This post is an updated version of our popular blog post originally published on Medium on September 29, 2017 by Lloyd Nimetz. The original can be found here.
Over the past year, our guide to the Additional Information section of the Common App has received a lot of attention. We found that a significant number of students who read it followed up asking us for further details on how this advice transfers to other application platforms like the Coalition App and the University of California (UC) App. Below is our advice for both those App Platforms.
All open-ended questions (essays, additional questions, and additional information) are handled by each individual college in the Coalition application. Therefore, whether or not they require the essay or even offer an additional information section is at each college’s discretion. If schools do offer one, we recommend following the same guidelines outlined further down in this post. However, because of the Locker, Coalition gives ample opportunities to express sides of yourself you may not have had opportunities to showcase in your Common App (you can use SlideRoom for these, but it’s not as common). We recommend using the Locker to do much of what you would use the Common App Additional Information section for: Showing off your Spike (via photos, videos, news articles, etc), exemplar academics (you can include a copy of a research paper), and any other achievements you’re proud of. However, if you have pieces of your profile that you feel can’t be represented in the Locker (for instance, complications in your school’s grading system or explanations of potential red flags) or if a school you’re applying to doesn’t allow you to upload supplementary items from the Locker, then you should make use of the additional information section.
University of California (UC) application
The UC application does have an Additional Comments section (capped at 550 words), like the Common App. But before simply copying and pasting, try to take the first natural opportunities to express this information. First off, the Additional Comments section under Academic History gives you an obvious space to put some of this information (such as academic red flags, exemplary academic work, or unusual circumstances related to your schooling). This section allows you to include up to 550 characters (not words) so you’ll have to stick to the advice we outline in the below post and be extremely concise.
Additionally, because you have to answer four different personal insight questions for the UC application, those questions could be a great chance to get information from your Common App Additional Information section across. Your Spike, major life events, or personal qualities could easily come across in any number of these questions, or, if none of them seem to fit, then question 8 could be a good time for that (What do you believe makes you stand out as a strong candidate for admissions to the University of California).
Unlike the Common App, which gives you few opportunities to express yourself, the UC app practically gives you too many. Only use the Additional Comments section to get across information that you can’t possibly express at any other point in the application (including the Academic History Additional Comments section). And even then, keep it limited, and follow the guidelines outlined below.
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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).