The Common App Guide: How it Works, How to Use it, and Tips for Success

Teen man gleefully looking at his phone while raising a fist in triumph

The Common App Guide: How it Works, How to Use it, and Tips for Success

Published August 10, 2023

Teen man gleefully looking at his phone while raising a fist in triumph

Millions of high school seniors dive into the college application process every year. A critical tool in this endeavor is the Common Application, or the Common App for short. However, the complexity of this online application platform can be daunting for students and parents. This guide takes you through the Common App and explains how to make the most of it.

What Is the Common App?

The Common Application, or Common App, is a standardized online application used by more than 1,000 colleges, primarily in the U.S. but also abroad. Students input their biographical info, grades, test scores, activities, recommendation letters, essays, and more — and apply to multiple schools at once. 

The Common App saves students from having to fill out each college application separately and allows them to track the status of their applications through a single, centralized platform. For teachers and high school counselors, it also streamlines the process of uploading transcripts and letters of recommendation. 

In addition to making the application process more efficient for students and their recommenders, the comprehensive Common App allows students to highlight who they are and what interests and motivates them beyond their academic performance. 

>> LOG IN TO THE COMMON APP

One of the key benefits of the Common App is that it allows for a holistic application review that considers factors beyond a student’s GPA and test scores.

Admissions committees that embrace a holistic review process will read a student’s application from front to back. They’ll look at the student’s courses and the level of rigor involved, how their GPA has developed over time, and what their recommenders have to say about them. 

They’ll consider the student’s extracurricular involvement, work, and family obligations — and what these reveal about their intellectual curiosity, maturity, and work ethic. They’ll look at the unique value the student will add to the incoming class and their preparedness to pursue their stated plans.

“College admissions has changed a lot,” says consultant Ellen Whalen, who coaches students for Road2College. “In the college application pool, students can look very much alike, even if they stand out in their school. Rather than well-rounded students, colleges want well-rounded classes. To achieve that, they look for ‘pointy students’ — basically students that are experts who have gone deep in one or two areas of interest.”

That’s where the Common App can come in handy. Through the various components of the Common App, students can spin a narrative that reveals the person behind the application.

Benefits of the Common App

Beyond the time-saving component, there are several benefits to using the Common App:

  • Holistic application review. While some schools admit students based on a formula, those that use the Common App tend toward a holistic application review — meaning they look at more than just a student’s GPA and standardized test scores. These schools may also consider factors such as students’ extracurricular involvement, academic growth over time, and unique character, talents, experiences, and background. 
  • Automatic fee waivers. Students who need their application fees waived can request a fee waiver in the profile section of the Common App. Once the student’s fee waiver is approved, it automatically applies across the entire list of schools to which they apply. 
  • Streamlined application process. College applicants used to have to repeat the same information across multiple applications. A key benefit of the Common App is that it enables busy students to apply to multiple colleges simultaneously through a single, standardized application. 
  • Access to more than 1,000 institutions. Another great benefit of the Common App is its wide acceptance among colleges and universities, including many of the nation’s top public and private universities. Many students have a college list that includes reach, target, and safe schools. The Common App allows students to use the same application to apply to many or all of them at once.
  • Easy collaboration with recommenders. The Common App eases the process of submitting recommendation letters by allowing students to enter their teachers’ contact info and send them requests and reminders directly from the App. Students can see once a recommender accepts or declines their invitation and when they receive a recommendation.
  • Dashboard to track application status. Within the Common App, you can track the status of your applications — including invitations for teachers and counselors to add recommendation letters and other items — through a centralized dashboard. You can also see whether a school has received and accepted your application after you’ve submitted it.

How the Common App Compares to Other Systems

The Common App is the most widely used online application platform, embraced by Ivy League schools, larger public universities, and smaller liberal arts colleges alike. However, some schools use a separate centralized application system for admissions. 

Here are examples:

  • UC Application – This is for students applying to one of the nine campuses in the University of California (UC) System campuses. 
  • Common Black College Application – This is for students applying to certain Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Its 65+ members include Alabama State University, Fisk University, and Virginia State University. Students can apply to all 65+ member colleges for a total application fee of $20.
  • ApplyTexas – This allows students to apply to as many as 40 Texas colleges and universities from a single online portal. However, many Texas schools, including larger public universities like UT Austin, Texas Tech, and Texas A&M, have joined the Common App, so students may want to check there before deciding to use a separate platform.

These alternative application systems follow a similar format to the Common App, allowing students to input transcripts, test scores, letters of recommendation, etc., required by most schools. However, they also have some distinct differences.

For example, while the UC application allows students to list as many as 20 extracurricular activities, the Common App only allows 10. ApplyTexas allows students to apply for scholarships to certain Texas-based schools directly within the app. Still, it’s generally considered less intuitive and easy to use than the Common App.

Do I Have to Use the Common App?

No. While the Common App is widely used, it’s not mandatory for college applications. Schools like MIT and Georgetown require direct website applications. Others, like UC Berkeley and UCLA, use alternative platforms like the University of California (UC) Application.

Students in Texas can use the statewide college application platform known as ApplyTexas, while those interested in attending certain historically Black colleges and institutions can apply to more than 65 member schools through Common Black College Application. 

Many colleges offer more than one option for applying. If they do, they generally don’t have a preference for which platform students use. However, the Common App may be the most convenient solution for students applying to multiple colleges.

Common App Deadlines

The Common App opens on August 1, but individual schools determine the application deadlines. Generally speaking, early decision deadlines fall between November 1 and December 1, while the regular application deadline is around January 1. However, the exact dates may vary among schools. 

Be sure to check each school’s application deadline and plan accordingly. You can find application deadlines posted on the school’s website or directly within the Common App.

How Soon Should You Start Working on the Common App?

While the Common App opens on August 1, you shouldn’t necessarily wait until then to start working on your application. You can tackle certain facets of the Common App well in advance, such as asking for letters of recommendation at the end of junior year.

To get a jump start on applications, students can also use the summer between their junior and senior year to visit schools, compile their list of preferred colleges, and start thinking about their essays. 

>> NEED HELP? Road2College offers 1-1 Common App review and essay coaching

How Long Does it Take to Complete the Common App?

6-8 weeks. Applying to colleges through the Common App is an intensive process, and students should allow themselves at least 6-8 weeks to complete their application. Besides filling out the application, students will need to write essays, gather transcripts and test scores, and request letters of rccommendation. 

Essays, in particular, can take several weeks to write since students often go through multiple drafts before they land on a story they feel is worth telling. Students may also want to solicit feedback on their essays to ensure that they are coming across in a way that highlights their unique strengths and character.

Students should also give teachers as much lead time as possible on letters of recommendation, especially since most teachers are completing them for multiple students. Missing out on a solid recommendation because you didn’t ask early enough is a common Common App mistake you want to avoid.

What Does the Common App Cover?

The Common App is comprehensive, covering biographical information about the student and their family, the student’s academic record (including coursework, grades, GPA, and honors), performance on standardized tests, extracurriculars, essays, recommendation letters, and more. 

This information is spread across seven distinct sections of the application.

Sections of the Common App

The seven Common App sections are profile, family, education, testing, activities, writing, and grades. 

Here is a description of each section:

  • Profile: The Profile section of the Common App asks for basic information like the student’s name, contact details, demographic information, country of origin and current citizenship, and languages spoken. This section is also where students can request a fee waiver by indicating that they meet one or more conditions for eligibility. 
  • Family: The Family section asks for information about the student’s parents, including their contact info, educational attainment, and current or former occupation. Students will also be prompted to fill in the names and ages of any siblings.
  • Education: The Education section gathers information about the high school the student attended, as well as their grades, coursework, GPA, and any academic achievements the student wishes to highlight. It will also ask for information about any college-level coursework the student has taken.
  • Testing: Here’s where the student will submit scores for any standardized tests they have taken, such as the SAT/ACT, SAT subject, AP,  IB, or Cambridge tests. International students may also need to provide scores on language proficiency tests, such as the TOEFL, PTE, IELTS, or Duolingo English Test.
  • Activities: Within the Activities section, students can list and describe up to 10 extracurricular activities they have participated in. These may include volunteer activities, school leadership, hobbies, sports, family obligations, employment, and more. Each activity description is limited to 150 characters, so students should consider how best to fit in everything they want to highlight.
  • Writing: The Common App requires students to write one main essay of 650 words, known as a personal statement. Also, a section called Community Disruption gives students a place to discuss how COVID affected them. Finally, they can use the Additional Information for items that don’t fit elsewhere on the application. That may include a link to a student’s portfolio, explanations of course conflicts, or extenuating circumstances that prevented students from pursuing a particular academic interest. In addition to the core writing section of the Common App, individual schools may ask for additional essays and writing supplements.
  • Courses and grades: This section prompts students to self-report on their completed classes and what they plan to take their senior year. It gives colleges a sense of the academic rigor and diversity students have pursued leading up to college and how well their classes have prepared them for their future field of study.

In addition to the core sections, the Common App asks for transcripts and letters of recommendation. The student’s guidance counselor and selected recommenders will upload them directly.

Depending on the colleges you apply to, you may get prompts to upload supplemental materials, such as a portfolio, resume, or writing sample. Some schools will also request additional essays and writing supplements. You can post these supplemental requirements under each school in the My Colleges portion of the Common App.

How to Use the Common App

1. Create an account

Students can create a Common App account by visiting apply.commonapp.org/createaccount. Once there, they’ll select their student type — either First-Year Student or Transfer Student, depending on whether they’ve previously attended college. 

The next screen will prompt students to choose their login credentials, including a preferred email address and password. Remember that schools may use this email address to contact you about the application, so be sure that it’s one you check regularly and won’t mind admissions counselors seeing. 

After the initial login, the student must enter basic registration information, including their name, address, phone number, and date of birth. To avoid any confusion on their applications, students should be sure that the name they enter matches what appears on their high school transcripts.

Students must choose their communication preferences and accept the Common App’s privacy policy to complete their account setup. 

2. Add schools

Within the Common App, students can add desired schools via the College Search tab. If students already know the schools they want to apply to, they can add them directly by name. Otherwise, they can use the search function to filter by location, application deadline, writing and standardized testing requirements, and more.

Once a student adds a college to their list, it will appear in their main dashboard and the My Colleges tab. Students can add as many as 20 schools to their college list and swap them out at any time until they’ve submitted their application. 

Each college has its own application requirements, which may include letters of recommendation, writing supplements, and additional essay questions. You can find these specific requirements under the “College Information” tab for each school.  

3. Fill out the application

To complete their application, students will need to have several pieces of information at their disposal. These include:

  • A copy of their high school transcript for adding coursework and grades 
  • A copy of their college transcript, if they’re planning to apply as a transfer student
  • A list of extracurricular and work-related activities they intend to feature in their application, including the dates they participated and their involvement in each activity
  • Scores and exam dates for any standardized tests they’ve taken, including the SAT, ACT, SAT Subject, AP, IB, and Cambridge tests
  • Scores and exam dates for any language proficiency tests they’ve taken, such as the TOEFL, PTE, IELTS, or Duolingo English Test
  • Names and contact information for any collaborators, including the school counselor who will upload your student’s official transcripts and School Report (if required), plus any teachers, coaches, or others whom your student has asked for letters of recommendation
  • Family information, including each parent’s educational background and occupation

In addition to all the factual information required for their application, students will need to complete a 650-word essay and submit any additional materials — such as extra letters of recommendation, a portfolio, or supplemental essays — required by individual colleges. 

While filling out their application, students will get prompts to answer a question about waiving their Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) right to see their letters of recommendation for college. This opt-out essentially gives recommenders confidentiality when writing letters of recommendation, ensuring they give an honest impression of the student.

4. Submit the application

Once the application is complete, submitting it is a three-step process. Students must verify that they’ve reviewed it, pay their application fees (if they don’t qualify for a fee waiver), and hit submit. 

After that, students cannot go back and revise the application. They will receive notifications from each school that has received their application and accepted it for review. They will also receive notifications from schools about any errors or questions to address. 

Video: Conquering the Common App

Tips for Filling Out the Common App

  • Develop a strong narrative. Let’s say a student is a natural tinkerer and eventually wants to be an engineer. They’re also an Eagle Scout who’s volunteered to build stairs and ramps for older adults. They have a part-time job flipping burgers, participate on the varsity soccer team, and enjoy taking things apart and rebuilding them. They also spend a lot of time caring for their grandmother and making repairs around her house. “The narrative is what ties everything together and helps the student stand out,” says Ellen Whalen. On the Common App, this student can form a narrative around his disparate interests by talking about how his plans involve getting an engineering degree so he can develop devices that solve mobility issues. He can list classes — such as physics and advanced math — demonstrating his interest in engineering-related concepts. He can request letters of recommendation from teachers who can speak to his aptitude in those subjects. He can also highlight aspects of his work and volunteer activities that show his genuine interest in tinkering, problem-solving, and helping people solve challenges.
  • Start with a purpose statement. To form a strong narrative, Whalen suggests formulating a one-sentence purpose statement that speaks to who a student is and what drives them, then building their application around it. For the student above, says Whalen, that purpose statement might be, “A Jack of all trades, future engineer, Eagle Scout, and community activist for the physically challenged.” On the common application, everything from the classes the student takes his senior year to the activities he chooses to highlight first should support that narrative.
  • Ask for letters of recommendation early. Teachers get bombarded with recommendation requests and may cap the number of letters they’re willing to write in a given year. Be sure to ask teachers early — preferably at the end of your junior year. Also, be proactive in adding teachers as collaborators on your application to give them as much time as possible to provide thoughtful recommendations.
  • Make your application skimmable. Admissions officers read hundreds of applications. Help them out by making the most important information easy to find. Put the activities most relevant to your plans first, and capitalize the parts of the activity titles you want to stand out. In your resume, put the highlights at the top and less important info at the bottom. 
  • Don’t start slacking off after you apply. Applying and gaining acceptance to college is a huge milestone that students should celebrate. But that doesn’t mean students should try to coast through their senior year. Colleges receive a copy of students’ final transcripts. They can withdraw a student’s acceptance if they’ve lied about their intended course load or received poor grades in their final semesters in high school. 

Tips for Writing a Strong Common App Essay

The essay can be one of the more intimidating portions of the Common App. Many students struggle with what to write about and how to make their essay stand out from the crowd. 

Here’s a list of Common App essay-writing tips to help guide you: 

  • Choose a topic that matters to you. The Common App gives you a set of seven potential essay topics to choose from. When choosing a prompt, don’t try to guess what the committee wants to hear or what you think will make you sound most impressive. Instead, go with a topic that genuinely interests you — you’ll be far more likely to write in a way that expresses a genuinely interesting point of view. 
  • Be personal and authentic. Your personal statement should be an essay that only you could write. Write it in your own voice (rather than a dry, academic tone) and reveal something about your character, values, motivations, and worldview. As a good gauge of authenticity, give your essay to a few people who know you well and ask them if it sounds like you.
  • Tell a story. Rather than regurgitating the list of accomplishments already highlighted elsewhere on your application, use the personal statement to tell a story that brings you to life. So far in the application, the committee only has snippets. What else do they need to know? As a starting place, brainstorm what interests you, what motivates or inspires you, what keeps you up at night, a lesson or achievement that was hard won, or where you feel most in your element. Think of how the stories from your past relate to your plans for the future. Then, share a slice of life that reveals a deeper aspect of yourself and reinforces the narrative you wish to tell.
  • Proofread carefully. In addition to helping the admissions committee get a sense of who you are, the essay is a chance to showcase your writing abilities. While it’s okay to be conversational, don’t let that veer into the realm of sloppy. Read your essay over for structure, style, and errors and have someone else check it over as well. (Just don’t let them rewrite it! This essay should reflect your work, and yours alone.) 

Common App Prompts

The Common App provides students with seven essay prompts. These may change from year to year, but generally, they’re designed to enable students to express how they think and engage with the world around them. 

Students may write about an aspect of their identity or background that is uniquely meaningful to them or a topic or concept they find engaging. Students may also write about a time when they faced a difficult challenge or obstacle that resulted in personal growth or a time that they solved an interesting problem, challenged an idea, or achieved something they’re proud of. 

Students can find a list of current Common App essay prompts, as well as supplemental writing requirements by college, on the Common App website.

Common App Mistakes to Avoid

The Common App is one of the more convenient ways to apply to college, but it isn’t entirely fail-proof. Here are a few Common App mistakes to avoid.

  • Waiting until the last minute. The Common App has a lot of moving parts and is going to take some time to complete. Students who wait until the last minute to gather documents, think through their essays, or ask for letters of recommendation may submit sloppy or incomplete applications. 
  • Failing to proofread. You’ve worked hard on your application. Don’t let something as simple as a couple of typos diminish your efforts. In addition to going back and proofreading after you’ve had a day or two to refresh your mind, it’s good to have a second set of eyes on your application just to look for things you may have missed.
  • Listing activities haphazardly. Rather than a laundry list of how you spend your time, your activities should help communicate a clear story about who you are, what you’re passionate about, and how you’ve been preparing for your plans. For example, if you know that you want to eventually work in medicine, you probably want to list your experiences volunteering at a hospital and doing research in a chemistry lab near the top. While great, your summer job making smoothies should probably go near the bottom. And, rather than merely explaining the activity, focus on your unique contributions, demonstrating qualities such as leadership, creative thinking, conscientiousness, and the like. 
  • Not submitting a resume. Not all schools take a student’s resume into account, but for the schools that do, submitting a resume is a great way to list any activities that you weren’t able to include in the activities portion of the application or that you weren’t able to go as in-depth on given the strict character count. 
  • Choosing the wrong essay topic. This Common App essay is an opportunity to show the admissions committee who you are and how you think. It’s not a place to recap the activities you’ve already listed, try to capture an admissions officer’s attention with gratuitous shock value or make excuses for your academic performance. And it’s not a diary! Avoid topics that could bring your judgment into question, such as writing about a bad breakup or giving your opinion on a contentious political/religious issue. Also, avoid cliche and overused topics, such as how your parents’ divorce changed you, the death of a grandparent, or your first service or mission trip to another country. Choose a topic that reflects your authentic self and will allow you to show your depth of thought.
  • Repeating yourself. Space on the Common App is precious, so it’s best to think of your application holistically and avoid repeating the same information in multiple places. For example, if your personal statement focuses on your involvement in a particular activity, avoid writing about the same activity in a supplement. 
  • Leaving optional essay questions blank. Completing college applications can be tedious, but even if a school says an essay question is optional, you should probably write it anyway. While submitting all of the supplements isn’t a guarantee that you’ll get into a particular school, failing to do so may signal that you’re not that keen on attending. Don’t let something that small be why you don’t get into a top-choice school.

What Colleges Accept the Common App?

More than 1,000 colleges accept the Common Application. They include many top public and private universities like Harvard, Stanford, Yale, the University of Michigan, and the University of Illinois. However, notable exceptions exist among the more than 4,000 four-year colleges in the U.S. 

Some of the top private universities in the U.S., including MIT, Amherst, and Georgetown, require students to apply directly through their websites. The University of California system, which includes Berkeley and UCLA, has its own online application system, as does the 23-campus California State University system.

Students can find a full list of colleges that accept the Common App at commonapp.org/explore/.

Resources to Help Students With the Common App

Several resources are available to help students navigate various aspects of the Common App, from essay writing to dealing with technical glitches

  • Commonapp.org: The official Common App website offers comprehensive guidance on the application process, including step-by-step instructions for completing the Common App and technical support for any issues you encounter. It also has the most up-to-date information on which schools are members of the Common App and recent changes to the application itself. 
  • Road2College: Road2College offers a variety of resources to help students with the Common Application and accompanying essays, ranging from webinars to application reviews to 1-1 coaching. Road2College also offers resources to help families build their college lists and pay for school through merit scholarships and other financial aid. 
  • High school counselors: They have years of experience guiding students through the college application process and can point students to schools that may be a fit both academically and in terms of college life.
  • College admissions guides: From the “Fiske Guide to Colleges” to “Who Gets In and Why,” you can find dozens of books to guide you and your student through the college admissions process. The most comprehensive guides cover how to write a strong essay, ask for letters of recommendation, choose your major, and other topics. You can find recommended titles by doing a quick Google search for “the best college application books.”
  • Libraries and nonprofits: Many national and local nonprofits are dedicated to helping students achieve entrance into college. The nonprofit QuestBridge, for example, has a Student Resource Center offering tips and advice on the application process — including how to prepare for college admissions during high school.  Boys & Girls Club of America also offers a college-readiness program that walks students through the college application process. Finally, a number of local libraries offer essay-writing workshops for students interested in applying to college.
  • Online forums: Families can find a wealth of information on the college admissions process by joining discussion forums and social media groups dedicated to all things college. Parents can join the Road2College Facebook Community Group for free.

How Road2College Helps With College Applications

Road2College helps families plan, apply, and pay for college. We can walk you through the process, such as selecting schools, submitting a strong application, and applying for merit scholarships and other financial aid.

You can try our R2C Insights comparison tool for free. It enables you to build college lists based on your personal search criteria. We also offer a premium version with additional features that help you find the right college at the right price. You can choose a Road2College membership that best fits your needs, and it can include premium R2C Insights and other personal resources.

Families can opt for additional 1:1 services like admissions strategy and essay coaching sessions.

Common App FAQs

What is the Common App used for?

The Common App allows students to apply to multiple colleges at once and track the status of their applications once submitted. The Common App also makes it easier for teachers, mentors, and others to upload transcripts, letters of recommendation, and other documentation on their student’s behalf. 

Is Common App a good way to apply?

Yes. Many students find the Common App a convenient way to apply to college. Rather than submitting a separate application for each school, students can enter their application information into a centralized platform, including any college-specific supplements, and send it to multiple schools at once. The Common App also makes it easy to apply for fee waivers, invite teachers and mentors to upload letters of recommendation, and track the status of submitted applications.

Does Harvard use the Common App?

Yes, Harvard uses the Common App for first-year and transfer student applications. In addition to the standard application requirements, Harvard asks students to submit a supplement containing a series of questions about the student’s academic, extracurricular, and personal interests. Standardized test scores for Harvard are optional. 

How much is each Common App fee?

There is no fee to use the Common App, but individual schools have their own application fees, which students will pay when they apply. Application fees typically range from $30 to $70 but can be more for international applicants. That said, students can apply for a fee waiver if they need one.

Can I get a Common App fee waiver?

Students can apply for a fee waiver in the Profile section of the Common Application. To qualify, students need to indicate eligibility based on income conditions or the student’s status as an orphan or ward of the state. Once a fee waiver is approved, it will be applied automatically to each college the student applies to. 

How does the Common App work for transfer students?

The Common Application works much the same for transfer students as for first-year applicants. However, besides the Profile, students must provide information about their college coursework, including grades and transcripts for each college they’ve attended. They may also need to respond to essay prompts explaining their reasons for transferring.

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Use R2C Insights to help find merit aid and schools that fit the criteria most important to your student. You’ll not only save precious time, but your student will avoid the heartache of applying to schools they aren’t likely to get into or can’t afford to attend.  

Other Articles You Might Like:

Mistakes to Avoid on the Common App

FAFSA Application Guide: How to Apply, Steps, Tips, FAQs

How to Apply to College: A Comprehensive Guide

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PAYING FOR COLLEGE 101

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