project in undergrad and posted it on the internet. Not long after it was cited in three patents from IBM, AOL and another inventor. Then 40 other people cited my work. I feel this helped me get into MIT because they saw that I could come up with theories with practical applications. It also led to internships with top research teams whose work I am still in awe of. This research also helped my graduate application. None of this would have been possible if I didn’t do research in undergrad.

6. Attend classes.

I do not understand the students who claim they did well without attending class. Many professors will only say certain things in class. Many classes only present some of the material in class. If you don’t attend class you simply won’t get that material. You also won’t be able to ask immediate follow-up questions. I also found speaking to the professor after class was an efficient way to resolve contradictions I had found with my mental model.

7. Time management is key – especially in undergrad. 

In my competitive undergrad program I once learned that a friend who achieved top 5% status actually timed how long he ate.

While I do not suggest going to such extremes I offer this modest advice. I suggest spending no more than 30 minutes trying to solve a problem you can’t solve by yourself before appealing to office hours or another knowledgeable student. I also suggest you ask questions of your professor during or after class as opposed to leaving the class confused. This reduces wasted time in an environment when time is a very precious commodity.

8. Going out and having fun is conducive to good grades. 

In my early undergrad years I studied as hard as I could. And I thought this meant putting in as many studying hours as possible. But I later realized that going out and having fun refreshed the mind and increased grades. Unfortunately it took at least 2 years for me to understand this lesson.

9. Learn how to do advanced Google searches.

This is an essential skill that enables you to answer your own questions, quickly. At a minimum I suggest you learn how to use the following Google search operators  ~, -,*, AND,OR, and numeric ranges via the double dot (“..”) operator.  The “site:” operator is also often helpful. I also found adding the word “tutorial” to a Google search often yields great introductory materials. 

10. Turn weaknesses into strengths.

While studying for standardized exams I learned the importance of addressing one’s weaknesses as opposed to ignoring them.  If you make a mistake on a question, it is because of a weakness within you. If you do not address that weakness it will follow you to the exam.

I learned this lesson when studying for standardized exams. I was able to legally buy 30 old exams and thought the best approach to studying for the exam was to do as many old problems as possible. But as I completed each exam I kept getting the same score  (+/- 5%) over and over. I had plateaued!

But then I made a tiny tweak and my scores kept going up. Specifically, after each old exam, I would identify my weaknesses that led to each wrong answer, prioritize the weaknesses according to the degree to which they affected my score, and would address them in that order.  When I did that, my scores increased steadily all the way to the highest possible percentile (99%).

I later realized that such standardized tests are designed to provide consistent scores (if the student does not study in between the subsequent exams to address their weaknesses). In fact that is one of the statistical measures used to measure the quality  of a standardized exam and it’s called “Reliability”  (Google for “psychometric reliability” to see what I’m talking about).

The best studying advice I have ever received

If you can’t find the motivation to get to work on something, force yourself to pick it up for just two minutes. The key word is force; procrastination is tempting, but keep in mind that there is nothing physically stopping you from doing what you have to do.

After those two minutes, if you still do not want to keep going, put it away and go do something else. Even if you stop after two minutes, you will have two minutes worth of knowledge that you did not have before.

More likely than not, though, those two minutes will make it easy to just keep going. Often times, the hardest part is getting started.


I just found an amazing scholarship and college research website.  

It is called and it basically gives you mini scholarships for doing things like getting an A in a course, doing community service, or just taking an AP class in general. 

For example, you can receive up to $6,000 for a school because you completed over 200 hours of community service.

$30 per hour you work.  Guys, that is nearly triple minimum wage. 

Also, a few other schools offer mini scholarships for students who get B’s in a class or are taking a foreign language for more than 2 years. 

This is the scholarship website we’ve been looking for. 

Now you don’t have to spend dozens of nights writing scholarship essays when you can make money throughout your school career. 

PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE spread the word of this website. It is very helpful and will provide many people with the opportunities to graduate college!


I recently got an ask about how to write an introductory paragraph for an essay so I thought I’d do a post about how to write a good essay.

** Important Points ** For essays in high school, use third person unless the teacher specifically tells you not too. It’s more academic and professional while first person sounds really informal. I’ve heard that in college it’s different but again, it depends on the class. Stay on the safe side and use third person unless otherwise specified. Also, try to be as sophisticated and mature as you can. This makes the essay sound smarter and makes it easier to read.


Try to think of an upside down pyramid here. You start off broad and end off tapered to a point (specific). The formula for writing a good intro is this: hook, background info, introduce topic of discussion, and thesis. In the pyramid example, the hook is the broad and the thesis is the narrow. The intro is usually around 8 sentences long.

  • Hook: Unlike what you’ve probably been told through out high school, the hook is not necessarily a wow statement. It’s typically a broad idea that relates to the topic of discussion. I usually use historical facts or common wisdom and go from there. I then follow it up with a sentence that elaborates on my hook and a sentence that connects my hook with the background info.
  • Background Info: Here you give the reader some context as to what you will be discussing in your essay. It sets the scene for the topic you’re discussing. Try to be concise.
  • Introduce the Topic of Discussion: Here you give a brief summary of the points you’re arguing/discussing. It should be one sentence per body paragraph and again, be clear and concise and avoid merely summarizing the plot. This part should cover the gist of your ideas.
  • Thesis: This should be a longer complex sentence that summarizes your point of view and ideas. This is one of the most important parts of the essay so crafting a good thesis is crucial.

I did a more detailed post about the introduction with an example introduction paragraph HERE.


The meat of your essay. Here is where you state your arguments and defend them with supporting evidence from literature, articles, or even your personal experience. I would generally limit one argument per body paragraph. Which reminds me, most likely you have been taught the canned five paragraph essay. Some people write all their essays in five paragraph format because they thing that is the only way to go. Really, you can do four+ body paragraphs with the common numbers being four and six. It depends on the essay. When writing your body paragraph you need this structure: topic sentence, three points, three examples of supporting evidence, conclusion. Body paragraphs typically fall between 8 -15 sentences.

  • Topic Sentence: This is similar to a thesis. Here you’re stating the argument that you are proving in a clear and concise sentence.
  • Three Points: There’s a rule of thumb that you generally want to have three points about each argument and have a piece of supporting evidence for each point. I’m going to start with the three points first. Basically, you want three ideas about your argument that show why it’s valid. For example if you’re trying to argue that cheese is dairy, your three points are it’s made of milk, it’s featured in the dairy section of the grocery store, and the FDA labels it as dairy.
  • Three Examples of Supporting Evidence: These are usually quotes from other sources or the piece of literature you’re analyzing that support the three points of your argument. To use the really bad cheese example from above, for the milk point you’d use an ingredients label from a package of cheese, for the grocery store point you’d get a sheet with the department labels and the produce in those departments, and for the FDA point you’d find a quote from their website.
  • Conclusion: This is a sentence or two that wraps up your body paragraph. It should briefly summarize the points you discussed or the topic sentence and help transition into the next paragraph.


This paragraph is NOT necessary for most essays. However, some do require them so it’s important to know how to approach them. Depending on whom you ask, they’ll either tell you that the counter argument paragraph goes in the middle of your body paragraphs, or at the end. Personally I prefer the end but the middle is more correct. Placing it in the middle allows you to end on a strong note but I think it’s a matter of personal preference. The counter argument is used to present an opposing view point and say why it’s wrong. This can strengthen your argument if it’s done properly but ruin it if it’s done wrong so tread carefully. The only thing different from the body paragraph structure is the topic sentence.

Topic Sentence: Here you need a specific template to start the paragraph properly. I usually use: It may be argued that _______________ but there is sufficient evidence to show that _______________. The first blank is filled with the opposing argument and the last blank is your argument. There are different ways to structure this sentence but this is the one I use.

The rest of the paragraph is the same as the body paragraph: you get three points as to why the counter argument is wrong and three points to support it. Then you end with a typical concluding sentence.


This is where you wrap up your arguments and finish strong. It has three components: a restatement of your thesis, summary of your arguments, and general statement to wrap it up. Think of the right side up pyramid this time. The pointy end is the thesis and the bottom is the general statement that closes your essay. A conclusion is typically 5 sentences long.

  • Restatement of Thesis: This is pretty self explanatory; you restate the thesis using different language than you used in your intro.
  • Summary of Arguments: Here you briefly touch upon the arguments you covered in your essay. Again, clear and concise, and whatever you do, DO NOT introduce new information. It can ruin the amazing essay you worked so hard on.
  • General Statement: A general statement is a broad idea that you use to tie your entire essay together. It’s kind of like the hook but should be more relevant to your essay.

And that is how you write a killer essay. I use this technique whenever I write and it has never failed me. Hopefully if will help you improve your writing! If you have any questions, feel free to hit up my ask box.


For many students, the beginning of senior year marks the start of the “official” college season. Hopeful applicants are jumping right into the thick of transcripts, extracurricular lists, and essays as deadlines draw near. One of the most anxiety-inducing parts of applying for college is crafting the perfect personal statement!

To aid all of you fledgling essay writers, I’ve compiled a list of helpful sources with tips, tricks, advice, do’s and don’ts, and more below!!! (This will be added to often!)

Good luck babies I believe in you!!

    Let’s get started!


    Ivy League (and other super competitives)

    UC Essays

    Common Application

     Essay Examples

Hi there lovely people, today I bring you some very helpful apps for the sick student! They’re very helpful for us Chronic Illness kids, mental health or just your regular flu.

1.Water Your Body. This is a great app for when you are dehydrated while having a flu or whatever, it could also be for daily use.

2. MediSafe. I can’t stress ENOUGH how helpful this app is. For people that have to take meds perpetually (or not) and are rather forgetful, this is h e a v e n. It has an alarm that tells you when to take your meds and it reminds you to bring them with you in the morning!

3. What’s Up? This app is great for keeping track of anxiety and depressive episodes. It has activities, coping methods, information about mental illnesses AND a diary! My psychiatrist and I love it!

4. Ambio. It’s a background noise app where you can customize the sounds. If I get really anxious I just put on my headphones and listen rain for hours.

5. ShakeIt Alarm. As an epileptic it takes me quite a lot of effort to wake up, but I’m sure the regular student can relate to this problem as well. So instead of having ten alarms this will truly wake you up by either shaking it, tapping it or screaming at it (not recommended if you don’t live alone).

6. Forest. It’s pretty tough to stay focused and motivated when it comes to mental illnesses, this app won’t burn your hand if you touch your phone but it IS helpful and you get to plant trees virtually and in the real world!