Getting to Know the Common App

Getting to Know the Common App

Anybody aspiring to attend college in the United States will come across the Common Application. In excess of one million students use it each year to make their application to colleges from Maine to California. Here is the Ivy Central quick guide to the Common App.

What is the Common App

The Common Application is a platform that is used for making applications to multiple colleges through one centralised process. It started 40 years ago when a group of fifteen colleges decided it would be a good idea to come together and simplify the application process. Today it is accepted by nearly 900 colleges, mostly in the United States but also a few in other countries including Canada and the United Kingdom. In addition to being the ‘form’, students fill in to apply to college the Common App has become a resource students use to research colleges, request recommendations and manage their application deadlines.

You can find the Common App at, from there you can create an account to start your application or explore the many resources offered. There is no cost for opening an account, using the resources or completing the application, colleges will however charge an application fee.

Completing the Common App

The Common App cycle begins every year on August 1st when the new version is released on the Common App website. At that point, you can start to enter your information into the app.

Your Common App account is more than just a form to be completed, as I said above you can also use it to research colleges and manage deadlines. When you first land on your account you are presented with a dashboard including several tabs you can click on to explore different aspects of the app. In this article, I am going to concentrate on the Common App and My Colleges tabs.

When you click on the Common App tab you are presented with a list of the six elements that make up the main Common App. These elements are:

·      Profile

·      Family

·      Education

·      Testing

·      Activities

·      Writing

Much of the information required is what you would expect, your contact details, information about your family, the school you attend and what you are studying. Other parts are not so straightforward.


Here you can list up to ten activities that you have engaged in outside of what you do as part of your curriculum. It could include activities such as competitions you have entered, summer programmes you have participated in, clubs you have been actively involved in or independent research you have undertaken. Whatever the activity you should make sure that you present it in a way that is both specific and descriptive.


This is where you will find the Common App personal essay. In the 2020/21 application cycle, there are seven essay topics that you can choose from but these can change from year to year and are announced in the spring before the start of the new round. Having this early notification is very helpful, it enables you to start working on your essay over the summer break.

For the 2020/21 cycle, the Common App included an additional, optional, essay asking students to reflect on how the COVID 19 pandemic has impacted them, this prompt has been retained in the 21/22 application round.

The writing section is where you will also find a section for additional information, here you can expand on the activities you have done and provide links to things you want to share with the admissions teams at colleges you apply to.

As you complete each section listed under the Common App tab you will see a tick appear alongside that section in the menu on the left hand side. Once you have ticks against them all, you have completed the common part of the Common App.

Other Requirements

While the Common App provides the common basis for applications to numerous colleges many will also have additional questions and essays that are specific to them. You can find out about these requirements as you add colleges to the ‘My Colleges’ tab.  In this section, you can also add contact details of teachers and counsellors who are going to provide the letters of recommendation required by colleges. Having entered the information, the Common App will notify them when the letters are due and let you see once they have been submitted through the Common App.

Help with Completing the Common App

The Common Application provides a great deal of additional information to help you complete your application. Just about every question has a prompt to help you answer it while on the main Common Application website there are links to articles and video tutorials to take you through the process.

Beyond the Common App

While the Common App is the largest platform for applying to colleges and universities in the United States, it is not the only one. The Coalition App does a very similar role to the Common App and most colleges are happy to accept applications using either App. One notable exception is the University of Washington – Seattle, which will only accept the Coalition App.

There are then a few colleges that have their own application process, and won’t accept either the Common or Coalition App. Some of these are state college systems like the University of California colleges or the New York SUNY system, where all the colleges in the system use a single application, enabling you to apply to any college in the system. There used to be several individual colleges that only used their own application process, but over the years these have dwindled to just one university, Georgetown University in Washington DC.

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