What is the Common College Application?

person typing on a computer
Updated:
September 13, 2023
Contents

”Rohan

Reviewed by:

Former Admissions Committee Member, Columbia University

Reviewed: 9/13/23

What is the Common Application? How many essays are required? What colleges accept Common App? Read on to learn the answers to these questions and more. 

Two people filling out the common college application

The Common Application is an undergraduate college application for students. It is widely known and used among 900 member colleges in the United States and 20 other countries, including Canada, Japan, and many European countries. 

The purpose of the Common App is to make it easier for students to apply to multiple colleges. Students still have to pay application fees for each college they apply to; however, using this application conveniently allows them to submit to multiple institutions at once. 

Here in our guide, you’ll learn everything you need to know about the Common App, including how to use it, fill it in, and submit it. We’ll also talk about the Coalition App, another application widely accepted by colleges and universities.

What Is the Common App?

Common App logo
Source: Common App

The primary purpose of the Common App is to save applicants time while they apply for college. It streamlines the entire process of applying to college. 

When you use it, you can fill out one application and send it to all the schools you want to attend. However, it’s important to understand that you may need to fill out supplemental material for each school before submitting your application. Many schools require supplemental essays in addition to the Common App’s required essays. 

How Does the Common App Work?

Using the Common App is a four-step process

  1. Create your profile
  2. Add colleges to your list
  3. Gather requirements
  4. Submit applications

You can also use it to research financial aid information, keep track of deadlines, and organize application materials. 

Necessary Components You Need for Successful Submission

Some of the various components needed to successfully apply for colleges include: 

Be sure to pay attention to the different requirements of each college you’re applying to.

The Common App vs. the Coalition App

Coalition for College
Source: Coalition for College

The Coalition App is another widely accepted application that you can use to apply for colleges. While both applications are accepted at hundreds of schools worldwide, the Common App is accepted by more institutions than the Coalition App.

About 150 member schools accept the Coalition App compared to the more than 950 schools that accept the Common App. However, one unique feature that the Coalition App has is a fee waiver built right into the application - you’ll be able to find out right away if you are eligible for a fee waiver. 

The timelines for both applications are the same and depend on the requirements for each school you apply to. 

Coalition App Essay Prompts

The Coalition App has five essay prompts, whereas the Common App has seven (which are listed below with examples).

Here are the five Coalition App essay prompts

1. "Tell a story from your life, describing an experience that either demonstrates your character or helped to shape it.
2. Describe a time when you made a meaningful contribution to others in which the greater good was your focus. Discuss the challenges and rewards of making your contribution.
3. Has there been a time when you’ve had a long-cherished or accepted belief challenged? How did you respond? How did the challenge affect your beliefs?
4. What is the hardest part of being a student now? What’s the best part? What advice would you give a younger sibling or friend (assuming they would listen to you)
5. Submit an essay on a topic of your choice.”

What Colleges Accept the Common App?

Students at a college campus

Over 950 colleges and universities across the world accept the Common App. This includes colleges from all 50 states, Canada, Japan, China, several European countries, and more. 

Of the top 25 national universities in the United States, these are the ones that accept this application. These schools are listed in the order that they appear on the 2023 list of Best National Universities as ranked by U.S. News. 

Some schools in the top 25 that are notably absent from this list are MIT, UCLA, Georgetown University, and UC Berkeley.

The website has a search tool that you can use to look up whether or not your target schools accept the application. If you do not already have target schools picked out yet, you can also use this search tool to narrow down schools. There are filters for location, school size, school type, and more. 

The Common App Timeline

When does the Common App open? Where can I find information about deadlines? How can you know when to complete each task? Let’s take a closer look at each of these questions.

For individual application deadlines, it’s important to look at the requirements provided by each school. For reference, most early decision and early action college applications need to be submitted by November, while regular decision application deadlines are in January. 

Be sure to look up this information well before you start applying so you’ll have enough time to fill in your application and any supplemental materials required by your target schools before the deadlines.

When Does the Common App Open?

The Common App opens on August 1 every year, so you can start as early as the summer before your senior year if you wish! Regardless of whether or not you are applying early action, early decision, or regular decision, you can start your application in August. This will help you get familiar with what the application will ask of you and what materials you need to have. 

The Common Application Deadline

The deadline for regular decision applicants usually falls in January, but sometimes in December. Deadlines for early action and early decision applicants typically are sometime in late October or early November. You should refer to the individual college websites regarding application deadlines.

It is extremely important to look at the deadlines for the Common App ahead of time before you even begin your application. Write down the deadlines and be sure not to miss them. Admissions committees don’t accept late applications unless under the most extenuating circumstances. 

When to Start Applying to Colleges With the Common App

You should start applying to colleges during the summer before your senior year of high school. By this time, you should have narrowed down your target schools and picked the ones to apply to that you can see yourself attending.

Here is a rough outline of how and when you should start applying to colleges during your senior year, as suggested by the College Board. 

September

  • Pick out your schools; try to have at least eight with one reach and one safety. 
  • Find out which schools accept the Common Application and add them to your “My Schools” list. 
  • Look at the deadlines and requirements for each school, including FAFSA deadlines. 
  • Register for the SAT or ACT exams. 
  • Start looking for private scholarships that can relieve some of the tuition costs. 

October

  • Ask teachers, coaches, bosses, etc., whether they will give you a letter of recommendation. 
  • Be sure to register for SAT or ACT entrance exams by the end of October because there are no more opportunities to take the tests after December, and most spots are filled by November.

November

  • Ask your high school to send your transcripts to your chosen colleges. 
  • Start filling out your application; some colleges have deadlines as early as the end of November. Colleges will not extend a deadline for you unless it’s under the most extenuating circumstances. 

December

  • You should aim to submit your applications in December if you are applying for regular decision. While most RD applications are due in January, completing applications in advance can work to your advantage. 

Note: Submitting your application in December doesn’t necessarily increase your chances of acceptance, but you do get an earlier application review by the admissions committee. 

January and February

  • Complete your FAFSA application. 
  • Submit any remaining applications that you have not submitted yet. 
  • Submit mid-year reports to the colleges that require them. 

March and April

  • Colleges will start to make decisions and send offers to accepted students.
  • Financial aid is awarded. 
  • Decide which school you will attend. Be sure to weigh the pros and cons of each school. Use your best judgment to determine which school is the best fit for you personally, financially, and academically. 

How to Complete the Common App 

Give yourself plenty of time to complete the application. Applying to college is not something you should rush through. It’s essential that you are fully prepared as you sit down to fill in your application.  

The application website guides you through the process of filling in your application. Follow these steps below, and you’re sure to feel confident by the time you get to the end.

1. Gather the materials you’ll need. Gathering the necessary materials takes time because you need several pieces of documentation, including your high school transcript, SAT or ACT scores, and a list of all your extracurricular activities, work history, and family responsibilities. 

2. Create an account. Most prospective students fill in the application online, which requires you to create an account. You will choose between two options: first-year student or transfer student. 

3. Start adding target schools to your list. Once you create an account, you can add the schools to which you want to apply to your list. If you haven’t already chosen your schools, you can use the explore tool to find schools that fit your goals and personal preferences. 

Using this tool, you can filter by region, size, program offerings, financial aid options, and other criteria to find the best schools for you.

4. Collaborate with your supporters. You’ll need help from your teachers, coaches, bosses, counselors, and others to write evaluations for you. Start reaching out to them and make your requests. 

Once you have secured your recommenders and evaluators, you can send them an invitation through your portal on the website. 

At this point, you’ll also need to fill out the FERPA waiver, which waives your right to look at the letters of recommendation given to you for your application. 

5. Understand what is required of you. Each school has its own set of requirements when it comes to recommendations. For instance, some schools only require one teacher evaluation, whereas others require two. Some schools require a mid-year report, and others do not. 

Refer to the requirements grid to find out what your target schools require for recommendations and evaluations. 

6. Plan out your essays. The Common App only requires one essay. (Take a look at our essay examples below.) However, the schools you apply to may have supplemental materials required with your application. For example, if you apply to Harvard, you can write an optional supplemental essay to improve your chances.
Topics for the Harvard supplemental essays include:

  • Unusual circumstances in your life;
  • Travel, living, or working experiences in your own or other communities;
  • What you would want your future college roommate to know about you;
  • How you hope to use your college education;
  • A list of books you have read during the past twelve months;
  • And more!

The purpose of a supplemental essay is to help the admissions committee better understand who you are. Supplemental essays humanize your application by sharing additional information, goals, and anecdotes that helped shape who you are today. 

7. Submit your application. Once you feel confident in your essays and are 100% sure you have compiled everything that your target schools require, you can hit the submit button. 

The Common App Essays

Each year, there are seven new essay prompts for incoming freshman and transfer students to use in their applications. You should choose a prompt that has meaning to you. 

How Long Should the Common App Essay Be?

There is technically no word limit for your Common App personal essay. However, the ideal essay word limit is between 450 to 600 words. 

Common App Essay Prompts for 2023-2024

Here are the seven 2023-2024 essay prompts:

1. “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.
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. 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?
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 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?
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.”
Read through all of the prompts before choosing one. And be sure to use our tips below when you start writing."

Tips on How to Write the Common App Essays

You may be wondering which essay prompt would best showcase your individuality and highlight your candidacy. Here are some tips that will help you choose and write your essay. 

Brainstorm. Narrow your selection to a few prompts and start brainstorming. The best way to do this is to write out (or type out) all your ideas for each prompt you are considering. Write down everything you can think of for each prompt. 

Choose the prompt you like best. Now that you have finished brainstorming, pick the prompt you like best. Usually, this is the prompt you were able to brainstorm the most ideas for a response.

Start writing a draft. Use your brainstorming to guide you through your first draft. And remember: your first draft does not have to be perfect! You’re just structuring your essay and writing as much content as possible. 

Go back and make edits. Give yourself time to finish the essay all the way through before going back and making edits. Look for grammar mistakes, areas where you could add clarification, and other general edits. 

Have someone look it over. Sometimes, when we write something, it’s difficult to see it objectively. Let a friend or family member read it and offer their perspective. But don’t be afraid to challenge their suggestions or ask that they provide more clarification. Ultimately, this is your college application; you have the final say on everything. 

You should also consider working with a professional college admissions consultant to ramp up your essay in ways that a family member or friend may be unable to do. A professional can offer objective advice that will only help you get accepted into your chosen schools. 

Common App Essay Examples

Here are a few example essays that use the prompts listed above. 

Essay Example #1 | Prompt: 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?

This is an excerpt from an essay submitted to multiple schools. 

“When I was a freshman in high school, I didn’t care about school or my education. I couldn’t see a future where it mattered whether I knew how to say ‘how are you’ in Spanish or how to use the Pythagorean theorem. Because I couldn’t see the point of these classes, I found myself disconnected from the high school experience as a whole, which resulted in low grades. My parents expressed their disappointment in me, but I still couldn’t bring myself to care; I was feeling disconnected from my family, too.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was depressed. I stopped spending time with my friends and stopped enjoying the things I used to enjoy. I was feeling hopeless. How could I get through three and a half more years of high school if I couldn’t even get through a semester? I couldn’t stand the thought of feeling this way for so long – at least it felt so long at the time. 
After a few failed tests, one of my teachers approached me after class one day. She said she also noticed a difference in my demeanor in the last few weeks and asked if I was okay. At that moment, I realized that no one had asked me that in a long time. I didn’t feel okay, so I told her that. She asked me what was wrong, and I told her that I was feeling disconnected from school and classes and just about everything at that point. 
My teacher suggested I visit my guidance counselor. So the next day, during study hall, I got a pass to visit with my guidance counselor and told her I was feeling disconnected from classes and school. She asked me what my interests were and suggested that I take an elective like art or music or a vocational tech class like culinary arts or computer coding. 
I told her that I wasn’t sure what I was interested in at this point and she told me to take a couple of classes to see what I like. At her persistence, I signed up for art and computer coding. 
It turns out art was not my thing. But it also turns out that computer coding is my thing, and I am not sure I would have realized that had I not gone to see my guidance counselor at my teacher’s recommendation. 
After taking computer coding and other similar classes, I had something to look forward to during school. So even when I still dreaded taking Spanish and Geometry, I knew I could look forward to an enjoyable class later in the day. Having something to look forward to really helped me raise my grades because I started caring about my future and the possibility of applying for college to study computer science. 
The best thing that I took away from this experience is that I can’t always control what happens to me, especially as a minor, but I can control how I handle things. In full transparency: there were still bad days and bad grades, but by taking action and adding a couple of classes into my schedule that I felt passionate about, I started feeling connected to school again. From there, my overall experience with school – and life in general – improved 100%.”

Why this is a good essay: In this essay, the student answers the prompt by addressing their low grades, how the experience affected them, and how they got back on track to getting better grades. This is also a good essay because the admissions committee will see the low grades from freshman year, and the student has preemptively explained them. 

Essay Example #2 | Prompt: Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.

This is an excerpt from an essay written for UPenn:

“A cow gave birth and I watched. Staring from the window of our stopped car, I experienced two beginnings that day: the small bovine life and my future. Both emerged when I was only 10 years old and cruising along the twisting roads of rural Maryland. While my country-bound aunt and cousin were barely phased, the scene struck my young and sheltered eyes. Along with a whirlwind of emotions, the unrestrained act of parturition triggered a feeling of warmth I will never forget.
Years later I learned in biology that all women are biologically nurturing, physically and emotionally. What did that mean? At that point in my life, I could truly make no connection. My idea of femininity was locked in what society had shown me thus far. Femininity was wearing dresses, applying makeup, cheerleading, and giggling near the most popular jock in the entire middle school. In other words, things I did not exactly partake in.
But as I sat in the classroom, I didn’t think about my gender or how I relate to what society considers to be female. Rather, the discussion brought me back to that hot car, parked in front of that special birthing cow. I witnessed the essence of biological femininity as that cow radiated love and affection to her calf immediately after his arrival into the world. The cow represented the epitome of femininity: nurturement and selflessness.
As I have considered the idea of ‘biological femininity’, I have for years questioned how I fit in with that term. Admittedly, I stray far from the stereotypical female. However, according to developmental neuroscience, evolutionary biology, and studies of sex-based cognitive differences, I am empathetic and intuitive, and prefer language over logic— and that was all I needed. Through the birth of a calf, I realized that I did not need to be interested in “girl things” to be a girl. I did not need a characterized maternal figure to show me how to be a young lady. I certainly did not need a man to tell me how to be a woman. The qualities I possess internally give me all the femininity I need to be a female. There was no definition beyond that, nothing society could paint. That, I believed, was absolutely beautiful.
The future is female. Now that I am beginning to understand the fluidity of femininity, hearing those words empowers me. There are endless ways to live the female experience, no one experience more valid than another. Creativity, intuition, kindness, and love are the roots of femininity, while whatever blooms is up to the individual. With my roots firmly planted, I only need the opportunity to grow to create my future.
When I began thinking of a future field of study and career, I didn’t hesitate; I knew I wanted to work with women. After my struggle with femininity, nothing else intrigued me more. The birth of the cow seven years ago was my inciting incident. My story must include the love, warmth, and beauty of that day. To be a part of the birth story of others entering this world and to study the life and love that preceded is my goal. Eventually, through whatever it takes, I will become an OB/GYN so I can work with women daily, helping teenagers through puberty and educating on sexuality, supporting women through their personal challenges, and assisting in the life-changing act of childbirth. I am dedicated to the future of women.
A cow gave birth and I watched. That experience helped me to become the powerful, strong-minded, and passionate young woman I am today. In pursuing a doctorate I hope to encourage and guide other women to be their own best self and show through my actions and story that there is no one version of womanhood that is ‘right’, perhaps influencing a new generation.”

Why this is a good essay: This essay answers the prompt perfectly. The student talks about an event that sparked a new understanding and appreciation of biological femininity. It also gives admissions committees some insight into who this student is as a person and how they learn, and it also demonstrates the student’s passion for their desired career. When you write your essay, try to relate it to your major if you already know what you’ll be studying. 

Essay Example #3 | Prompt: 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?

This is an excerpt from an essay written for Johns Hopkins University.

“I could still hear her words, the words my teacher said as she handed me the packet, “This is a challenge. But I think you’re up for it.” I held the math packet in my hand. On the cover, the title ‘Mission Possible!’ screamed at me. I could feel my fingers tingling, and the goosebumps rolling up my arms. I stared at the black italicized letters of the title as I walked home. They seemed to stare back, alluding to the mysteries that lay underneath them. As soon as I got home, I ran to the top bunk where I slept, grabbed a pencil, and signed a mental contract with the packet: “I promise to prioritize you, put you above all else in my life, not rest, and not eat until all the problems that lay in your pages are solved.” I was a pretty dramatic 11-year-old.
My love for challenges and the tenacity with which I approach them was instilled in me through observing my family and through my own experiences. Ten years ago, my family and I packed our belongings, sold everything we had, and flew across the Atlantic to our new home in America. During our first year in Minnesota, we were faced with the omnipresent challenge of money. My sister, rather than having the comfort of her crib, was forced to share a bed with my mom and I. My dad was forced to sleep on a makeshift bed my mom made for him every night, using cushions from a torn and scratchy old sofa. My mom was forced to wake up early and stay up late working, at home, and her minimum wage job. My parents never complained. To them, this was just another stage of life, another challenge to overcome. 
I now reflect on this, and many other challenges my family and I have faced during our ten years in America. I realize that it is through observing how my parents never slowed down that I learned the value of perseverance, through watching my mom’s devotion to a single job that I learned the value of commitment, through my dad’s consistent job switches that I learned the value of ambition, and through observing my sisters willingness to live with less that I learned the value of sacrifice. Through my own experiences, I learned I can apply these values and overcome any challenge that comes my way. My 11-year-old self figured this out after a grueling two months of working on the packet, finishing with all the questions answered.
It is because of these values and the way they were instilled in me that I have decided to pursue a career as a surgeon; I know it is through the guidance of these values and the people who first showed them to me that I will be able to achieve this goal.”

Why this is a good essay: Talking about how you have overcome challenges in your life is an excellent indicator of how well you will handle the rigors of college. This student also talks about how they came to decide on the career path they will pursue once they start college. Your essay is a great opportunity in which to do that. 

FAQs

Here are some frequently asked questions.

1. Where Can I Find the Common App?

You can find the Common App application and many other resources at www.commonapp.org

2. Do Schools Want Me to Use the Common App or Their Application?

Schools don’t place preference over one application or the other. Some schools only offer the Common App. 

3. How Many Schools Can I Apply to With the Common App?

You can submit your Common App to up to 20 colleges. But before you get too excited at that high number, remember that you have to submit an application fee to every school where you apply. Consider the cost of each application fee before you start submitting to 20 schools. 

4. Can I Use the Common App for Every School I Apply to?

You can use the Common App for any school you apply to as long as they accept it. Over 950 colleges and universities accept it as an application for admittance, but several do not, which you can discover using the search tool. 

5. What Are the Best Tips for Filling Out the Common App?

Here are the top three tips for filling out the Common App, as recommended by U.S. News:

  • Start early!
  • Take advantage of the “preview” tool to see how your application looks.
  • Have a parent, guardian, or trusted advisor look over your application.

6. Can I Get a Fee Waiver for the Common App?

The Common App is free to use, and almost half of member schools don't charge application fees for first-year students. If the schools you are applying to charge an application fee, you can submit a fee waiver request. 

To find out if you are eligible based on the guidelines set forth by the National Association for College Admission Counseling, click here

Final Thoughts

Now you know everything you need to know about the Common App. We’ve covered everything from the timeline to the essay prompts, as well as how to fill it out. You are well on your way to starting the application process! 

As you start the application process, make sure you have the correct deadlines for each of your target schools so that you get everything to the admissions committee on time. Start preparing to fill out your application as early as September of your senior year. 

If you stick to this guide, you won’t be crunched for time, and you can move through the process with ease.

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