The Common App: Everything You Need to Know
The Common App makes it easy to apply to multiple colleges and universities.
Start applications early and proofread everything before you submit them. (Getty Images)
Applying to college is a tedious and often stressful process for students and their parents. In addition to finishing their last year of high school, teens may also be juggling the SAT or ACT, college tours if available and applications for numerous schools.
The Common Application, which is accepted by more than 900 schools, including some colleges located outside the U.S., helps streamline one essential part of the admissions process for students.
Through the platform, first-time and transfer applicants alike can apply to multiple colleges at once. So students only have to fill out details that most schools require, including name, address, parental employment and education and extracurricular activities, one time.
"The idea behind the Common App is to try and reduce the barriers that students face when applying to college," says Jenny Rickard, president and CEO of The Common Application.
Despite its popularity, the Common App may be confusing for some families who are new to the college application process. The guide below can help ease students and parents through the application.
When Can I Start Working on My College Application Through the Common App?
The new edition of the Common App opens Aug. 1 every year.
Updates for this year include the addition of at least 40 new schools, expanded search and filter options, a guided tutorial for users after an account is created, more robust details on colleges including highlighted academic programs, and an optional question for students to explain how the coronavirus has affected their lives as high schools largely went remote in the spring. The optional coronavirus question has a 250-word limit.
Students don't have to wait until Aug. 1 to get started on the Common App. They can create an account at any time and transfer their information into the new app when it opens.
To start, applicants can go to commonapp.org and click on the "Apply now" button to get details about how to create an account and log in to work on an application through the platform. Students can download the Common App's mobile app to keep track of deadlines, invite recommenders and set reminders.
The summer before senior year of high school is a great time for students to start on their applications, experts say.
"If you aren't going to be out of town or out of the country with no access to the internet, please start your application Aug. 1," says Marissa Warren, a school counselor at Yorktown High School in New York.
Students don't have to submit their applications during the summer. But starting in August gives them the opportunity to review the requirements for schools they're considering, draft essays and get some of the tedious background information completed before they get bogged down with homework and activities, Warren says.
Starting early also allows students to get the help they need at the beginning of the school year, she adds.
How Long Does It Take to Fill Out an Application?
The time it takes to fill out an application varies based on a school's requirements, experts say. However, students need to give themselves at least six weeks to get everything they need for college applications, says Christine Chu, a premier college admissions counselor with IvyWise, an education consulting company based in New York. That's two weeks to fill out any background information and at least a month for other required documents.
In addition to any parental information needed – such as employer details and educational background – many schools require first-year applicants to submit recommendation letters and transcripts. Students need to give teachers and counselors enough time to submit those materials to the Common App before deadlines.
High school counselors encourage students to ask their teachers for recommendation letters before the end of their junior year so that educators can work on them during the summer. Seniors who need recommendation letters should ask for them early in the school year, experts say.
What Are the Common App Essay Prompts, and Where Can I Find Them?
The Common App first-year essay prompts for the 2020-2021 school year will be the same as the seven prompts used for 2019-2020. "The current prompts do their job well," the Common App website reads.
Applicants have a 650-word limit for essays.
The topics vary. A few require students to reflect on their experiences and share examples of learning or personal growth. Students also have the option to share an essay on any topic of their choice or simply describe a topic that captivates them.
Applicants can see the essay prompts on the Common App's website. The organization reviews the prompts every other year.
How to Write a College Essay
With seven options, it doesn't matter which prompt is chosen as long as it's one that allows an applicant to provide insight into his or her identity in ways that aren't reflected in other parts of the application, experts say.
"You never want to echo what's in any of those other pieces," says Bonnie Casson-Deweese, director of college match for KIPP Houston Public Schools. She encourages students to look beyond academics to think about what makes them special. For example, being a high school valedictorian when applying to Harvard University isn't notable because just about everybody who applies is at the top of their class, she says.
Not all schools require students to submit an essay. Some institutions may require students to submit a supplemental essay or additional information. Applicants can see the requirements for all schools on the Common App when they log in to their student accounts or download a PDF from the Common App's website.
Applicants can also preview supplemental questions for schools before they start their applications through the platform's Student Solutions Center.
What Should I Do if I Run Into Problems With the Common App?
Students who have questions about filling out the application can ask their high school counselor and admissions officers at the colleges they're applying to for help, experts say.
The Common App also has a variety of resources to help make the application process easier.
In addition to video tutorials throughout the application, the platform has year-round technical support 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Applicants can find answers to frequently asked questions or submit a question in the Student Solutions Center. Response times vary, but the average wait time is 20 minutes, according to Common App representatives.
Why College Applications Get Rejected
Can I Get Fee Waivers for the Common App?
The Common App is free to use and 46.5% of member schools don't charge application fees for first-year students, according to data provided by the organization. Students who are applying to colleges that have an application fee will have to pay that cost when submitting their applications.
Applicants who qualify for fee waivers – those who meet the standards set by the National Association for College Admission Counseling – will be able to make that known through the application.
"A student only needs to indicate that they have financial hardship once in the application, and that fee waiver can be applied to any school they apply to," Rickard says.
Students who have questions about whether they qualify for fee waivers can reach out to their high school counselors or directly to the colleges that they are applying to, experts say.
What Tips Can Make Filling Out the Common App Easier?
Don't wait until 11:59 p.m. on Jan. 1 to finish applications as some students do, experts say. Schools will still accept applications that are a few minutes late, according to Common App representatives, but the stress that comes with fighting against the clock – and the increased potential for typos and other mistakes – isn't worth it.
Besides starting early, experts encourage students to take advantage of the Common App preview that allows students to review their application prior to submission.
Students can also assign advisers who can see parts of an application and the progress they've made.
Read:How Many Colleges Should I Apply to? ]
Do I Have to Use the Common App to Apply to College?
Students are not required to use the Common App. While the platform is popular, it isn't the only one for college applications.
Many schools allow students to apply online through their websites. Some states have application systems that students can or must use in order to apply to colleges. For example, Texas has a statewide system for submitting applications, though some Texas schools also accept the Common App.
Some well-known private institutions like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Georgetown University in the District of Columbia accept applications only through their school websites. Many competitive colleges and universities, such as Harvard and Amherst College, accept applications through the Common App.
Other platforms accepted by some schools include the Coalition Application and the Universal College Application. And while there are some exceptions, many schools that use those platforms also use the Common App.
Do Colleges Care if I Use the Common App or a Different Platform?
Colleges that allow students to submit applications through multiple platforms don't have a preference on which one is used, but high school counselors might. The Common App's integration with Naviance, a college and career readiness software provider, makes it easy for counselors to submit documentation for colleges, experts say.
But students should submit one application using the platform that works best for them.
"We want students to use whatever application best fits their life and where they are planning on attending or applying for school," says Heidi Meyer, executive director of admissions at the University of Minnesota—Twin Cities.
How Does the Common App Work for Transfer Students?
The transfer portion of the Common App works in much the same way as it does for first-time applicants. But that doesn't mean there aren't some differences.
Transfer students, unlike first-time applicants, will have additional information to submit from colleges attended. The Common App asks transfer students to list any college or university attended, dates of enrollment, college coursework completed and GPA. An essay for transfer students is also required.
Common App has updated the transfer essay requirement this year, making the prompts the same as for first-time applicants.
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