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Tips for using our Common App Guide

By September 13, 2019College applications

Yesterday, we released the 2019-20 version of our annual Collegewise Guide to the Common Application—it’s available here for free to anyone who wants it. But without the necessary context, more guidance and instruction can often increase rather than relieve stress. So for students, parents, and counselors, here are some suggestions to help you make the most of the advice we’ve shared inside.


If you haven’t started your Common App, keep our guide handy and consult it as you progress through your application. It will be like having an expert over your shoulder to help you get it right the first time.

If you’ve already finished your Common App and have moved onto the revising and editing stage, use our guide to do a line-by-line review before you submit.

And if you’re happy with your overall application but just want some advice around a particular section or two, our guide can probably help you.


Kids should always complete their own college applications even if a parent will review them. But if you’re a parent and the official application reviewer in the household, our guide can help you assess where your student might need to do some additional application work before submitting. And more importantly, it will also give you a sense of which sections are strong enough as-is, which brings a great opportunity to give your student some boost-inducing praise.

High school counselors

  • New to counseling and to the Common App? Spend an hour with our guide and you’ll transform from rookie to expert.
  • If you’re an experienced counselor who’d like to brush up on your Common App knowledge, our guide will help you rediscover your expertise.
  • Do your students come to you with questions about the Common App? Keep a link to, or an actual copy of, our guide nearby and use it whenever you need a second opinion.
  • Share it with colleagues, teachers, and students.
  • Post the link on your website or in your student newsletters.

Independent counselors

  • Our guide will teach you exactly what to look for when reviewing your students’ Common Applications.
  • Share the link with your students for them to use at home while they complete their applications.
  • Our guide makes a great training tool when bringing new partners or employees up to application speed.

Continuing on my promise to spend my final month posting one lesson learned during this ten-year blogging streak, here’s day #2 of 31:

Good enough is “Good. Enough.”

We were really proud of version 1.0 of our Common App guide when we released it in 2011. But it wasn’t perfect. It looked like an amateur designed it (which was accurate—I was the designer). There were sections where we could have gone into more detail. The images could have been clearer. We probably could have shortened the overall length with additional editing. But we’d already spent dozens and dozens of hours creating the guide from scratch, then refining and revising. It already did everything we needed it to do. And to hold onto it even longer in the quest for perfection would have doomed us to an inevitable loop of changes that had long since left improvements behind. Once it was good enough, we released it. It was: Good. Enough.

“Good enough” can mean a haphazard, lazy excuse to release something unworthy of your time and effort. But used effectively, it can also help you push through the unsubstantiated fear that people won’t like what you’ve made unless you make it perfect. “Perfect” is a mirage. You can chase it but you won’t grasp it. It lets you off the hook of finishing. It starts as a laudable goal but eventually morphs into an excuse disguised as drive.

It doesn’t matter how good, great, or perfect something is if nobody gets to see, use, or benefit from it. Good enough won’t let you off the hook like perfect will. Embracing good enough helps you get the project out the door.

Our original guide wasn’t perfect, and neither were any of the subsequent ones. But each gets better than the last. We’re happy with good enough. And thankfully, plenty of others seem to be too.

If you want to produce better work (or college applications), try freeing yourself from the quest for perfect. Then work like crazy until you hit “Good. Enough.”