The Common Application (also called the “Common App”) is a platform that allows you to apply to many colleges at once. You can use this online application to apply to member colleges and universities in all fifty states and the District of Columbia, as well as colleges outside of the country.
It sounds so easy to build an online profile to apply to over 1,000 participating colleges? In reality, it also seems to stir up confusion due to several factors:
- Your profile must look perfect in numerous areas.
- Once you submit the application to a college, you cannot resubmit it. In other words, you do not want to make a mistake or inadvertently leave something out on the Common App.
Nervous? Do not fret. We will walk you through what you need to know.
Why You Need a Perfect Common App Profile
We are thrilled about the impressive acceptances our clients consistently receive every year considering the record-setting application volume (with no end in sight) as illustrated in the chart below from the Common App. The 2020-2021 application cycle set unexpected application records (first year of the test-optional movement ushered in by Covid), but the 2021-2022 and 2022-2023 application cycles continued to break application records.
We do not project the application volume to slow down anytime soon.
Let’s not mince words: You need a perfect Common App profile to set you apart in the application pool.
Common App Tips 101
While completing your Common App profile seems easy at a first glance, it is more complicated than it appears. Crafting a compelling Common App profile is not a do-it-yourself project for a majority of students. It takes more time to complete and review than most students anticipate.
Here are the four biggest mistakes we see when prospective clients contact us before college application deadlines:
- Completing your entire Common App profile in one sitting
- Not removing SAT or ACT scores when applying test-optional
- Undeveloped and underwhelming activity descriptions
- Not understanding the different application plans (Early Decision, Early Action, and Rolling Admissions) when answering college application questions
What Is New with the Common App?
College admissions changes each year and so does the Common App. For example, last year, the Common App introduced pronouns and a gender category in the profile section for all applicants. An optional COVID-19 essay prompt was also added for the 2020-2021 application cycle and it is still available in the writing section. This prompt allows applicants to address any challenges they encountered (lower grades, struggles to learn virtually, or how they persevered during the pandemic).
One of the biggest recent improvements to the Common App is an enhancement to the platform. Students can now search participating member colleges by applying filters in the “College Search” tab. You can look for colleges in certain states, a certain distance from your home, test optional, or even colleges that do not require an essay. Students can now search participating member colleges by applying filters in the “College Search” tab. You can look for colleges in certain states, a certain distance from your home, test optional, or even colleges that do not require an essay.
The Common App reported over fifty new colleges and universities were added to its list of participating schools for the 2022-2023 application cycle, including more schools that are minority-serving institutions.
The Common App also made changes to its background, citizenship, and ethnicity questions. Family questions related to parents and siblings became optional. Gender-related questions also became more inclusive.
For the 2022-2023 application cycle, the Common App also included a list of eligibility criteria for fee waivers so students and families know what qualifies students for available fee waivers, boiling them down into simple “yes or no” answers.
What did not change? In 2023-2024, the Common App essay prompts will remain the same.
Your Common App Goal
Keep in mind you want all of your achievements (academic, community impact, etc.) and talents to jump off the page so college admissions officials know you belong on their campus. You want them to be excited after reading your application and move you quickly to “accepted” status.
Check out our Common App tips to ensure that you will impress admissions officials.
Tip 1: Open your account early.
You can sign up for your free Common App account at any time during high school. It is important to get comfortable with the platform well ahead of your application deadlines. In some cases, you will apply to every single college on your list through the Common App!
You can begin to explore the participating colleges using the “College Search” tab, which gives you a quick snapshot of things to know, such as application deadlines, test-optional policies, and required letters of recommendation.
Juniors, why not start completing certain sections of the Common App in the spring to alleviate stress in the fall? Note that the main essay prompts generally do not change much at all from year to year, so you could even get a head start on essay writing. For example, the Common App decided to keep all essay prompts the same for the upcoming year.
The Common App generally closes access for all users the last week of July for maintenance and updating college supplemental essays. When it reopens on August 1, all of your information will remain in your account. (You can always take screenshot images or save it in a PDF form to alleviate any nervousness about losing information.)
Tip 2: Pay attention to deadlines.
Use the Common App Dashboard tab to understand and track all deadlines. Once you add a college to your “My College” tab, it shows up in the Dashboard tab as well. You can set your application deadlines ahead of time to help you prioritize your tasks.
You can have twenty colleges saved in your Common App profile at one time.
Deadlines are not suggestions — you must have your full application completed by that date. Do not wait until the day before the deadline to start your application! Once you complete your application at each college and university, you will typically receive an identification number and an online portal account at each institution to track the status of your application throughout the process.
As you get other portions submitted, such as your transcript and recommendation letters, they get added to your existing file.
Tip 3: Have a parent help you.
… when you get to the family section, that is. You need to fill out a lot of parent information in this section, such as your parents’ majors and years of graduation. You must enter the precise college information for your parents, especially if you apply to a college as a legacy student. (This means that one of your family members attended a particular college.) Admissions officials will also want to know if an older sibling graduated from a college to which you apply.
However, note that family questions related to parents and siblings became optional this past year and will remain that way for the upcoming cycle.
Tip 4: Get a copy of your high school transcript.
Some colleges prefer and allow self-reporting. Self-reporting means that you can input your grades yourself on the Common App, without your school counselor having to send in an official copy of your transcript. You will need to list all the classes you have taken so far in high school and the final grade for each.
You can list your senior year classes, too. When you submit a Regular Decision app, you will report some grades. Early Action applications, on the other hand, do not contain senior year grades. Colleges make admissions decisions from this information, so make sure you self-report your exact grades. (By the way, do not even think about fudging your grades, not even a smidge. Colleges will ask for your final official transcript and can rescind your acceptance if they realize you have provided faulty information.)
Tip 5: Add to the “Additional Information” section if warranted.
The writing section of your Common App Profile also includes two optional prompts beyond the main essay. Students often do not commonly know about or take advantage of these prompts. You can use this section to describe circumstances that could be positives or adversity that may have impacted your GPA.
The first additional writing prompt is about the impact COVID-19 has had on you and how you handled it. Maybe you created online study sessions to help other students. Did your grades suffer from the switch to online learning? Did you learn to play a new instrument to cope with all of the uncertainty? This is the place to discuss it. The prompt has a 250-word limit.
The additional information section also allows you to include 650 words (the same maximum word count as your Common App main essay) to “explain but not complain,” as we tell clients. For example, maybe you changed high schools, and the transition impacted your GPA. Maybe you experienced trouble with virtual learning, experienced home life issues, suffered an extended illness, etc.
You can also add anything unique about you not reflected in other areas of your application. Did you travel a lot and that limited your in-school activities? Did you start a YouTube channel and now have 10,000 subscribers?
Ultimately, admissions officials want to learn new information, not read the same information over and over, so offer unique additional information to this section. Think of it as offering a new angle or dimension about you or highlighting a key achievement in your overall application. If you do not feel you have additional information to add, think outside the box. Taking care of your sister after school for two years because your parents had to work extra shifts during COVID-19 (and giving up soccer in the process) definitely counts!
Tip 6: Beef up your activities.
Colleges want to know you as a person beyond your GPA and standardized test scores (if you elect to submit your test scores). They want to know as much as possible about your activities in high school. If you want to bolster your activities, check out our resource, which lists over 30 summer programs!
The activities section allows you to input 150 characters (including spaces and punctuation) about your key successes. You can list up to ten activities. Only listing one or two activities or using 60-character descriptions may hurt your overall application. However, most students have trouble fitting it all into the 150-character limit, which is not a lot of space at all.
You can also add leadership examples in the activities section. For example, if you served as the president of a club at your college, you can note that in the position/leadership section.
We enjoy helping students hit the 150-character limit because it is like a fun word puzzle. Most students tend to veer toward modesty but we always encourage them to highlight their accomplishments.
Tip 7: Make your Common App essay outstanding.
Your college essay is the heartbeat of your application. This is an opportunity to showcase your abilities beyond grades, standardized test scores, and let the admissions official get to know you.
The Common App essay has a 650 word limit, so make your word count do literally that — make it count. It brings the person behind the application alive. It’s a chance to mention the relationships you’ve built when volunteering to feed the homeless at the soup kitchen. It’s a chance to dive deeper into the relationship you have with a disabled sibling and how you have done research to cure his disease. Whatever it is, TELL YOUR STORY! It makes your personality, goals, and enthusiasm shine.
Tip 8: Answer college app questions.
In the “My Colleges” tab, you will see the specific college applications and any supplemental essays that include:
- Questions that each institution wants to know about you, such as your desired start term, application plan, and potential major(s).
- Supplemental writing questions (if the institution requires them). These essay prompts are generally more focused on the university, such as why you want to attend or what you will bring to the community. Similar to the “additional information” section, these questions will give admissions officers the opportunity to get to know you better and understand your connection to the university.
One of the best features of the Common App is its auto-save feature, which means you can leave your work intact and add to your application over time.
Tip 9: Look for additional supplemental essays.
You may need to write supplemental essays for each college or university application. You might think this sounds easy, but depending on how many schools to which you apply, that could mean you have to write ten, fifteen, or twenty additional essays. Colleges require specific prompts and you cannot repurpose these. Check out the University of Michigan’s supplemental essays to understand the type of questions you may get asked.
The majority of supplemental essays change each year and do not release until August 1. Avoid writing your essays prior to August 1 of the year you apply for college! You want to wait until after that date so you have the most recent essay topics for that application cycle.
Tip 10: Add in academic awards.
Did you know that you can list up to five academic award achievements on your Common Application? You want to bolster this section, so go beyond “I’m on the honor roll” if you can! This can help you really distinguish yourself from other applicants in this section. The honors section lets you fill up a 100-character count limit (spaces and punctuation count). It offers you the opportunity to explain the significance or background details of the academic award such as:
- Academic distinction, honors, or honorable mentions
- Diplomas or certificates that showcase program completion or recognize a program accomplishment or other activity
- Prize or award from a contest, competition, or tournament
- Scholarship for an academic accomplishment
- Membership in selective academic group or society
Tip 11: Use the “preview” button.
Think of the “preview” button as your new best friend. Check for the preview button in the upper right-hand corner as you complete information in your profile. The preview button offers you a clear view of all the information you enter (and how admissions officials will read your application). Double and triple-check everything until you feel that each section looks perfect.
If you want to go an extra step, look for the “print” button in the bottom right corner. You might want to use this button if you feel more comfortable editing from a sheet of paper.
Tip 12: Look for the green checkmarks.
If you feel nervous before you submit the Common App (especially with my warning that you cannot undo items on the Common App!), do not stress. You will know when you complete all aspects of a specific college’s application because green check marks appear next to each section of the Common App.
Right before you enter any credit card information to pay for an application, you will have the option to preview your entire application. You can view your complete application the way admissions officials will receive it.
Review all the instructions and submit all pages. After you do so, you cannot edit any sections of the application. However, if you realize you made an error, you can contact each admissions office individually and staff members may make edits for you.
Tip 13: Check each individual college portal.
Think you are done once you see the Common App confetti fly on the final screen?
Not so fast.
You should receive an email from the colleges to which you applied with application portal instructions. It is your responsibility to check the college portal to ensure that colleges receive every required application item (letters of recommendation, transcript, SAT or ACT scores) in order to make an admissions decision.
Contact Campus to Career Crossroads for Help
Does this feel like a lot of work to you? Well, it is.
We constantly face change in the world of college admissions, and that is why college planning experts like Campus to Career Crossroads exist. For example, a Covid essay prompt was added in the Common App for the 2020-2021 application cycle. This provided another opportunity for applicants to message their unique abilities and demonstrated how they preserved during a pandemic. We stay on top of all changes and details so you end up with a perfect, polished Common App profile each year.
Interested in learning more Common App tips and additional information? Contact Campus to Career Crossroads. We are always happy to discuss these and other details about how to plan for college and can help you launch your successful journey.
What is the Common App?
The Common Application, also called the Common App, is an online college application portal used by over 1,000 colleges and universities. The online application portal replaced the paper application process that your parents may have used when they applied to college. Upcoming seniors can create a first-year account on the Common App website and officially begin applying on August 1.
What if a college is not in the Common App?
While the Common App continues to add colleges every year, there are still some colleges that do not participate. This means you must complete an institutional application typically located on a college’s website, usually located in the admissions section.
For example, the University of California system uses its own application where you can submit to any of its nine campuses with one application.
Institutional applications often ask similar questions to what is found on the Common App, but be prepared for differences. For example, they may allow for more characters, which can help you further explain your activities, or have different essay prompts. Each school will vary.
Is the Common App involved with my admissions decisions?
No. Remember that the Common App is simply a platform designed to make applying to college a little easier by allowing you to submit your application to multiple institutions. The Common App has nothing to do with whether you are accepted or not. The admissions decision solely comes from the school you are applying to after all supporting information is received.
What else do I need to know after I submit an app through the Common App?
Continue monitoring your applicant portal from each college. You want to ensure that each college has received all the additional required information (transcripts, recommendation letters, test scores). If you notice that something is missing, you will need to check with your school counselor or those who wrote your recommendation letters.
Also, note that the school will sometimes communicate additional information through the portal, such as scholarship opportunities or housing deadlines.