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How to Apply for College with the Common App Guidelines & Tips on Using the Common Application to Your Advantage

Over 750 colleges and universities — from small private institutions to big state schools — use the Common Application, also known as the Common App. This valuable tool helps users apply to more schools faster and more efficiently. Future college students, transfer students, parents and counselors can all benefit from getting to know and understand the Common Application; this page breaks down how the Common Application works and how to get started. Get invaluable tips for finding the best colleges using the Common Application, from writing the essay and submitting to everything in between.

Meet the Expert

Katherine Pastor High School Counselor

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How the Common Application Works

The Common Application can make applying to colleges significantly easier for students, allowing them to compile the information all their schools want to know in one place. Hundreds of colleges use and accept the Common Application, so thousands of high school students, transfer students and those returning to college use it each year. Learn how the application works and walk through the process step-by-step below.

What is the Common Application?

The Common Application is a single, online application that students can submit to any participating school, rather than having to fill out a new application for every school individually. However, nearly half of all school participating in the Common Application also require students submit a supplemental application specific to that college or university.

How does the Common Application process work?

College FAQ: Who the Common Application Is for & More

Whether familiar with the Common Application or not, all applicants (and parents or counselors who support them) have questions or concerns. Below are some of the most important questions users have asked about the Common Application. If you still have questions, the Common Application has its own Help Center to guide and advise users.

Who is the Common Application helpful for?

  • College-Bound High School Students: The Common Application can help high school students stay organized by keeping track of all their application materials and deadlines in one place. Through the Common Application, they can check that their recommendation letters have been completed and track what materials still need to be uploaded or submitted.

  • Transfer Students: Students who are transferring, but still finishing a course elsewhere or working while going to school can benefit from the organizational functions of the Common App system, streamlining the application process and saving time and energy.

  • Parents: Applications often ask for information about students’ parents or guardians in order to determine if they are eligible for certain awards and financial aid, such as first-generation college student scholarships. The Common Application means parents can help their students fill out this and other background information once rather than repeatedly.

Filling out the Common Application itself is free, but students may have to pay to submit the application to schools. As of January 2017, over 250 schools using the Common App had no application fee, but some colleges and universities do require submission fees as part of the application process. These fees can vary from $25 to nearly $100 per school, but fee waivers are readily available to those with financial need through the National Association for College Admission Counseling, the College Board, and even the Common Application itself.

The main piece of paperwork needed will be a high school — or college, in the case of transfer students — transcript. Additionally, applicants will need to know the dates and scores for their standardized tests such as the SAT and ACT.

One of the most significant components of the Common Application is the essay. The essay is typically limited to 650 words and has multiple prompts to choose from (skip to more on the Common App essay). Other important components of the Common Application are:

  • Profile: The profile portion of the Common Application has personal and demographic information, such as the applicant’s name and address. Information about the applicant’s family also belongs here.

  • Academic History: The Common Application requires information about high schools (or colleges in the case of transferring students) attended and courses taken. Although a transcript can be uploaded to the Common Application, colleges may require transcripts be submitted directly to their admissions office. This section is also where applicants should add the counselors and/or teachers who will be submitting recommendation letters.

  • Test Scores: Students can use this section to self-report the scores they received on college application and credit tests, most commonly the SAT, ACT, Advanced Placement (AP) and SAT Subject tests. Applicants must also submit scores they want considered to the schools directly through the College Board or ACT even if they include scores on the Common Application.

  • Extracurriculars: Clubs, volunteering, sports and other activities that take place beyond the classroom can be included in this section. Avoid including only extracurriculars that seem impressive; other activities and passions can help applicants stand out.

  • Supplemental Materials: Some colleges and programs may need to see something specific to their campus, such as an applicant’s eligibility for a specific scholarship or additional essay questions. These materials vary from school to school.

For those interested in taking online courses that do not build towards a degree, a Common Application may not be necessary. For those taking courses for credit, a formal application is likely required, and the Common App could be helpful. Online students who want to apply to several colleges should check if their choice schools participate in the Common App program—the program is most valuable for multi-school applicants.

Another consideration to make when choosing whether or not to fill out the Common App is cost: some online colleges don’t require application fees, while others do. Filling out multiple applications with the Common App may be costly.

Students can have nearly a dozen versions of their Common Application saved to their profile, but because the Common Application exists to provide one application for multiple schools it does not need to be altered for each school. The colleges and universities that use the Common Application may require unique supplemental applications, such as additional essays, if they want to learn about the applicant beyond the standard Common Application.

Online Students: The Best Colleges that Accept the Common Application by State

The Common Application was created to help make applying to college easier and more accessible for future students. Whether planning to take classes online or in-person, a complete list of Common App schools can be found below, but for online students specifically, the map below shows our picks for the best online colleges that also accept the Common Application by state below.

THE BEST ONLINE COLLEGES THAT ACCEPT THE COMMON APPLICATION

Conquering the Common Application Essay

The Common Application essay is where applicants have their best chance to show admissions officers at colleges who they really are. Beyond the standard information like grades, test scores and extracurriculars, applicants can use the essay to tell a unique story that helps them stand out. Instead of dreading this portion of the Common Application, use some of the tips and tricks below to craft a strong, concise essay.

Consider the Choices

The Common Application essay has multiple prompts which applicants can choose from. The prompts can be found here and cover a variety of topics that allow for innumerable unique essays. Try brainstorming responses to each prompt instead of settling on one immediately.

Start Early

The application process is time-consuming, even with the Common Application, so be sure to set aside plenty of time for completing the essay itself. The essay should be thoughtful and show your capabilities and potentials, not likely something you want to simply churn out in a few hours. Applicants who feel they do their best work under the pressure of a deadline can work with counselors, teachers and others to create personal deadlines independent of the Common App’s due date.

Get Feedback

There’s always room for improvement. Finish writing, but then ask for feedback and be open to revising. Counselors and teachers for high school students — or academic advisors and professors for transferring college students — may have helpful suggestions for improving and clarifying the essay. They can also help applicants make sure that their essay conveys exactly what’s intended.

Remember the Prompt and Guidelines

Even the most beautiful essay may not sway college admissions officers if the writer did not follow the prompt. The Common Application essay also has length limitation, typically around 600 words. That’s approximately three double-spaced pages, so every word counts, and every sentence must serve a purpose. Some schools may have guidelines for their own essay supplements requirements as well.

Revise, Revise, Revise

Hammering it all out in one sitting may not be the best bet. Take breaks from essay work to approach it with fresh eyes as you revise. Consider and apply feedback, but always remember that the essay should not reflect anyone else’s viewpoints but your own. It might take multiple drafts, or tricks like the reverse outline method to make sure the essay stays focused.

Look at Successful Essays

Essays from successful applications and pieces that resounded with admissions counselors on a personal level are often posted online, such as prestigious Johns Hopkins University’s “Essays That Worked”. Try to identify what made these essays so successful and how to replicate the standout feelings or features within your own work and experiences.

Don’t Lose Yourself

Although feedback can be invaluable for applicants, do not let other people’s ideas take the reins. While allowing a parent or hired admissions coach to control or even create the essay for you may seem like a stress-free option, this can have unpleasant consequences. You may end up at a school perfect for the person your essay presented, not for who you actually are. Worse, admissions officers might even realize the essay was not written by the applicant. The Washington Post’s “Parents, Don’t Write That College Essay” offers alternative ways for parents and advisors to help students with their essay without taking control.

Expert Advice: Mistakes to Avoid on Your Common Application

Katherine Pastor, High School Counselor

Katherine is a counselor at Flagstaff High School and an adjunct faculty member at Northern Arizona University’s College of Education. She has received multiple awards and recognitions for her outstanding work as a counselor, such as 2010 Arizona School Counselor of the Year and American School Counselor’s Association (ASCA) 2016 National School Counselor of the Year. In 2017, she joined the ASCA’s Board of Directors.

COMMON APP MISTAKES TO WATCH OUT FOR FROM COUNSELOR KATHERINE PASTOR

COMMON APPLICATION Q&A WITH THE COUNSELOR

Q: How do you advise students on writing a stand-out essay for the Common Application?

A: Make sure to read through the essay prompts and understand what it is you are being asked to write about. If you have an opportunity in your senior English class to pick a writing prompt for college or scholarships, choose one from the Common App. This will allow you to have several drafts read by your English teacher and get some great feedback before you submit. Make it personal and tell your story, not what you think the admissions representatives want to hear. They want to know about you and what makes you inspired to do what you do.

Q: When should students start working on their Common Application?

A: It is always a good rule to start early, give yourself plenty of time. If you have some free time the summer before your senior year, go ahead and create an account and get as much information as you can complete. This will help alleviate some of the stress when it comes to completing college applications.

Q: Do you believe the Common Application system benefits students?

A: The Common Application allows you to apply to over 700 private and public post-secondary institutions with one application. There are some institutions that require supplemental essays, but they all accept the Common Application and you will not have to complete the general application information for each college. This is helpful, and also can save you time. Just make sure the post-secondary institutions you are interested in accept the Common App before you begin.

The Common App also has this really cool and useful mobile app (Android and Apple) that students can download to help keep them organized through the application process.