A User’s Guide to the Common Application
College applications take a lot of work to complete — if you’re an aspiring or current college applicant, you know this all too well. The sheer volume of information you’re expected to provide, covering every aspect of your young life, can be very overwhelming — especially when multiplied by the 7, 10, 15, or however many schools you’re planning to apply to.
Much of this information is extremely repetitive. Every college will want to know where you live, who your parents are, and how you scored on the SAT. It’s likely that you’ll send the same recommendations to every college you apply to, and even essay questions may be similar from school to school.
This is where the Common Application comes in. Less formally known as the Common App, this system streamlines the college application process by letting students apply to any of its hundreds of member schools through a common portal.
Your basic application information is automatically copied to each member school with whom you choose to share it, meaning you’ll only have to enter those details about your contact information once. While many colleges choose to include a “supplement” with a number of application questions and/or writing prompts specific to that college, the submission process still takes place through the Common App.
As of August 1st, 2016, the Common Application for the 2016-2017 academic year has gone live. If this is your first time dealing with the Common App, or if you need a refresher, this is the time to get familiar with the Common App system — well before deadlines hit.
Here at CollegeVine, we’re committed to helping students and their families understand the college application process. It’s confusing and complex, and in the end, our goal is to help you find the college that’s right for you, and to give you the best chance of gaining acceptance to that college.
To that end, we now present you with a brief user guide to the Common App. While this post will not cover every detail of the application process — some of which we’ll address in later, more in-depth blog posts — it’s intended to provide you with an accessible, practical framework through which to understand the Common App, its online interface, and its main requirements.
Ready? Let’s dive in.
Table of Contents
Introducing the Common App
The Common App originally came into being in 1975, when 15 private colleges, including Colgate College and Vassar College, began considering the repetitiveness of college application procedures. In the days of paper applications, filling out separate forms for each college by hand, including writing essays, made applying to more than a few colleges a huge amount of work.
The original Common App schools, recognizing that they had similar admissions standards, developed a single application form to be used by all member schools. This application could be photocopied and sent to a number of different schools, thus drastically reducing the workload for college applicants.
Over time, more and more colleges joined the Common App system until they numbered in the hundreds. Though not without controversy, students and college admissions offices alike gravitated toward the streamlined approach to admissions provided by the application system.
The Common App has continued to gain member schools over the years. Many competitive and popular colleges now accept applications through the Common App — for example, all of the schools that make up the Ivy League use it. While some admissions professionals have criticized the Common App, calling it too generic (among other critiques), others have praised it for simplifying the application process for colleges and students alike.
The Common App for the 2016-2017 school year allows prospective college applicants to apply to undergraduate programs at nearly 700 colleges and universities. These schools include some international schools as well as some in the United States, and public schools as well as private schools.
For some colleges, all applicants must apply through the Common App. For other colleges, you may have the option to apply using other college application systems, such as the Coalition Application or the Universal College Application. Each college’s admissions website will specify which application(s) they accept.
In 2013, the option to fill out and mail in a paper version of the Common App was discontinued in favor of the application’s online system, which was first introduced in 1998. All applications through the Common App must now be filled out and submitted using the Common App website. We’ll go over the basics of how to use that website in the next section of this post.
Once you’ve determined that you will be using the Common App to apply to one or more colleges, you’ll need to get comfortable with using the application’s online interface.
First of all, you’ll need to create a Common App account. Once your account is set up, you can monitor your application progress using the Dashboard, add schools to your list under My Colleges, fill out the actual application part of the Common App, and look up colleges through College Search. We’ll go over each of these sections of your account below.
It’s wise to create your Common App account and begin entering your information as soon as possible, and certainly well in advance of your chosen colleges’ deadlines. While using the Common App does speed up the process of filling out multiple applications, it will still take time to gather your information and decide how to present it. You can edit the information you’ve entered at any time — nothing is set in stone until you hit “submit.”
Creating and logging into your Common App account
In order to create your account, you’ll need to start with the Common App website. In the upper right corner of the main page, you’ll see a bright green button with the text “Apply Now.” Click on this button. It’ll bring you to a page that looks like this:
Since you’re new to the Common App, click on the text that says “Create an Account.” The system will guide you through the process of setting up your Common App account with some basic information about yourself. Make sure to write down your password for future reference.
Once your account is created, you’ll be able to log back into it in the future using your email address and password. Just head back to the Common App homepage and click on “Log In” in the upper right corner, choose the “Student” option when prompted, and enter your login information.
Now that you have a Common App account, what do you do with it? Below, we’ll go over the various parts of your account and what you’ll need to do with them. We at CollegeVine have set up a sample student account to give you a visual guide to what you’ll encounter when you actually put your Common App account to work.
When you log into your Common App account, the first thing you see will be your Dashboard. You can also access your Dashboard at any time by clicking on the Dashboard tab.
For our CollegeVine sample student, the Dashboard looks like this:
Your Dashboard serves to give you a quick overview of the requirements of the various colleges you’re planning to applying to. Our sample student is applying to the schools you see listed on the left side of the page — Amherst College, Boston College, and so on. The chart you see provides you with a quick way to check what each school requires.
Your own Dashboard will look similar, but when you start out, there will be no colleges listed — because you haven’t specified any. You’ll need to add each of the colleges to which you wish to apply using the College Search tab. (We’ll go over that process in greater detail later in this post.)
As you can see in this screenshot, there is an “Instructions and Help” box on the right side of the page. This box will appear throughout the Common App, but the frequently asked questions in the box below it will change depending on what part of the site you’re looking at. If you have a question that isn’t shown, simply click where it says “Instructions and Help” to access more assistance.
The My Colleges section of the Common App allows you to access information about each of your chosen colleges’ admissions requirements in greater depth than what’s found on the Dashboard. You can get to the My Colleges section at any time by clicking on the My Colleges tab.
Our CollegeVine sample student’s My Colleges section looks like this:
As you can see from this screenshot, our student’s My Colleges page is showing more detailed information for the first college on the student’s list — in this case, Amherst College. The other colleges the student is applying to are listed along the left side of the page. In order to show information for one of the colleges, you’ll simply click the plus sign next to that college’s name.
Therefore, if we click the plus sign next to the name of Boston College, we’ll get this:
Our sample student’s page now shows admissions information for Boston College. Again, your own My Colleges page will not show any colleges until you add some to your list, which we will cover how to do later on. Once you add schools, the My Colleges page will only show the schools you have selected.
The My Colleges page is also where you’ll access the parts of your college applications that are specific to the individual colleges to which you’re applying. As you can see in the screenshot above, under the college’s name on the left side, you’ll see a number of items, including those under “Writing Supplement.”
What exactly a college’s supplement includes is, for the most part, up to them. Usually, these include questions and/or writing prompts that are either specifically about the school in question or that involve topics not covered in the rest of the Common App. Often, colleges would like to see students tackle topics that they consider more interesting and relevant to their school and the student’s potential major than the Common App essay options.
As an example, below is a screenshot of the supplement for Carnegie Mellon University. Clicking on the word “Questions” under “Writing Supplement” will take our sample student to the following screen, where they’ll be provided with instructions on how to complete it.
However, note that every school’s supplement is different, and you must read the instructions for each carefully. Some schools don’t have a separate “Writing” tab and may have other headings. Make sure you take a careful look at any and all headings in this section to determine if there are more supplementary questions for you to answer — they might not all be immediately visible.
Reviewing the My Colleges tab is a good way to keep track of admissions information for the various colleges you’re interested in, but it doesn’t cover everything in terms of that school’s admissions practices, and it’s not a substitute for more in-depth research. Clicking on the blue link that says “View College Website” in the “Contact” section of your school’s information will take you to that school’s own admissions website, where you can find out more about their policies.
The Common App section is where you’ll actually fill out the substance of your college application(s). You can access it at any time by clicking on the Common App tab.
For each of these sections, you’ll need to provide answers to a number of specific questions. Some of these questions will be in multiple-choice format, and you’ll have to choose one option (or more, if specified) from a given list. Others will ask you to enter certain small items of data, such as a name or phone number. Others will require you to write out a longer answer, up to and including the personal essay, which we’ll cover in further depth in other blog posts.
If you’re unsure about how to answer some of these questions, you can visit the “Instructions and Help” section of the Common App website. Your guidance counselor or another school official may also be able to help.
This section is where you’ll enter more detailed information about yourself. It’s divided into sections covering different topics, from your contact information to your citizenship. Click on the title in the gray bar for each section in order to open up and answer that section’s questions. The Profile includes the Common App’s fee waiver request form, which you can learn more about on the CollegeVine blog in our post How to Receive a Common App Fee Waiver.
This section is where you’ll answer questions about your family situation, your parents, and your siblings. Again, you’ll click on the title in the gray bar for each section in order to open it up and answer its questions. We at CollegeVine have covered this topic in greater detail in the blog post Why Does the Common Application Ask Where my Parents Went to College?
This section is where you’ll answer questions regarding your educational experiences, from what school(s) you’ve attended, to your GPA and scholastic achievements, to what level of educational attainment you plan to reach. You’ll also list all the courses you are taking now or have taken in your most recent year of schooling.
This section is where you’ll tell the Common App whether you would like to self-report your standardized test scores and possibly future test dates in addition to sending official score reports directly to your chosen college. If you elect to self-report, you’ll be given the option to tell the Common App which tests you’d like to report your scores for, and then to enter your scores for those tests.
This section is where you’ll enter the activities in which you’ve participated as a high school student. You can add up to ten activities, and you’ll be asked a number of questions about each one, including when you participated in the activity, how much time per week you spent on it, and your notable accomplishments or leadership positions associated with that activity. You can read more about this section by reading the CollegeVine blog post How to Fill Out the Common App Activities Section.
This section is where you’ll answer questions that require longer written responses, starting with your personal essay. Under the “Personal Essay” section, you’ll find a list of topics to choose from, and a box in which to copy and paste your essay text. (We strongly recommend that you compose your essay first in a Word document or other format outside of the Common App website.)
Under the “Disciplinary History” section, you’ll be asked if you have been found responsible for a disciplinary infraction either at school or in the community, and given an opportunity to address or explain what happened. Finally, under “Additional Information,” you can include information on any special circumstances which might be relevant to your application and are not addressed elsewhere in the Common App.
The College Search section of the Common App is your portal into the Common App’s database of member schools. You can use this portal for two purposes. One, you’ll be able to search among the colleges that use the Common App for schools that meet your particular criteria, and learn more about each of those schools. Two, you’ll be able to add schools to your own college list so that they appear on your Dashboard and your My Colleges section.
The basic College Search interface looks like this:
As you can see, you can search for colleges using a variety of different criteria, alone or in combination.
Suppose our sample student would like to find out which colleges within the state of Ohio accept the College App. Choosing “Ohio” from the dropdown menu for “US State” will give the student the following list of results:
As you can see, this gives our student a list of colleges in Ohio, with some basic information about each college. If the student wants to learn about a particular college, they can click on the name of the college for additional information. Here’s what happens when our student clicks on Antioch College:
What if the student wishes to add Antioch College to their own list of colleges to which they intend to apply? That’s simple: just click on the “Add” button at the top or bottom of the page. (Both buttons do the same thing.) Now Antioch College will show up on the student’s Dashboard and My Colleges pages, and the student will have access to the college’s supplemental questions and/or essays, if there are any.
Submitting the Common App
As you can plainly see, there’s a lot to be filled out on the Common App, and you’ll most likely go back and change some of your responses more than once. However, eventually you will come up against your colleges’ deadlines. Once you’ve completed the Common App and your individual colleges’ supplements to your satisfaction, it’s time to submit your application.
Before you submit, you’ll need to thoroughly go over your application to make sure that you’ve answered all the questions and filled in all the blanks. The Common App will notify you if you’ve left any required questions unanswered, but as always, it’s best to look over everything yourself as well. Leave yourself time for this step.
In order to start the submission process, go to your My Colleges section. Your screen will look something like this:
Let’s say that our sample student has submitted all the necessary information under the Common App section, as well as the writing supplement required for Amherst College. They’ve chosen their recommenders and signed their FERPA waiver. Everything is in place for the student to actually submit their application to Amherst through the Common App portal.
When you reach this point, you’ll click “Review and Submit — Common App” under the “Application” heading. The following steps will only become visible to you once you’ve completed your application; if anything is missing, you won’t be able to access this process at all.
The first step in the submission process will involve reviewing your application yet again. This time, instead of clicking all the individual tabs, you’ll simply view a PDF print preview of your entire application, set up as one document. Take this opportunity to make sure there are no errors — it’ll be your last opportunity to do so. When you’re satisfied with your application, hit the red button that says “Continue.”
At this point, the Common App website will reroute you to that particular college’s payment page. Here, you’ll submit your application fee directly to the college. (If you have requested a Common App fee waiver, you will not be required to make a payment at this point.)
Once your application fee is submitted, you’ll sign and date your application. Then comes the big moment: finally hitting “Submit” on your Common App.
For most schools, however, this is not quite the end of the process. You’ll need to submit your school-specific writing supplement separately, and you cannot do so until your Common App itself is submitted.
To submit your writing supplement, you’ll click on “Review and Submit Writing Supplement” under the “Writing Supplement” heading. This will lead you through a process similar to the one you went through in order to submit your Common App. Follow the instructions given by your particular school.
When you finish the process of submitting your writing supplement, return to your Dashboard within your Common App account. Look for the school to which you just submitted an application. If a green check mark has appeared across from that school’s name under the “Application” column, congratulations! You just applied to college!
Remember, submitting the Common App is not the only thing you need to do in order to apply to your chosen colleges. While your counselor and recommenders will be able to submit their documents through the online system, you’ll have to make sure that your official test scores are sent directly to your colleges by the agencies that administer those tests.
Also, you’ll need to repeat the submission process for each college you wish to apply to. This is admittedly a bit repetitive, especially if you’re applying to a large number of schools, but it’s still better than filling out all those separate forms individually.
Additional Common App FAQs
This post has been a relatively brief overview of what’s on the Common App and what you’ll have to do in order to fill it out. We at CollegeVine realize that you must still have many questions, and we’ll address some of those in future posts. For the moment, here are a few questions about the Common App that we frequently encounter.
How do I download a PDF of my application?
Once your application is complete and you begin the process of submitting it to a college, as we described earlier in this post, you’ll be given the opportunity to review your application in PDF “print preview” form. Many students want to hold onto a physical and/or an electronic copy of that PDF, and that’s a smart thing to do; technical glitches are always possible when using an online application system.
Downloading a PDF of your completed application is usually quite simple, but the details and screen appearance of the process will vary based on technical details like what type of computer and what Internet browser you’re using. If you’re having a hard time with your PDF, you might try opening your Common App in a different browser.
Generally speaking, when you view the PDF preview of your application, you will see a series of buttons on the screen, which you may be familiar with from using PDFs in other contexts. This series of buttons may appear in the lower right corner of the PDF window. One of these buttons will be the “Save” button; it will likely look like an old-fashioned floppy disk. Once you click on “Save,” you can specify what you would like to name this document, as well as where you’d like to save the file on your computer.
There will be a watermark on your PDF document, identifying it as a preview, at the request of the Common App member schools. This prevents you from filling out the Common App online, printing out your PDF, mailing the PDF to the school, and ultimately not submitting your filled-out Common App through the online system, since allowing applicants to do this would create major headaches for the colleges involved.
How do I sign my FERPA waiver?
Your FERPA waiver basically governs whether you’ll be allowed to view the recommendations you receive from your guidance counselor and teachers after you enroll in college. You only need to sign the FERPA waiver once; it will cover all the colleges to which you’re applying.
In order to sign your FERPA waiver, first go to your My Colleges section. Click on the first college on your list, and then click on “Recommenders and FERPA” under the name of the college. Our sample student clicked on Amherst College in particular, but your view will look something like what you see below:
To access your FERPA waiver, click on the button that says “Release Authorization.” A box will pop up that looks like this:
Read the explanation text, then click the checkbox to certify that you have read and understood the explanation. Then click on the button that says “Continue.” You’ll move along to the following screen:
Click the checkbox in front of the first statement you see; this is required in order to submit your application through the Common App. Then, select one of the options below to state whether you waive or do not waive your right to review your recommendations and supporting documents.
Click the next checkbox to certify that you understand that your selection here cannot be changed. (Don’t do this until you’re sure what choice you want to make — you can hit “Cancel” if you want to give it some more thought first.) Finally, type your name in the Signature box and the current date in the Date box. Click “Save” to finish signing your FERPA waiver.
The majority of students choose to waive their FERPA rights. It’s not required, but choosing not to waive your rights may make a negative impression on the people who will evaluate your application. Some teachers and counselors may be unwilling to provide a recommendation for you at all unless you do waive your FERPA rights.
How do I add schools on the Common App?
You can add schools to the Common App using the College Search function that we describe earlier in this article. Simply look up the school under College Search, click on its profile, and click the “Add” button, and the college will be added to your Dashboard and My Colleges pages.
What is the maximum number of schools I can add to the Common App?
You can add a maximum of 20 schools to your list of schools within the Common App. This is a restriction set by the Common App’s member schools, and there are no exceptions to this rule.
If you change your mind about your list of schools during the application process, you can delete a school from your list using the Dashboard — just click on the garbage can icon across from the name of the school you’d like to remove. However, you are not permitted to delete a school if you’ve already submitted your application and/or your school supplement to that school. The bottom line is that you cannot apply to more than 20 schools using the Common App.
That’s a lot of information to digest in one sitting. Don’t worry too much right now — you can always come back to this post and the others on the CollegeVine blog for guidance. The prospect of answering all of these questions may look pretty daunting at this point, but there are instructions and resources available to help you manage the process.
As we mentioned above, it’s wise to begin working on your Common App as soon as possible. You can edit your information and change which colleges you’d like to apply to later on, if you so choose. Starting early will give you time to carefully consider each question, perfect your answers to the writing prompt(s), and make sure that all the important details are included.
Over the next few weeks, we at the CollegeVine blog will be posting much more detailed information about many of the individual sections of the Common App. Stay tuned for posts telling you more about how to fill out the Education section, what the Profile’s demographic questions mean, what to keep in mind while writing your essays, and more.
You can also take a look at past posts on our blog, which cover everything from choosing colleges to application strategies to financial aid. Best of luck in finding a college that’s a great fit for you!
Still have questions about filling out the Common Application? Check out our blog post How to Write the Common Application Essays 2017-2018.