The Common Application Guide

| Beth Rich

Are you ready to discover your college program?

Applying for colleges can be daunting. The application process seems to grow more competitive, complicated, and stressful each year. The Common Application is designed to simplify this process.

Common Application is a non-profit organization that offers a college application which is accepted my multiple schools. This innovative tool allows college-interested students to apply to their choice of 800+ schools with a single application, making the college application process easier and more efficient.

Jump to:
Image of Meredith Lombardi

See Also: Our Interview With Common App Expert, Meredith Lombardi

Common App expert Meredith Lombardi is the Associate Director of Outreach and Education at the Common Application. She ensures that students and counselors have the resources to succesfully use the Common App. She also ensures that the Common App helps colleges find the right applicants. Before her work with the Common Application, Meredith was a public school counselor for high schools in Georgia and Washington D.C.

What is the Common Application?

The Common Application is two things. First, according to their website, The Common Application is a “not-for-profit, member organization committed to the pursuit of access, equity, and integrity in the college admission process.”

What people are usually referring to by “Common Application,” though, is the free online application offered by the organization of the same name. Colleges and universities join the Common Application organization as members, agreeing to accept the Common App from students who choose to utilize this free, online, one-stop application. Currently, more than 800 colleges and universities from 20 countries are members of the Common Application. Each year, more than one million students, a third of whom are first generation college students, apply to college using the Common App.

The Common Application started 40 years ago when 15 colleges and universities came together and envisioned an innovative way of applying to college: a student could apply to one school and send a copy of the application to the other 14 schools in the collective. This project, called the Common Application Experiment, grew into today’s common app, used by students around the world to simplify the college application process.

The member organizations who accept the Common App are diverse. In the 2015–2016 school year, students could apply to a diverse range of schools around the world, including:

The organization continues to add more members and provide college-bound students with an ever-growing array of diverse colleges and universities that accept the same application.

Should I Fill out the Common Application?

For insights into whether to take the ACT or SAT, read up on both tests with “Your Test Prep Source: ACT, SAT, GRE, GMAT & LSAT.”

The college application process is often filled with questions and “shoulds.” Should I take the ACT or SAT? Should I pay for school with scholarships? Loans? A job? Should I fill out the Common App?

The answer for each of those questions is: it depends.

Each student is unique, and while there are good college application decisions, and not-so-good ones, the path to college application, acceptance, and affordability is different for each person.

For more information about paying for school and college affordability, visit “The Student Financial Aid Source.”

That said, with more than 800 schools accepting the free, online application, it is a great option for many students. So chances are, yes, you should fill out the Common App. Read on to find out if Common App is for you, and if so, how you can fill it out.

When it comes to whether or not you should fill out the Common Application, the first step is to check if the schools you’re interested in accept the application. We’ve included a list of schools that accept the Common App in this article, and you can also search the 800+ member colleges and universities on the Common Application website. The site allows you to search by college name, state, and explore schools by region.

The Common Application simplifies the college application process for millions of students, but the organization also offers a variety of resources to students who use the free, online application. The Common App system helps you to stay on track by sending reminders and alerts about important dates and deadlines. You can access a variety of Virtual Counselors through the Common App site, and read up on important topics like Why Go to College, How to Prepare, How to Pay for College, and How to Transfer. If you speak Spanish, the Common Application also offers a number of resources for Spanish speakers.

In addition to many students benefiting from the ease and support offered by the Common Application, schools also benefit from the innovative approach to college application and admissions. The Common App simplifies the admissions process for colleges and universities, and gives them insights and supports to create an equitable college application and admissions process driven by best practices. To be a member of the Common Application, a college or university must be a non-profit, undergraduate degree granting, accredited by a regional accrediting association (if in the U.S.) or a member of the Council of International Schools (if outside the U.S.), and committed to the pursuit of equity and integrity in the college admissions process.

How to Fill Out the Common Application

The Common Application website lists five steps for applying to colleges using the Common App:

  1. Create
  2. Add
  3. Understand
  4. Gather
  5. Start

In this resource, we’ll cover each of those steps, with additional information about all that filling out the Common Application entails. We’ve also included a sixth step: Complete your Common App!

1. Create an Account

The first step to filling out the Common Application is creating an account. You can create a Common Application account at any time, so even if you have a few years of high school left, it might be helpful to create an account to familiarize yourself with an application that you’ll likely be using before you know it. You do not need to have completed any particular courses, experiences, or assignments before creating an account. In fact, you don’t even need to know yet where you would like to apply. Creating a Common App account merely requires some basic personal information, including your name, date of birth, address, phone number, and email address. Be sure to save the email address and password you use to set up your account; no matter when you’ll be returning to fill out the Common App and apply to colleges, you’ll need that important info.

2. Add Schools to Your List

It’s unlikely that you want to apply to all 800+ schools that accept the Common Application, so the next step in filling out the Common App is adding schools to your list. The Common App dashboard includes your “My Colleges” list. This is a convenient, easy-to-navigate page that will outline what you need to do to apply to each of the schools on your list. After creating an account, you can use the “College Search” tab to browse and begin adding schools to your list. You can search for schools by name, state, region, application deadline, or distance from your home. These varied search options allow you to explore schools that might be a good fit for you, even if you don’t know where you’d like to attend college yet.

3. Understand Your Schools’ Specific Requirements

Even though each of the 800+ schools you can apply to using the Common App have something in common (working together to accept applications through membership in the Common Application!), each school is unique and their requirements are too. The Common App provides a “Requirements Grid” that is updated each academic year to reflect the requirements of each school that accepts the application, as well as a “Requirements Tracker” worksheet to help you keep track of what each of your schools requires in an application. Here you can make note of any application fees, deadlines, required tests, recommendations, etc. that you need to pay, meet, or include in an application to a particular school.

4. Gather Your General Application Information

The Common Application consists of several parts. Though you do need to meet the specific requirements for each school on your list, the Common Application includes a general application portion that goes to every school to which you apply. The general application section includes a list of your high school courses, grades, and activities; entrance exam scores and dates; and your parent or legal guardian’s information. This portion of the application might feel overwhelming. It can be difficult to remember and/or track down all of this information. The Common App recommends having this information collected before you sit down to fill out the general application portion. This will make things much easier and probably quicker for you. You will likely need the help of your parents/guardians and your high school counselor as you fill out the general application.


The general section of the Common Application requires:

  • A copy of your high school transcript
  • A list of your extracurricular activities both inside and outside of school
  • Test scores and test dates from your college entrance exams (SATs, ACTs, SAT Subject Tests)
  • Parent or Legal Guardian information (educational background, occupational information, employer information, etc.)

5. Start Your Application

The Common Application advises that it is normal to feel nervous when starting your college applications. Perhaps the most difficult part of this process is actually getting started. But once you’ve created a Common Application account, discovered and studied requirements for the schools you want to apply to, and gathered the information required for the general portion of the application, it’s time to dive in. The Common Application offers a mobile app that serves as a companion to the web platform that you use to fill out the application. The app, Common App On Track, is available from the Apple App Store for iOS and Google Play for Android.

6. Finish Your Application

Though the Common Application does not include this step in their guide to using the Common App, we think that finishing your application deserves a mention here. It might take some time and effort to complete your Common App, varying by the number of schools to which you choose to apply. The application includes seven sections:

  • Profile
  • Family
  • Education
  • Testing
  • Activities
  • Writing
  • Courses & Grades

In addition to the personal information discussed in step four (Gather Your General Application Information), the Common App allows you to choose between one of several prompts for a college application essay. Some schools require an essay while others do not, but you have the option to send your writing to schools who do not require an essay. If you craft an application essay that you’re proud of, sharing it with schools can be a way to shine, something that’s important when you’re one applicant in a pool of many.

Tips for the Common Application

Though you know from the above section how to fill out the Common Application, these tips will help you find ease in the process and create a striking application that will hopefully get you into one (or more!) of your dream schools. We’ve included 10 tips here, ranging from practical to personal to professional, all meant to help you fill out the Common App with ease, confidence, and success.

1. Save Login Information

This might seem like a no-brainer, but saving your login information is a key way to reduce the stress of filling out the Common App (or any other college-related forms or applications). During this time, you’re likely creating lots of accounts — FAFSA, other college applications, college readiness programs through your high school, scholarships — and if you don’t keep track of your login information for each account, remembering and/or resetting your passwords can take valuable time that should be spent working on your college and financial aid applications. You might use a password manager to keep track of all of your college-related login information, but we also take stock in the old-fashioned way: write those passwords down and put that precious piece of paper somewhere safe!

2. Bookmark Your Application

Another tip for Common Application success that might seem small, but adds up to save time and reduce stress is bookmarking your application. If you go ahead and create a bookmark for your application on your internet browser when you create your Common App account, you are more likely to visit and work on your application more often. This pro-tip will have you adding colleges to your list; inputting general information; adding courses, grades, and activities to your profile; and working on your Common Application essay easily and often.

3. Give Yourself Plenty of Time

Filling out college applications is a big job, and can be very time-consuming. Though it might be nice to think you can knock out your Common App in a day or two, avoid the temptation to rush and give yourself plenty of time to craft a thoughtful, honest, complete application. Especially during your junior and senior year of high school (if you are on the traditional path, headed straight from high school to college), it is important to create time for college application work in your schedule. Learning to balance your time between high school coursework and commitments as well as college applications, test prep, and other college-related efforts is a valuable skill, and great practice for the time-management and self-regulation skills you’ll need as a college student.

4. Create a To-Do List

A to-do list is another organizational tool that can be a great asset as you fill out the Common Application. The Common App dashboard does a good job of laying out what you need to do to complete the Common Application for each school on your list, but it can be helpful to create your own to-do list. Include every aspect of the Common App, even if the items on your list are things like “create an account,” “find five schools to apply to,” or “ask parent for income info.” Each small step counts towards the successful completion of your application. Checking each of these small steps off as you go can be a great way to acknowledge your effort and stay motivated.

5. Optional? Do It Anyway.

It’s easy to see an optional submission or essay and think “why bother if it’s not required?” While this thought pattern is tempting, if you want your college applications to stand out, it’s important to showcase yourself: your goals, talents, skills, background, and potential as a college student and human being. Often, choosing to do the “optional” work counts in your favor. It’s an opportunity to share an extra insight into who you are as a person and student. So, if an essay or portion of an application is “optional,” we encourage you to think twice before passing up the opportunity to highlight your intellect, work ethic, and experience in your Common Application.

6. Choose the “Right” Essay Prompt

For the common application essay, you have several prompts to choose from. Prompts may vary slightly from year to year, but you can expect similar questions whenever you fill out the Common Application.

Here are the seven prompts offered to students filling out the Common App for the 2018–2019 academic year:

  • 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.
  • 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?
  • Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
  • Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma — anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took to identify a solution.
  • Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
  • 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?
  • 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.

On the Common Application site, they share that:

“the most popular essay prompt of the 2017–2018 application year was ‘Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth . . . ’ (23.6%), followed by the topic of your choice option (22.5%), and ‘Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful . . . ’ (21.4%).”

This goes to show that there is not one “right” or best essay prompt that the majority of students choose. The best essay topic is one that you connect to, a prompt that inspires you to share a part of yourself or something important to you with the college admissions staff at each school on your list. Take time to carefully choose the prompt that you connect with best. Your Common App essay should be honest, thoughtful, unique, and true to you, and your values, priorities, interests, and passions.

7. Save Your Answers (Somewhere Else!)

While we’re discussing the Common Application essay, take a moment to commit to this practical tip that could save you hours of time and effort. The Common App allows you to type your essay in a text box on their dashboard. This might seem like the simplest way to write your essay, but if you take more than an hour to type, the page will log you out due to inactivity. Additionally, the text box does not autosave, so if your internet goes out, you accidentally close the browser, or something else wacky/glitchy/unexpected/terrible happens, you will lose your essay. It is a best practice (recommended by the Common Application folks themselves) to write your essay somewhere else (Google Docs, Microsoft Word, etc.) and copy/paste it into the Common Application text box when you are finished writing and editing.

8. Take What You Need

As you are working on your Common Application, be sensitive to your needs. Are you tired of staring at the screen? Rereading the same essay prompt over and over again? Take a break and come back to your application when you’re ready, with fresh eyes and renewed energy. Are you feeling lost, confused, or overwhelmed? Ask for help, from a parent, guardian, teacher, counselor, Common Application staff member, or anyone else that you trust. Remember, filling out the Common Application, or any college application for that matter, is a difficult task. Asking for and accepting rest, help, and support will make all the difference in both your experience and your application itself.

9. Review and Edit

Looking at your application with fresh eyes isn’t just about taking a break for yourself, it’s also about the integrity and precision of your application. Even the best writers need editing, so don’t count yourself above several rounds of reviewing and revising. You can often catch many of your own mistakes or areas that need improvement by going over your application yourself, but a second (or third!) pair of trusted eyes can also be helpful in the revision and editing process. Remember, this application is your opportunity to introduce yourself to the schools you’d like to attend. Careful editing ensures that you are putting your best foot forward when you click “submit” on your Common Application.

10. Be Yourself

It might sound cheesy, but it’s critical to be yourself as you fill out the Common Application. On one hand, it’s important to be completely honest on your application. It might be tempting to add an activity to your profile, fudge a grade, or lie about holding a job. However, this is an immense risk that will only hurt your application chances if you are discovered (and there’s a good chance you will be). If application reviewers suspect untruthfulness on your application, they might check into your claims, or reject your application merely because of their suspicions. It’s also important to confidently share about yourself, your story, and your passion. Someone is reading your essay and application materials and this is your chance to share why you specifically would be a great fit for their school. If you’re struggling to write about yourself or be authentic in your Common App, this is a great time to ask a trusted advisor, mentor, or friend about what they think of you and what elements of your personality, skills, and passion you can highlight in your application packet.

Schools That Accept the Common Application

With 800+ schools accepting the Common Application, and more colleges and universities joining the organization each year, you have plenty of options. Instead of listing each of them here, we will direct you to the easy-to-navigate search tool on the Common Application site. This search engine allows you to search by U.S. state, schools outside of the U.S., public or private, acceptance of transfer application, and other criteria like men only, women only, or co-educational institutions. Similarly, the “Explore Colleges” section of the Common App site, offers you tools to discover schools based on region, name, or state.

It is possible that a school on your list may not accept the Common Application. Many public colleges and universities do not accept the Common App. Private schools seem more likely to accept the Common Application, with all eight Ivy League schools (Brown University, Columbia University, Cornell University, Dartmouth College, Harvard University, Princeton University, the University of Pennsylvania, and Yale University) and a variety of other highly selective private schools (Stanford University, University of Chicago, California Institute of Technology, Johns Hopkins University, Northwestern University, Vanderbilt University, and Rice University) accepting the Common Application.

However, many students successfully fill out the Common Application as well as applications to those individual schools that do not use the collaborative college admissions application. Look at it this way: much of the information that you collected for the Common Application — as well as your essays, reflections, and test scores — can easily be reused on other applications, with slight modifications to fit the requirements of each school. If you fill out the Common App, you will have already done the bulk of work required to complete a college application, and will only need to tailor your application to specific schools on your list.

Filling out the Common Application can be challenging, but the College Application organization offers a number of resources to help with your application, and if you follow the tips offered in this article, you’ll be able to fill out the Common App with more ease, confidence, and success. For more information about college applications, check out our Savvy Student’s Guide to The College Application Process.

Popular with our students.

Highly informative resources to keep your education journey on track.

Take the next step toward your future with online learning.

Discover schools with the programs and courses you’re interested in, and start learning today.

woman in an office