What's So Common About the Common Application?

Posted: February 5, 2016

Back in my day (when dinosaurs roamed the earth) (also, get off my lawn!), most colleges had their own application. They were made of something called paper, and we filled them out using things we called “typewriters” and “pens.” As you can imagine, when it came time to write the application essay, lots of white-out and cursing was involved to make a good impression.

In 1975 (which was way before I went to college, just so we’re clear), several private colleges realized that most of the information on these various applications was repeated: contact information, gpa, how many years your father spent in college. (It was when I was filling out my applications that I discovered that while both my parents had attended college, neither had actually graduated. Horrors!) The Common Application was born (still on paper), making it easier for students to apply to college more efficiently, by chiseling info onto the stone tablets once and then photocopying them to mail to the member colleges. It wasn’t until 1998 that the Common Application joined the computer age.
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Although it has a couple competitors, the Common Application (known to its friends as the Common App) is the Big Daddy of undergraduate college applications. Accepted by more than 600 member schools in the US and around the world, the Common App is meant to streamline your application process by allowing you to fill out one application for every school you apply to. Obviously there are more than 600 colleges in the US, so the App is not common to all of them, but most of the highly selective colleges and major state schools do accept it. 

What do they want to know?

​The information on Common App is pretty general. There are questions about who you are, how to get in touch with you, your family, your education, your extracurricular activities, your standardized testing. And then there is the Writing section, where you are asked to upload a personal essay of between 250-650 words on one of their predetermined, very broad topics. The application essay is the subject of another blog post so I won’t go into that here. 

Essay? No, thank you!

​Yes, sorry. Depending on where you apply, it may be the only essay you have to write (Bard, Middlebury) or it may be just one of a number of other short and long essays (Yale, UChicago). The Writing section also asks about your disciplinary history (and a short essay explaining it if you have one) and “Additional info” which is where you explain anything important you want colleges to know about you that has not already been covered elsewhere in the application.

What are supplements?

​Most colleges that you apply to through Common App also have a supplement (sometimes called the writing supplement) for you to complete. The supplement has questions specific to the college: what extracurricular activities will you participate in on campus, are you related to any alumni, etc. This is also the place where you designate the people who will provide your letters of recommendation (only after asking them to write a letter for you!), so those people will get an email from Common App with a link where they can upload their letter. (Sending recommendation letters through snail mail is so 2005.) There will probably also be at least one additional essay in the writing supplement.

What else do I need to apply?

 The Common App is free for you to use, although each individual school you apply to will probably require an application fee or fee waiver when you submit your applications. You do need to arrange through your school for a transcript and school profile to be sent. (That usually happens through Naviance or Parchment if your school has those things.) Even though you reported your test scores, you will still need to ask ACT or SAT to send official score results to the schools. Depending on the school, you may also need to submit the CSS/PROFILE, FAFSA, and other financial documents before your application is considered complete.

Are their other common applications?

Yes! The Universal Application debuted in 2014 with about 50 member schools. The Coalition for Access and Affordability is supposed to bring their new application online with 80 member schools on April 1, 2016. I would point out, though, that many highly-selective schools, like the Ivies, will accept any of these applications. There is also one common application for colleges in Texas (ApplyTexas) and for colleges in California system (The UC Application and CSU Mentor). 

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