US News and World Report
Applying to college can be a tedious and stressful process for students and their parents. In addition to doing the research and paperwork associated with applications, teens may also be juggling the SAT or ACT, college tours and a tough senior year course load.
The Common Application, which is accepted by more than 1,000 schools,including some colleges located outside the U.S., helps streamline an essential part of the admissions process for students.
Through the platform, first-time and transfer applicants alike can apply to multiple colleges at once. So students only have to fill out details that most schools require – such as name, address and extracurricular activities – one time.
"The idea behind the Common App is to try and reduce the barriers that students face when applying to college," says Jenny Rickard, president and CEO of Common App, the nonprofit that manages the application.
Despite its popularity, the Common App may be confusing for some families who are new to the college application process. The guide below can help ease students and parents through the application.
When Can I Start Working on My College Application Through the Common App?
The new edition of the Common App opens Aug. 1 every year. Given the variance in college application deadlines, students should pay close attention to when they need to submit their materials.
For example, students who are applying for early action or early decision may need to submit an application in November or December, whereas the regular decision deadline is more likely to be Jan. 1. Prospective students should treat these ranges as a general rule of thumb and check with individual colleges on deadlines.
Students don't have to wait until Aug. 1 to get started on the Common App. They can create an account at any time and transfer their information into the new app when it opens.
How to Complete the Common Application
Here are steps for how students can work on an application through the platform:
Go to commonapp.org and click on the "Start your application" button to get details about how to create an account and log in. Additionally, students can download the Common App's mobile app to keep track of deadlines, invite recommenders and set reminders.
Choose the first-year student or transfer student option.
Add user information such as name, email, phone number, address, date of birth and prospective enrollment year.
Fill out the user profile with requested details on education, extracurriculars, demographic data, household information and more.
Add collaborators such as teachers, counselors and others providing letters of recommendation or other supporting documents.
Search for and add schools to "My Colleges."
Get familiar with each college's application requirements and follow those accordingly when applying.
How Long Does It Take to Fill Out an Application?
The time it takes to fill out an application varies based on a school's requirements, experts say. However, students need to give themselves at least six to eight weeks to complete their college applications, says Christine Chu, a premier college admissions counselor with IvyWise, an education consulting company.
That includes time to fill out background information, gather the required documents, and write the personal statement and any supplemental essays that might be required by schools. Applicants can find the various writing requirements for each school in the Common App's Student Solutions Center.
"Given the increase in the number of applications for some students and the number of supplemental essays that students have to write, I would suggest even longer to work on all the essays," Chu says. "Writing is an iterative process, and with revisions, which take time, students can write good essays."
In addition to any optional parental information needed – such as employer details and educational background – many schools require first-year applicants to submit recommendation letters and transcripts. Students need to give teachers and counselors enough time to submit those materials to the Common App before deadlines.
High school counselors encourage students to ask their teachers for recommendation letters before the end of their junior year so that educators can work on them during the summer. Seniors who need recommendation letters should ask for them early in the school year, experts say.
What Are the Common App Essay Prompts, and Where Can I Find Them?
There are seven Common App first-year essay prompts for the 2022-2023 school year (they are the same as the ones used for the 2021-2022 application), though students only need to choose one prompt. The prompts ask students to, for instance, "reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea" or "discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth." Applicants have a maximum of 650 words for the essay.
An optional non-essay question added in 2020 on how the coronavirus pandemic affected students will remain on the Common App this year. Answers to this question are limited to 250 words. Roughly 20% of all applicants in the 2021-2022 admissions cycle provided a response to the COVID-19 question, per figures provided by Emma Steele, director of media and external affairs for Common App.
Applicants can see the essay prompts on the Common App's website.
Not all schools require students to submit an essay. Some institutions may require students to submit a supplemental essay or additional information. Applicants can see the requirements for all schools on the Common App when they log in to their student accounts or download a PDF from the Common App's website.
Applicants can also preview supplemental questions for schools before they start their applications through the platform's Student Solutions Center.
What Should I Do if I Run Into Problems With the Common App?
Students who have questions about filling out the application can ask their high school counselor and admissions officers at the colleges they're applying to for help, experts say.
The Common App also has a variety of resources to help make the application process easier.
In addition to video tutorials throughout the application, the platform has year-round technical support 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Applicants can find answers to frequently asked questions or submit a question in the Student Solutions Center. Response times vary, but the average wait time is 20 minutes, according to Common App representatives.
Can I Get Fee Waivers for the Common App?
The Common App is free to use but individual schools can charge application fees, which student pay when they submit their applications. About half of member schools don't charge application fees for first-year students, according to data provided by the organization.
Applicants who qualify for fee waivers – those who meet the standards set by the National Association for College Admission Counseling – will be able to make that known through the application.
"A student only needs to indicate that they have financial hardship once in the application, and that fee waiver can be applied to any school they apply to," Rickard says.
Students who have questions about whether they qualify for fee waivers can reach out to their high school counselors or directly to the colleges that they are applying to, experts say.
What Tips Can Make Filling Out the Common App Easier?
Don't wait until 11:59 p.m. on Jan. 1 to finish applications as some students do, experts say. Schools will still accept applications that are a few minutes late, according to Common App representatives, but the stress that comes with fighting against the clock –and the increased potential for typos and other mistakes – isn't worth it.
Besides starting early, experts encourage students to take advantage of the Common App preview that allows students to review their application prior to submission.
Students can also assign advisers who can see parts of an application and the progress they've made.
Do I Have to Use the Common App to Apply to College?
Students are not required to use the Common App. While the platform is popular, it isn't the only one for college applications.
Many schools allow students to apply online through their websites. Some states have application systems that students can or must use in order to apply to colleges. For example, Texas has a statewide system for submitting applications, though some Texas schools also accept the Common App.
Some well-known private institutions like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Georgetown University in the District of Columbia accept applications only through their school websites. Many other competitive colleges and universities, such as Harvard University and Amherst College, accept applications through the Common App.
Other platforms accepted by some schools include the Coalition Application and the Common Black College Application, which serves historically Black colleges and universities. Many schools that use those platforms also use the Common App.
Do Colleges Care if I Use the Common App or a Different Platform?
Colleges that allow students to submit applications through multiple platforms don't have a preference on which one is used, but high school counselors might. The Common App's integration with Naviance, a college and career readiness software provider, makes it easy for counselors to submit documentation for colleges, experts say.
But students should submit one application per college using the platform that works best for them.
“As a student selects which application platform to use, we recommend they think about their full list of schools and consider what each school requires for an application," says Keri Risic, interim executive director of admissions at the University of Minnesota—Twin Cities. "Going in with that information could help them streamline their application approach and reduce some of the stress we know students feel at this stage."
How Does the Common App Work for Transfer Students?
The transfer portion of the Common App works in much the same way as it does for first-time applicants, with some differences. More than 600 schools accept the Common App for transfer.
Unlike first-time applicants, transfer students will have additional information to submit from colleges attended. The Common App asks them to list any college or university attended, dates of enrollment, college coursework completed and GPA.
An essay for transfer students is also required. Common App updated the transfer essay requirement last year, making the question prompts the same as for first-time applicants.
Changes for the 2022-23 Common App
There are a number of updates in the 2022-23 Common App, including information related to gender identity and fee waivers that will "better reflect the more than one million students who use Common App each year," according to the website. Common App added “Mx.” and “other” options for counselor, parent, recommender, teacher and advisor prefix options. It also added “legal” to the first/given name question label.
Common App also recently added a question that provides applicants with the option to share their preferred first name as well as the pronouns they use.
Another change was expanding the fee waiver question to include the list of eligibility criteria "so students have the full understanding of who is eligible," Steele says.