Things You Need to Know About the Common App

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  1. What is the Common App
  2. Step-by-Step Guide to Using the Common App
  3. What are the Common App Essay Prompts?
  4. Pros of the Common App
  5. Cons of the Common App
  6. Tips for Completing Your Application

When applying for jobs, you have to complete different applications for different positions within different companies. Many expect college to be the same thing. However, thanks to the Common App, that’s not entirely true. With over 1,000 colleges and universities accepting this central application form, you could apply to many or even all of your top choices for higher education in a fraction of the time!

We’ve put together a guide to provide you with everything you need to know about the common app from the basics to the essay prompts to the pros and the cons.

What is the Common App?

The Common App is a non-profit organization that streamlines the college application process for students and participating institutions. The central portion of the Common App asks for the same details and essays no matter what school you apply to. Colleges can then ask for additional information, including supplemental details and essays.

Step-by-Step Guide to Using the Common App

1. Create an Account

To complete the Common App, students first need to create an account on the Common App website. Users are asked if they are a first-time student, a transfer student, or a parent/guardian. Then applicants will need to create a password and submit information including

  • Email address
  • Legal name (and preferred nickname if you have one)
  • Year you plan to start college
  • Date of birth
  • Address
  • Phone number

2. Complete Your Common App Profile

Once you have created an account, you can get a start on your profile. This portion asks for details on demographics, languages, geography, eligibility for a fee waiver, nationality, background, and more.

3. Add Your Colleges and Universities

After a profile is completed, students should next add any colleges and universities they wish to apply to. This should be done before completing other sections of the application as not all schools will require every section to be submitted. The Common App does a great job of alerting applicants to what information is needed depending on the college in question.

Students using the Common App can add up to 20 schools to their My Colleges list using the search function within their account.

4. Invite Collaborators

Students need to submit letters of recommendation for their application, and the Common App allows users to easily invite teachers and other supporters such as coaches or employers to the site. By inviting these individuals, teachers, and recommenders can directly attach their letters of recommendation and statements to your account.

Students will also need to invite their parents if they are applying under Early Decision. In addition, if a user wishes, they can add advisors and counselors to check on their application progress.

5. Fill Out The Other Sections

6 additional sections of the Common App also need to be completed:

  1. Family. Students are asked to provide parents’ names, parents’ occupations, parents’ education levels, sibling details, ages, and other details.
  2. Education. Applicants will need to submit high school information, transcripts, graduation dates, details on any college courses that were completed, GPA, honors, awards, goals, community service and the organization’s details, and more.
  3. Testing. Here students will be asked for their SAT/ACT results, AP exam results, IB exam scores, and any other optional test scores the student wishes to submit. International applicants will need to enter their results from an English proficiency test.
  4. Activities. Applicants can provide details on up to 10 extracurriculars, clubs, and other activities. Each activity will ask for type, student position, organization name, when and how much the student participated, and what the student accomplished.
  5. Writing. Most, but not all, colleges request personal essays with the Common App. The Common App will actually inform you whether or not you need to complete this section and for which schools.
    • Students can also opt to submit information about disruptions their family faced as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, hardships that affected grades, or other achievements.
    • In addition, some schools may ask additional questions such as why the student wants to attend that particular college.
  6. Courses & Grades. Only some schools request self reporting on this section, and many students are able to skip this portion entirely. It asks for further details on grades and any courses taken outside of the student’s high school.

6. Submit!

Once a student is confident that they have completed all of the required application materials, students can hit submit on their side. But keep in mind that once applications are submitted for a specific school, details cannot be changed. You should always review all of your details, your essay, and ensure you’ve completed all of the required sections before you send it off to the school.

What Are the Common App Essay Prompts?

Many colleges and universities that use the Common App require students to complete a personal essay. These generally need to be at least 250 words and a maximum of 650 words. As with other college application essays, students should dedicate time to brainstorming, writing, editing, and proofreading these pieces.

For the 2023-24 application cycle, applicants can choose from one of the following personal essay topics:

    • Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then 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?
    • Reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you?
    • 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 that 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.

Keep in mind that these topics can change from year to year, but they rarely do. This allows applicants to get a head start!

Colleges and universities may also have additional supplemental writing questions that are unique to their college. These essays might focus on what a student brings to the community, why they want to attend a particular college, how they fit into their community, and more.

Pros of the Common App

It Simplifies the College Application Process

There’s no getting around it: the Common App is wonderful at saving you time. With high school, work, community service, sports, and, of course, applying to colleges, you can always benefit from something that makes your hectic life just a bit easier.

The application only requires you to fill out the form once and then it is available to send to any of the schools that are a member of the system. If you have several schools that accept the Common App, that’s several fewer forms you will have to complete. Some universities also only accept the Common Application, so make sure to check the application process for every college/university you’re interested in before completing any.

You Can Easily Track College Details

In addition to applying to colleges, the Common App can help you track your potential schools’ deadlines and requirements. This could help make sure you submit your overall application, essay, and supplemental documentation, like letters of recommendation, on time. The dashboard provides you with plenty of information that makes it easy to track your progress and applications.

However, while these are helpful tools, always double-check the schools’ deadlines available on their websites. Not all information may be supplied on the Common App dashboard. You don’t want to submit something late by accident and be disqualified from the application process.

Over 1,000 Colleges Accept It

The Common App started with only 15 users. Today, it is over 1,000! Many of the top-ranking colleges and universities offer this option as part of their application process. For instance, all 8 of the Ivy League colleges utilize it!

Other institutions that offer it as an application option include:

Some of the 1,000+ colleges and universities that use the Common App may only accept this application process. Others may offer other universal application options, such as the Coalition App, or their own application processes if the student wishes to go another route.

Cons of the Common App

It’s Easy to Overdo It

While over 1,000 institutions accept the Common App, it doesn’t mean you should apply to all of them. Even though the Common App restricts you to 20 colleges on your account, it is easy to forget that you don’t need to apply to any school that simply catches your eye. Students can get caught up in the ease of applying to several schools at once. It’s important to still do your research and apply to colleges that align with your needs and goals.

On the other hand, don’t avoid applying to colleges that don’t accept the Common App just because it may be more difficult or time-consuming. If you’re sincerely interested in attending the school, take the time to apply!

It Can Experience Technical Difficulties at Crucial Moments

We’ve said it before and we’ll keep saying it: Do not wait until the night before or the day of the college’s deadline to submit your application. Technical difficulties can and do occur and you don’t want an unexpected tech issue with the Common App to occur as you get down to the wire.

Not All Schools Accept the Common App

While quite a number of schools accept the Common App, not all do. This shouldn’t stop you from applying to these colleges and universities, but don’t delay on these applications thinking you can get it all done from your Common App account. Several top schools don’t participate at the moment such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Georgetown University.

Tips for Completing Your Application

Like all college applications, your Common App requires your full attention. These tips can help you streamline your application process and could potentially increase your chances of getting an acceptance letter.

1. Don’t Try To Do It All at Once

The Common App asks for a lot of information on top of a potential personal essay and an optional COVID-19 statement. It’s a lot to tackle in one sitting, and it isn’t recommended that you do so. Instead, complete the application in bite-sized pieces. This will help prevent burnout and also ensure you’re giving your essay the right amount of attention.

2. Start As Soon as Possible

So you’re not getting down to the wire and running into technical difficulties on January 1st, students using the Common App should start as soon as possible. This will give users enough time to complete their profile, fill out the sections, invite collaborators, request letters of recommendation, review their applications, write personal essays, submit supplemental information, add transcripts, and more.

Starting early also gives students a chance to get more familiar with the Common App dashboard and use it to its full potential. And since essay topics rarely change from year to year, students can get a head start on these!

3. Utilize the “Additional Information” Section

The “Additional Information” sections allow students to submit information that they feel is important to their application. This includes the optional section on the COVID-19 disruptions, as well as another section where the student can supply any information they deem important to their experiences.

For instance, if the individual experienced a hardship that impacted their grades, this is the place to write about it. Students can also opt to share unique information and details about themselves and their achievements here if they feel there wasn’t another portion of the application where those details were appropriate. It may be an opportunity to “toot your horn” so to speak.

4. Don’t Accidentally Skip the School Specific Prompts

Some colleges and universities will ask for supplemental information, additional essays, or supporting documents. The Common App alerts you to which schools request this information. Always double-check that you completed these requirements before you go to submit.

5. Provide the Right Amount of Details

Oversharing as well as undersharing could impact your acceptance chances to your dream school. It’s important to find the right balance between the two to have a well rounded, informative application that doesn’t go overboard. Here’s how you can find that balance:

  • Add as many activities, extracurriculars, and clubs as you can. Students can add up to 10 and they should utilize the 150 character limits under each about your successes, work, and achievements. Now isn’t the time for modesty!
  • Be able to back up your claims. You shouldn’t exaggerate on your Common App. For example, if you didn’t really face hardship during the pandemic, don’t make stuff up. The college may ask for proof.
  • Talk about academic awards. Users can submit up to 5 academic achievements, and have up to 100 characters to talk about their honors and awards.
  • Ask yourself: Does this information help my application? It can be easy to overwrite about ourselves to the point it’s detrimental to the college application. When reviewing your application, always ask yourself if the information you’re supplying is actually beneficial. If it isn’t, you probably don’t need it.

6. Review Before Submitting

Always double and triple-check your Common App applications before you hit that submit button! You can preview your application ahead of time and see the whole form. It’s also a good idea to have a trusted advisor, parent, or guardian read it over as well – and with the collaborator tool, it’s super easy!

The Common App is an extremely useful resource for students who want to save time and effort when it comes to the college application process. With over 1,000 institutions accepting it in the United States, you will likely be applying to a school that uses the form. Keep in mind the above tips as you’re getting started to put your best foot forward!

Although the Common App allows you to apply to up to 20 schools through the program, it doesn’t mean you have to utilize all of those slots. Instead, you want to be sure you’re applying to colleges and universities that meet your unique needs, wants, goals, and budget. By using College Raptor’s College Match you can identify those schools before you even sign up for a Common App account. And it’s free! Sign up here.

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