Looking at different colleges for the next chapter in life is exciting. Filling out all of the forms and college applications? Not so much.
Fortunately, more than half of colleges and universities in the U.S.—and even some abroad—use the Common Application, or “Common App,” which consolidates many of your college applications to different schools into one, as long as the colleges you’re applying to accept the Common App. Many types of schools—public or private, large or small—use the Common App, which is a not-for-profit organization that is not affiliated with any school.
So, how does it work? Here’s what you can expect when using the Common App.
Finding your college
First, find out if the colleges you’re interested in use the Common App by typing in the school’s name in the search bar on commonapp.org. You can also explore colleges on the website, if you haven’t quite nailed down where you’d like to study yet. It’s actually not required to choose a college before you begin the application, but it’s helpful for you to have some in mind so that you know it’s worth it to move forward with the Common App, rather than applying directly to each college.
(Once you’re logged in, it also allows you to search for colleges that have—or don’t have—certain requirements, such as a personal essay, letter of recommendation or standardized tests. There are 250+ colleges using the Common App that are test optional or that do not require an application fee.)
Begin your application by selecting “Apply Now” in the top right of your screen, which will prompt you to create an account or sign in. Starting your application does not mean that you have to finish it all in one sitting; you can go back to it later to fill in more information and submit it.
You’ll start with the basics: Name, Address, Contact Information, whether you’re applying as a first-year student or a transfer, and when you plan to start college. You’ll also be able to choose whether or not you want the colleges that you are considering to be able to contact you or not. Once you enter this initial information, you’ll receive a welcome message. You are ready to get into the core of the application.
Completing the App
The Common App has six sections: Profile, Family, Education, Testing, Activities, and Writing. There is also a new section (as of 2017) called Courses and Grades, but only a handful of colleges are currently using that section.
There is a tutorial video for each section of the Common App as you complete it, plus a robust support center, including an application term dictionary for any words that you’re not familiar with, 24/7 access to chat, and financial aid information and tips.
Be prepared to answer basic questions about your family and your high school, including your counselor’s name, your graduating class size, and also the courses you are currently taking. You’ll plug in which career you’re interested in (undecided is an option) and the highest degree you’d like to obtain. This is the type of information that you’ll only have to enter one time for all colleges that you apply to through the Common App.
The two sections that will most likely take most of your time are Activities, which is an optional section, and Writing, which is not required by every college. The Activities section covers everything from clubs to volunteer work to athletic teams to employment to family responsibilities. The purpose of this section is to help colleges gain a better understanding of your life outside of the classroom.
The Writing section is your essay, which demonstrates your writing ability and helps you tell your own unique story. If any of your college selections require the essay, you’ll need to complete this section. There are seven essay topics, including a “topic of your choice” option, from which you may choose.
In addition to the main sections, you’ll see any supplemental questions for each college you are considering under the “My Colleges” tab. There are helpful checkboxes that indicate whether or not you’ve completed all of the supplemental questions.
As you complete each section, you can monitor your progress and any deadlines or requirements you need to meet for each college.
Pro tip: Use Google drive to easily upload your essay, while keeping a copy of it for yourself. Check out this how-to video.
Bonus pro tip: You can download the free “Common App onTrack” mobile app to help you keep track of all of your deadlines and requirements. You can even create your own list of reminders and tasks.