Laura Berlinsky-Schine 4 min read 12th Grade, Common App

How to Fill Out the Common App Language Proficiency Section

As a first-time college applicant or transfer student, there’s a good chance that at least some of your prospective schools will accept the Common Application. The Common App streamlines the application process for students by collecting some common demographic and academic information that most schools will evaluate as part of the college admissions process. 

 

When you’re completing the Common App, you’ll encounter a question asking about the number of languages in which you’re proficient. For many students, this question will be fairly straightforward. Others may wonder just how to categorize their proficiency. So, how exactly do you respond to this question?

 

What is the Language Proficiency Section?

 

The Language proficiency prompt appears in the Profile section, the first part of the Common App. You’ll find it right under the Geography prompt, which asks a bit about where you’re from. The Language question is meant to inform the admissions committee about the diverse traits of their applicants, as college admissions officers aim to build diverse, well-rounded incoming classes that incorporate students from many different backgrounds and perspectives.

 

The initial question is very brief, asking only for the number of languages in which you’re proficient, with a minimum of one and a maximum of five. 

 

Upon selecting the number of languages, you’ll then be prompted to provide some additional information around each language that you’ve counted. You’ll find first a list of languages to choose from. If you can’t find your language on the list, simply select “Other.”

 

For each language, you’ll then be asked to further describe your skills by checking off one or more of the following types of proficiency:

 

  • First Language
  • Speak
  • Read
  • Write
  • Spoken at Home

 

What Does it Mean to be “Proficient” in a Language?

 

How you define proficiency in a language can be a bit subjective. Some questions to ask yourself when evaluating your proficiency include:

 

Can you carry out a real-life conversation in the language? Do you understand what the other person is saying and thoughtfully respond to them? Spoken proficiency goes beyond memorizing how to tell someone that you don’t speak a language (in said language), or knowing how to ask for food or water. While these are certainly important phrases to know, spoken proficiency typically means that you’re able to listen to and respond to questions on a range of topics without prior preparation. 

 

Can you read and fully comprehend a news article in that language without frequently looking up words? Proficiency in reading generally means that you can comfortably read and understand written text at a speed appropriate for your age. An easy way to gauge your reading proficiency is to simply read a text in the target language. If you read substantially slower than you do in your native language, or make frequent trips to Google translate while reading a text, then you’re likely not proficient in this area. As a note, this test generally excludes more technical or specialized texts as it’s likely that you’ll encounter unfamiliar terms and concepts regardless of language.

 

Are you able to write emails and other content so the writing flows? As with spoken proficiency, written proficiency means that you can produce thoughtful responses in a given language— just in written format. As a proficient writer, you should be able to connect words and phrases without frequent trips to Google Translate, all the while being sensitive to the nuances of written expression. In many languages, there are phrases and rules that aren’t always consistent across spoken and written communication. Written proficiency generally includes navigating grammatical rules— and their exceptions— with relative ease. 

 

Some people are proficient in reading or speaking, but not both. That’s okay! Just make sure you check off the correct boxes. It’s not uncommon to become fluent in certain aspects of a language without mastering the other parts; so be honest about your proficiency and don’t be afraid to list languages that you can confidently answer “yes” to for any of the above questions, even if you can’t answer “yes” to all.

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Should You List the Languages You’re Learning?

 

Many students are enrolled in foreign language courses in high school; often, it’s required. Feel free to list languages you’re learning in school — but only if you’re truly proficient in reading, writing, and/or speaking that language. Be completely honest about your actual skill level. If you’re not conversational or fluent in a given language, it’s probably best not to list it. Admissions officers will see your transcript and know that you’re taking it in school. Your grades and test scores should support your claims.

 

For example, if you’re taking French in high school and you’ve spent a month abroad in France, leading you to feel comfortable conversing with native speakers, it’s reasonable to say you’re proficient on your application.

 

Likewise, if you grew up speaking Spanish in your household — perhaps it was even your first language — that’s certainly another reason to list it on your application.

 

Meanwhile, if you’ve been taking Mandarin for four years in high school and are performing well on your tests but aren’t comfortable holding a conversation in the language, you can probably leave it off — the adcom will see your grades in your Mandarin courses on your application regardless, so they’ll know that you’re an accomplished student.

 

This is all self-evaluation, so there’s no real objective measure. At the end of the day, just be honest with yourself — and the admissions committee — about your level of proficiency in a language. 

 

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Laura Berlinsky-Schine
Senior Blogger at CollegeVine
Short bio
Laura Berlinsky-Schine is a graduate of Johns Hopkins University, where she majored in Creative Writing and minored in History. She lives in Brooklyn, New York and works as a freelance writer specializing in education. She dreams of having a dog.