Guide to the Common Application: What Is the Common App and How to Use It

Friday, September 1, 2023


High school student visits the Common App website

The Common Application officially opened for the 2023-24 college application season on August 1, allowing students across the globe to begin their college admissions journey. But what is the Common Application, exactly? Who can use it and when? You can build your college prep strategy more easily by understanding the Common App. Here’s what you need to know.

What is the Common App? 

The Common Application is an online college application platform used by more than 1,000 colleges and universities globally that allows students to apply to multiple schools using one centralized application. The main Common Application requires students to submit basic information about themselves as well as information about their high school education thus far.

It also features the main Common Application essay, also known as the personal statement. Aside from the main Common App essay, certain colleges and universities might also require supplements, which are additional short answer questions and/or essay prompts specific to that school.

Why Use the Common App? 

In many cases, the Common App eliminates the redundancies often found in the process for students applying to a balanced college list of 12-15 schools. Instead of submitting 10 different institutional applications that ask the same questions about demographics and education, students can fill out this basic information once and use it for multiple applications.

Some colleges only accept the Common App, which is why it’s so important for students to become familiar with it. The Common App also makes it easier for counselors and teachers to complete letters of recommendation, as they can upload them directly to students’ applications using a special invitation initiated by the students.

What Is the Opening Date of the Common App? 

The window to complete the Common App is typically August 1 to January 1 each year. It’s important to be aware of the application deadlines at each college you want to apply to so you can complete the Common Application and submit any supplemental materials on time.

While the Common App includes a box to check if you plan to apply for financial aid, it does not include the financial aid application itself. The FAFSA application is a separate application with different opening and closing dates, so make sure to familiarize yourself with each application and their respective deadlines. Generally, the FAFSA application opens on October 1 and closes on June 30 each year.

The Main Common Application 

First, the Common App asks basic questions including the student’s name, address, age, and background. Next is the education section, where the student provides information about their school, when they will graduate, and information about their counselor. The education section also allows input about college coursework the student may have completed.

The student will then add information about their courses from ninth grade to the present, as well as any academic awards, acknowledgments, and more. After that, the student enters information about their testing and activities before completing the essay. The Common App also includes an “additional information” section to briefly elaborate on any portions of the application the student feels need extra context, like a dip in grades or changes to their extracurricular schedule due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Common App Essay: What Are the Common Application Essays? 

After filling out the main Common App, the student is prompted to complete the application essay for any of the schools on their My Colleges list that require it. The Common App essay is 250-650 words long and must address one of the seven Common App essay prompts.

In addition, many schools ask applicants to include supplemental essays. The essay prompts vary by institution, and sometimes students may have to complete additional supplemental essays based on their declared major.

What Is the Application Process for Common App Colleges?

Completing the Common App is not a quick process. Students should allow six to eight weeks to complete the Common Application, the essay, and any supplements. However, it’s a good idea to allow even more time to write and revise the essays. Here’s an overview of how the process works.

#1 Create a Common App Account 

Visit the Common App website and click the “Create an Account” button at the top. Choose which type of account you’re creating, such as “First Year Student,” then follow the prompts to create an account. Be sure you provide an email address that you check frequently. Once your account is created, you can install the mobile app on your phone or tablet to help you stay on track with your application.

#2 Confirm Which of the Schools on Your List Accept the Common Application 

When you set up your account, you will be prompted to add schools to your list within the application. You can add colleges to the “My Colleges” section by navigating to the “College Search” section and typing in the name of the school. You can add up to 20 schools. The My College section is also where you will access school-specific supplements, including additional essays or short-answer questions asked by those specific schools.

#3 Review the Application Requirements for All the Schools You Are Considering 

Each school has its own application requirements, so you will want to review these for each school you are considering. These requirements might include supplemental essay prompts, test scores, and additional letters of recommendation. Knowing these ahead of time will help the application process go more smoothly.

#4 Gather the Required Information 

You will need to track down the information required by the Common Application and any additional information required by the schools to which you’re applying, such as transcripts, a list of extracurricular activities, a list of academic achievements and honors, information about your parents or guardians, etc. This does include your parents’ or guardians’ educational history and social security numbers, so to make the process more efficient, collect as much of this information as you can before you begin working on your application.

#5 Begin Working On Your Application 

Now that you’ve gathered the information, you can start filling out your application. You will have two parts to complete. First, complete the questions on the Common Application and the Common App essay, which will go to all the colleges you added to your My Colleges section. After that, you will complete questions and essay supplements that are specific to each college on your list.

#6 Monitor the Status of Your Application

You can check the status of your application by clicking “Check Status” at the top of your dashboard. This will show you if any sections of your application need additional information.  You can also continue to monitor the status of your application after submission to verify when letters of recommendation — which are requested through the Common App — have been received.

#7 Submit Your Application 

Before you submit your application, it’s a good idea to review it to ensure all the information is completed and accurate and to check for errors. Once you’re satisfied, you will need to pay the application fee, if applicable. Then you’re ready to submit and celebrate this important milestone!

3 Essential Tips for Filling Out the Common App Easier 

Start Early 

Starting the Common App well before the deadline can help you avoid the stress that comes with completing it at the last minute. It also gives you additional time to review your work, get feedback from your counselor, and take the time to thoroughly revise as needed. Starting early is especially important if you want to apply Early Decision or Early Action, since those application deadlines are several months earlier than Regular Decision deadlines.

Plan Your Personal Statement Ahead of Time 

We encourage students to become familiar with the prompts so they can brainstorm potential topics and start compiling a draft the summer before their senior year. The Common App offers seven prompts, so you can choose the one that works best for you.

Be Aware of Application Deadlines 

The Common App has its own deadline separate from the colleges on your list as well as financial aid deadlines. It’s important to track each deadline carefully to ensure you submit all the materials in time, especially if you plan to apply Early Decision or Early Action.

The Common App’s COVID-19 Question 

In 2020, the Common App added an additional section to allow students to write about the impact COVID-19 and/or other life-altering events have had on their lives. This is optional and not intended to be an extra essay, but it does provide space to discuss any adversity you have faced that isn’t mentioned anywhere else in your application, such as illness and loss, food insecurity, family crises, and more.

Other Application Options 

It’s important to understand which application the schools to which you’re applying use. Another centralized application option that students can use is the Coalition Application. However, far fewer schools use the Coalition App than the Common App, and most schools that use it also use the Common App anyway.

Some schools, like MIT and Georgetown, don’t use any universal application and instead use their own institutional application. That said, the Common App will likely be useful for applying to most, if not all, the schools on your list.

Applying to college can be an exciting process, but it can also be confusing and overwhelming at times. At IvyWise, we help students through every step of the process, from building a balanced college list to hitting “submit” on your applications. Schedule an Initial Consultation today to get a head start.


Related Topics

College Application Tips, Common App
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