The Common App: Choose Your Own Adventure


By Javin Pombra, In Depth Editor

Ten spots in four years. The Common Application allows you to describe 10 of your extracurricular activities throughout high school. In ninth grade alone, I was planning to fill 12.

I had gotten a head start in eighth grade after attempting to get as many meaningless positions as I could to apply to one of many prestigious private schools. Ivywise and Prep Scholar gave me plenty of ideas and hoops to jump through to get to the top of the top: I needed athletics and prestigious, costly summer programs.

I needed a hook. Every blog and article pointed to one universal truth: you need something eye-catching and impossible for admissions officers to look past. To be first in the nation in, say, lawn bowling or to have a harrowing tale followed by resilience.

As hard as I tried, applying for internships and replying to a multitude of emails, I couldn’t find this elusive hook. I couldn’t be unique, at least in the eyes of some admissions officer miles away.

Somewhere in the middle of sophomore year, my excessive fretting took a back seat to other aspects of my life. Instead of wasting my time updating my resume and writing up a potential Linkedin profile, I spent time with new friends. I played cards at coffee shops and adventured through the streets of San Francisco.

And with new friends came new paths that were sometimes gently recommended and other times imposed. My friends prodded me to join the very organization that has let me write this column. I found an exciting summer program at Yale, not from some college counselor or hours of research, but as a recommendation from an alumni and close friend.

My parents complained wholeheartedly about this new change. They said I was losing focus, losing steam. The endline was near and I was missing all the hoops I had to jump through to get there.

But, it was ignoring those arbitrary checkpoints that ended up working. It wasn’t the advice of some college counselor who was using a “tried and true” method to get into college. It was doing everything that had nothing to do with getting into a university that ended in success. College is an important part of your life, but prioritizing your life in the moment instead of a Common Application three or four years away will always be the best approach.

You don’t find yourself sliding through rainy streets of Seattle or pursuing documents at courthouses far away by doing what some random student on College Confidential did. You don’t find your closest friends from debate because your parents forced you to do it. And, even if you happen to have these experiences at the advice of a college counselor, you never can truly enjoy them if the only reason to do them is filling those 10 spaces on the Common Application.

See, at the end of the line is a whole cast of essays you must write to get into your dream university. There will be people who tell you they have the perfect topic and thesis to write about, from service trips to stories about how you’ve become a better leader because of [insert club here].

I can say with certainty that any large-scale thesis you can think of has already been taken. That those “tried and true” methods college counselors are advertising have been read by admissions officers dozens of times. Only your experiences and the insight you learn from those experiences will ever be unique.

College applications promote a culture of stress and a rat race. They inherently serve those more privileged. There’s no doubt, and by no means am I attempting to defend them. Unfortunately, the world we live in seems to accept and perpetuate this toxicity.  All we can control is our own perspective.

Look at applications as a tool to push yourself, as a way to do things you would never even think of before — to go to a continent far away for research or to intern at an office where you find invaluable life advice. Look at them as incentive to live the most incredible and interesting four years of high school you possibly can.