Focus on the Common Application

The college application process can be complex and time-consuming, especially for high schoolers who are working toward graduating, dealing with standardized tests, and making the most of their extra-curricular activities. The Common Application is meant to help offset the difficulty of the application process by making it more streamlined, accessible, and fair. For students who are applying to a multitude of participating schools, the Common Application can remove repetition from the process and significantly lower the burden of time and energy spent applying to schools.

Focus on the Common Application

To learn more about the Common Application and the college application process in general, we consulted with Meredith Lombardi, Associate Director of Outreach and Education at the Common App. The college admissions expert engages with students and the counseling community to ensure Common App resources are relevant and support college access initiatives.

What is the Common Application?

The Common Application is a single application that can be submitted to multiple colleges and universities at once. The undergraduate college admission application is designed to simplify and streamline the application process.. Students will often submit applications to as many as 10 or 12 colleges, or more, during the application process. The Common Application (or Common App) is designed to eliminate redundancies in this process in order to make applying to multiple colleges easier, more organized, and more accessible.

The Common Application is made available by Common Application Inc., a non-profit organization formed in 1975 to help simplify college admissions. Today, more than 900 colleges and universities accept the Common Application. Though the majority are schools based in the United States, a number of colleges and universities in Canada, China, Japan and parts of Europe also accept the Common Application. In addition to a non-profit staff of personnel, The Common Application is overseen by a Board of Directors whose 13 volunteer members are deans of admission or college counselors.

The Common Application is available strictly online. Applying through the Common App is a paperless process. There are separate applications for first-year students and for transfer students.

What is the purpose of the common application?

The Common Application streamlines the application process, making it possible for a student to complete and submit a single application to up to 20 schools. The purpose is to reduce the amount of time and effort spent responding to the standard application questions for items such as biographical information, family information, and academic performance materials.

The Common Application also creates a single portal for applying to more than 325 schools which charge no application fee. This means that the Common App can serve as a portal to free simultaneous submission to a large number of schools. By making it easier for students to submit multiple applications at once, and by offering a single portal for discovering schools without application fees, the Common Application aims to make the application process more accessible, equitable, and consistent.

Meredith Lombardi explains that “The mission of the Common App is to increase access, equity, and integrity in the college admission process. With over 900 member colleges in the US and around the world, students have access and exposure to a wide range of institutions. For students applying to multiple institutions, the Common App streamlines the application process by eliminating the redundancy of filling out multiple applications. Our application provides students with the necessary tools to showcase themselves and their talents while providing a unique picture of who they are as an individual.”

Common Application Inc. also serves as a “hub of information” about the college application process including important links to opportunities for financial aid and scholarships. Lombardi notes that “Our website has comprehensive tools and resources for students, families, and counselors. When students create a Common App account, they get access to financial aid resources and can connect with free virtual mentors and scholarships through our partnerships with Strive for College, the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, and Scholar Snapp. And, of course, when students have questions, they can always contact our 24/7/365 Solutions Center for support.”

You can also check out our Guide to Financial Aid for Higher Education or our Guide to Scholarships for College to learn more.

What is the common application form?

The Common Application “form” is actually a collection of materials that you must both gather and complete. This will include an array of documents such as transcripts and diplomas or degrees; supplementary materials including letters of recommendation and admission essay; and completed forms, which includes forms posing questions common to every college application, as well as forms posing questions specific to each college on your application list.

The Common Application helps streamline the process of gathering all of these materials in a single place, organizing them for submission, and reducing many of the redundancies that come with the traditional application process. The Common App is paperless, which means all materials must be gathered and all information submitted through the online portal.

As noted above, there are two different Common Applications—one for first-year students; and another for transfer students.

The primary difference between these applications is that the transfer student application includes a place to submit existing college transcripts and requests more information specific to your degree program. If you are a transfer student, it will be important to determine that the Common App is accepted not just by your target university, but also by your intended degree program.

Is there an essay with the Common App?

Every college has its own specifications and requirements regarding essays. Some Common App participants require an essay and others make the essay portion optional. For those that do require the essay, the Common App offers the applicant seven different essay prompts. This provides a unique level of flexibility for applying students.

As Lombardi explains, “The Common App essay prompts give all applicants - regardless of background or access to counseling - the opportunity to share something unique about themselves with colleges. The prompts allow students to showcase different personal attributes, such as personal growth, facing adversity, problem-solving, or intellectual curiosity. We hope that students can see themselves in one or more of the prompts and that by having a range of options to choose from, they will feel excited rather than intimidated by the writing process.”

For colleges that either require a Common App-based essay, or those who make the essay portion optional, students may choose from the following prompts. According to Common App, these 2019-2020 essay prompts will roll over into 2020-2021, though they are subject to change in the future. At the time of writing, applicants may choose between the following seven prompts:

  1. 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.
  2. 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?
  3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
  4. 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.
  5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others
  6. 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?
  7. 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.

Some colleges that accept the Common Application may require students to respond to essay prompts unique to the school, either in lieu of, or in addition to, the Common App’s seven options. To learn more, Common App points applicants to this directory of essay requirements per each participating college and university.

In addition to the standard admission essay, this coming year will offer applicants an even greater opportunity to showcase their personal stories. Lombardi notes that the Common Application is adjusting this year to meet the diverse spectrum of new needs prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Lombardi explains that “We want to reduce anxiety for applicants affected by these events and provide them with a way to share their experience with colleges and universities.”

“Next year, on the 2020-2021 application, Common App will provide students who need it with a dedicated space to elaborate on the impact of the pandemic, both personally and academically. We want to provide colleges with the information they need, with the goal of having students answer COVID-19 questions only once while using the rest of the application as they would have before to share their interests and perspectives beyond COVID-19.”

According to Lombardi, all students will have an opportunity to respond to the following prompt while applying to colleges:

Community disruptions such as COVID-19 and natural disasters can have deep and long-lasting impacts. If you need it, this space is yours to describe those impacts. Colleges care about the effects on your health and well-being, safety, family circumstances, future plans, and education, including access to reliable technology and quiet study spaces.

  • Do you wish to share anything on this topic? Y/N
  • Please use this space to describe how these events have impacted you.

The optional question will give students a 250-word space to describe their experience or any specific circumstances that have impacted their path to college, “including illness and loss, housing and employment disruptions, and shifting family obligations.”

How does the Common Application Work?

The Common Application works by providing a single portal through which you may apply to as many as 20 colleges at once. Some colleges may accept either the Common Application or a college-specific application. Other colleges may only allow you to apply using the Common App. These conditions vary from one school to another.

Whether you’re a first-year applicant or a transfer student, the Common App is designed to reduce redundancies in your application process. As the Common App site explains, “you only need to use one system to apply to multiple colleges and universities. There are two main parts you fill out: a set of common questions and each college’s own specific questions. The best part is you only have to fill out the common questions one time!”

Every university to which you apply will require you to provide your name, mailing address, social security number, financial aid information, and more. By entering this into the Common App just once, you’ll be able to satisfy a number of submission requirements for as many as 20 schools at once.

The same may be true for your personal essay, which will likely be admissible to a large number of schools on your Common App list.

You will have to answer specific questions unique to a number of colleges on your submission list. However, the Common App portal streamlines the process of answering these questions and consequently merges them with your larger submission portfolio.

Is the Common Application Free?

The Common Application is, itself, technically free. It costs nothing to use the Common App to streamline your college admissions process. There are, however, submission fees associated with many participating colleges. Even if you are submitting your application through the Common App portal, you are still subject to the general cost for submitting the application to each college on your list. The cost may vary widely—anywhere between $20 and $100 per college or university.

As you prepare to submit your Common App, you’ll be directed to the fee page for each specific college. Common App will direct you to a third-party vendor to complete payment.

That said, the Common Application does gather together a large number of colleges—more than 325 schools—that accept applications for free. There are also waiver programs available to those who cannot afford their application fees.

According to Lombardi, “Students with financial need can take advantage of Common App’s streamlined fee waiver request process. Last year, Common App members provided more than $80 million in need-based fee waivers.”

What Colleges Use the Common Application?

At the time of writing, more than 900 colleges and universities accept the Common Application. Schools are located predominantly in the U.S., spread across 49 states and the District of Columbia. There are also a number of participating colleges and universities in Canada, China, Japan, and parts of Europe.

Of participating schools, Common App identifies:

  • 204 public colleges and universities in the U.S.
  • 62 international colleges across 18 countries
  • 12 Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs)
  • 325+ schools without an application fee and
  • Nearly 250 test-optional/flexible schools

How Do I Complete the Common Application?

In its step-by-step guide, Common App’s website outlines the application process for first-year applicants in 7 steps:

  • Gather Materials—Prepare for your application by locating key documents and information such as your high-school transcript; college entrance exam scores; Parent/Legal Guardian info, etc.
  • Create an Account—Register online using an email address that you check regularly. College may use this email address to contact you.
  • Add Colleges—Pick up to 20 colleges for submission using the Common App’s search filters for factors like geography, application deadline, application fees, testing policy, writing requirements, and more.
  • Engage Supporters—Individual colleges on your submission list will have unique requirements for letters of recommendation or other endorsements from teachers, coaches, counselors, or others who can speak to your abilities and character. Reach out to candidates who may be able to help you fulfill this requirement.
  • Understanding Requirements—Be sure you’ve read the instructions clearly and carefully, not just for completing the Common Application, but for satisfying the specific requirements of each college on your list, especially individual college deadlines.
  • Plan Essays—Determine the writing requirements for each of the schools on your list and prepare accordingly. If writing is challenging for you, enlist the editorial support of a teacher, parent, or counselor.
  • Submit Your Application—Once everything is gathered and filled out, review thoroughly, pay individual school submission fees, and submit!

Are there other programs like the Common App?

The Common App is the most widely-recognized and commonly-used portal for simultaneous submission but there are a few other organizations that perform a similar function:

  • Universal College Application—Founded in 2007, the Universal College Application is a for-profit producing applications that are accepted by 10 schools.
  • Coalition Application—Founded in 2015, the Coalition Application has more than 150 participating colleges and allows students to begin building their portfolios as early as 9th grade.
  • Common Black College Application (CBCA)—Founded in 2000, the Common Black College Application includes 55 participating schools and creates a path for multiple submissions tailored for HBCUs.
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For more detailed tips and advice on streamlining the application process, take a look at Common App Read, “A complete toolkit of tips and best practices designed to help your students complete their applications successfully and on time.”

You can also download the Common Application mobile app to keep track of your application progress and college deadlines.

For more on the application process in general, return to our Guide to Applying for College. You might also be interested in our Guide to Financial Aid for Higher Education.