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Applying to multiple schools might increase your chances of getting into college, but filling out an application for every school on your list can be time-consuming and exhausting. That’s where the Common Application comes in.
The Common App is a single online application form used by hundreds of both private and public universities and colleges — meaning you can fill out just one application and write one essay to apply to multiple schools in one shot.
Here’s what you should know before filling out the Common App:
- What is the Common App?
- Which colleges use the Common App?
- What do you need to apply with the Common App?
- How to complete your Common App
- Applying to college is just the first step
What is the Common App?
The Common App is a standard application that can streamline the college application process. If you’re a first-time applicant or a transfer student, you can use the Common App to apply to any of the hundreds of schools that accept it. Instead of having to fill out individual applications with the same information (like your address, parent’s employer information, and high school location), you can fill out just one application — saving you a bunch of time.
When can you start filling out the Common App?
The Common App is available starting August 1 of each year. In general, applications are accepted until January 1. But remember that deadlines can vary by school, so double-check the application deadlines of the schools you’re applying to.
The application itself takes just a few hours to complete — but don’t expect to complete it and submit in one sitting. Be sure to give yourself time to request high school transcripts, get recommendations from teachers and coaches, or to build a portfolio of your work.
You should prepare the personal essays (and supplemental essays and questions, if required) in advance. You’ll probably have to write multiple drafts before you have a final version you’re satisfied with, but it’s worth it to make your application stand out.
Which colleges use the Common App?
Nearly 900 universities and colleges use the Common App, including international universities in 18 different countries.
Schools of all sizes accept the Common App (even Ivy League universities!). Some of these schools include:
- American University
- Boston University
- Arizona State University
- Cornell University
- Dartmouth College
- Drexel University
- Duke University
- Florida State University
- Harvard University
- Howard University
- Indiana University Bloomington
- Michigan State University
- New York University
- Northeastern University
- Ohio State University
- Penn State University
- Rochester Institute of Technology
- Temple University
What do you need to apply with the Common App?
To apply to schools with the Common App, you need the following documentation:
- High school transcript: When you fill out the application, the form will prompt you to enter your high school grades from your transcript. You can request a copy of your transcript for your high school counselor.
- List of activities: If you’re involved in any extracurriculars, clubs, or sports teams or have other hobbies, make sure to include them on the application to show how you spend your time outside of the classroom.
- Standardized test scores: Have a copy of your SAT or ACT test score and the date you took the test handy.
- Parent or legal guardian information: The application will ask you for details about your parent or guardian, including their name, education level, and employment.
- Academic achievements: If you’ve earned any special academic awards (like science fair awards, honor roll distinctions, or other recognitions), include those achievements on your application.
- List of schools: Make a list of the universities or colleges you’d like to apply to. You can include up to 20 schools on the Common App.
- Contact information for teachers, coaches, and counselors: You can’t upload letters of recommendation with the Common App. Instead, you’ll enter the names and email addresses of your teachers, coaches, or counselors, and they’ll receive an invitation to enter a personal recommendation — so make sure you have their contact information.
Do you have to write an essay?
The Common App does have a personal essay, but it’s not required by all colleges — and for some, it’s optional. Writing an essay might sound like a chore, but keep in mind that it’s an opportunity to showcase your personality and achievements to help your application shine.
Tips for writing a standout essay:
- Focus on you: Instead of writing about why you want to go to that particular college or what makes it a great school, focus on your personal story and what makes you unique. Share your personal experiences and what has shaped you into the person you are.
- Narrow your topic: Don’t try to cover too much. Instead, write about one particular experience or moment in time so you can cover it thoroughly.
- Write in your own voice: You might think using big words and a large vocabulary will be impressive, but your writing can lose impact this way. It’s better to write in your own voice. This will make your essay more authentic and meaningful.
- Get feedback: Ask someone you trust (like your parents, an English teacher, or your high school counselor) for feedback on your essay.
- Proofread: Make sure you proofread and edit your essay to catch any typos or grammatical mistakes.
For 2020-2021, the Common App will use the following essay prompts:
- Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, please share your story.
- The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
- Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
- Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma — anything of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.
- Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
- Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?
- Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you’ve already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.
Is the Common App free?
The Common App isn’t necessarily free since you’ll be paying any application fees charged by the schools you apply to. Out of all the schools that accept the Common App, 371 don’t have an application fee for any applicant, regardless of your household income. For other schools, the exact cost varies.
Keep in mind that some students might qualify for fee waivers — meaning they can apply to colleges for free. If you meet one of the following criteria, you could be eligible for an application fee waiver:
- You’ve received or are eligible to receive an ACT or SAT fee waiver.
- You’re enrolled in or are eligible for the Federal Free or Reduced Price Lunch Program.
- Your annual family income is within the guidelines set by the USDA Food and Nutrition Service.
- You’re enrolled in a federal, state, or local program that helps students from low-income families.
- Your family receives public assistance.
- You live in federally subsidized public housing, a foster home, or are homeless.
- You’re a ward of the state or an orphan.
- You can provide a supporting statement from a school official or community leader.
You can request a fee waiver under the “Profile” section of the Common App.
Learn More: How to Take Out a Student Loan
How to complete your Common App
You can complete the Common App in just four simple steps:
Step 1: Create a profile
First, you’ll need to create an account. To start, click on registration type (as a high school senior, you’ll fill out the application as a “First Year Student”). You’ll then create a log-in with a username and password. Make sure to use an email address you regularly check, since this is what colleges will use to contact you.
To finish registering your account, you’ll need to enter some basic information about yourself, including your legal name, birth date, address, and phone number.
Step 2: Add colleges
Use the College Search tab to look for schools that accept the Common App. You can search for schools by name or browse for schools based on location, application deadlines, application fees, testing policies, and more.
When you find a school you’d like to apply to, select it and click “Add to My Colleges.” You can add up to 20 schools to your dashboard.
Step 3: Fill out the Common App form
The Common App will ask you to input your high school grades, so you’ll need your high school transcripts. You’ll be prompted to enter additional academic achievements, extracurricular activities, and other accomplishments, too.
The application will also ask you to enter the names and email addresses of teachers, counselors, coaches, or youth group leaders who can provide personal recommendations. After your account is created and you enter their information, they’ll get an invitation to submit a recommendation for you.
Step 4: Complete essays and supplemental questions
Not all colleges require an essay, but many do. These essays are generally 250 to 650 words.
Select the prompt from the list given, then enter your essay. You can type directly into the box, paste the text in from another source, or upload it from Google Drive. Keep in mind that if you paste or upload from another source, you might lose the text’s formatting, so be sure to double-check before you submit your essay.
Some colleges also require applicants to complete additional supplemental questions. You can see each school’s requirements on the Common App website. Depending on the school, you might answer supplemental questions like:
- Why are you interested in your intended major?
- Why do you want to go to this college?
- Why is your hobby important to you?
Step 5: Submit your application
Once you’ve finished the application, you’ll have the chance to review your information one more time before submitting it. When you’re ready, you’ll pay the application fees via credit card or ACH bank transfer (unless you qualify for fee waivers) and then submit the application to your selected colleges.
After you submit the application, the Common App first combines your information with the recommendations and evaluations sent in by your counselors and teachers into one form. This form is then distributed to the colleges you selected to be reviewed by their admissions departments.
Applying to college is just the first step
Completing the Common App is just the first step in getting ready for college. Next, you’ll have to start thinking about how you’re going to pay for it.
It’s usually a good idea to go through the following steps when planning how to pay for college:
- Apply for any college scholarships and grants you might qualify for: Both grants and scholarships are essentially free money that you can put toward school without having to pay anything back.
- Fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA): You’ll apply for federal student loans as well as other federal funding (like federal grants and work-study programs) by submitting the FAFSA. It’s important to do this early in your senior year so you can get any federal financial aid you’re entitled to.
- Consider private student loans: If you need more money to cover your college costs, private student loans could help fill the gap. Be sure to shop around and compare rates from as many private student loan lenders as possible to get the best deal. You can do this easily with Credible — you only need to fill out a single form (instead of multiple applications) to compare multiple lenders. Plus, you’ll be able to see your rates in two minutes.