Common Application Guide

TBS Staff Writers
Updated February 26, 2024
Prospective students curious if their desired college or university works with the Common Application can use the site's

Are you ready to discover your college program?

By using the Common App to apply to colleges and universities, you’ll only need to provide your information and essay once — saving you time and energy.

Applying to colleges and universities can put stress and strain on degree-seekers. Prospective students may find it difficult to search and choose potential schools, collect the necessary application information, and meet different deadlines. Luckily, the Common Application helps streamline this process.

What Is the Common App?

The Common Application automatically fills in sections ofcollege applications, making it easier for prospective students to apply to multiple schools. First-year and transfer students can both use the application, which asks students to provide the most commonly required information, post their application essays, and submit materials like transcripts and letters of recommendation. This information is then submitted to several schools, saving students time and effort.

Prospective students can use this service to apply to online schools, apply for transfer credit, and receive helpful tips and school and program recommendations.

More than 900 colleges and universities work with the Common Application, making it one of the most popular platforms of its kind. However, some states and schools have their own systems, so students should check to see if their desired schools use the Common App. Participating schools use the same rubric to judge Common Application users and independent applicants.

Benefits of the Common App

The Common Application offers several advantages. For schools, its inclusivity encourages a diverse selection of applicants. For individual degree-seekers, the service allows them to:

  • Apply more quickly.
  • Avoid filling out the same information multiple times.
  • Receive updates on mobile devices.
  • Easily manage application requirements and deadlines.

Which Schools Accept the Common App?

The Common Application works with more than 900 schools, including institutions in Canada, Europe, and Asia. Prospective students can apply to online, Ivy League, public, and private colleges and universities. Some schools prefer to work with the Common Application over their own application processes, although candidates can still independently apply to any school that uses the Common App.

For schools that don’t accept the Common Application, students should look into whether similar platforms are accepted, like the MyCoalition application and the Universal College Application. Keep in mind that some institutions just require candidates to send their applications through their own platforms, and don’t accept any kind of universal application at all, so it’s important to research the preferred process at your target school.

How Can I See if a School Accepts the Common App?

Prospective students curious if their desired college or university works with the Common Application can use the site’s explore function. This function lists every participating institution, allowing users to find school information, admission requirements, and available programs.

Is the Common App Free?

While students can use the Common Application for free, some individual schools still charge an application fee, even if you use the Common App to apply to them. According to U.S. News, the average application fee in 2020 was $44.

However, prospective students who can demonstrate financial need may request fee waiver forms in the profile section of the application. To qualify, a guidance counselor must fill out the form, confirming that the applicant meets the necessary conditions. Candidates who do not meet the initial requirements can also request a supporting statement from a counselor or financial aid officer.

What Do I Need for the Common App?

The Common Application collects the information that is most commonly required for most institutions, such as personal and parental information, financial data, and extracurricular activities. Each user also must supply transcripts and test scores, along with their response to an essay prompt.

Keep in mind that many schools have their own unique requirements, too. The Common Application website lists schools that feature additional requirements, along with instructions on how to submit them.

Transfer students using the Common App need to provide information on their prior training, such as school names, dates, and grades.

Materials Needed for the Common App

First-Time Students

Gather the following:

  • Parent/legal guardian information
  • Citizenship information
  • Military service information
  • High school transcript
  • List of your interests, hobbies, extracurriculars, clubs, community engagement, and work experience
  • Standardized test scores (SAT, ACT, etc.)
  • List of academic honors and achievements
  • List of up to 20 colleges/universities you want to apply to
  • Letters of recommendation, such as from counselors, advisors, teachers, coaches, employers, mentors, and/or parent/legal guardians
  • Personal essay

Depending on the college or program, you may also need:

  • Additional essays or answers to prompts
  • A portfolio to show your work
  • A resume


  • A Common App fee waiver form
  • A college-specific fee waiver form

Transfer Students

Gather the following:

  • Parent/legal guardian information
  • Citizenship information
  • Military service information
  • Standardized test scores and dates
  • List of internship, research, volunteering, and work experiences
  • List of colleges, universities, and/or programs you want to apply to
  • Letters of recommendation, such as from employers, professors, counselors, advisors, teachers, coaches, or someone else who knows you personally

Depending on the college or program, you may also need:

  • Official or unofficial college transcripts
  • Official or unofficial high school transcript
  • Essays or answers to prompts
  • A portfolio to show your work
  • A resume


  • Certificates for continuing education courses
  • Internship information

Additional Resources

Writing the Common App Essay

How Important Is the Common App Essay?

The essay portion of the Common Application allows students to demonstrate what distinguishes them from their competition. It gives schools personalized information on the applicant and can have a major impact on their final admission decision.

How Many Common App Essays Are Required?

The Common Application provides seven essay prompts, but candidates only submit one essay. Some schools require supplemental essays, which students must prepare separately.

Can You Write Multiple Common App Essays?

While prospective enrollees can only submit one essay at a time, they can always edit or change their original essay or submit an entirely new one.

How Long Should the Common App Essay Be?

The Common Application essay should come in below the 650-word limit. There is also an optional Coronavirus essay question, which as a 250-word limit.

How Do I Fill Out the Common App?

The Common Application provides guides for first-time degree-seekers and transfer students, walking prospective learners through the process, including how to gather transcripts, test scores, support materials, and personal information well in advance of application deadlines. Candidates can then make an account, add their ideal schools, and upload all required materials.

Prospective students need to monitor their upcoming deadlines and outstanding materials themselves. They must be diligent and proactive in gathering and completing their documents, including taking the necessary time to plan and write their essays.

If a user is struggling with the service, they can speak to their school guidance counselor for assistance. The Common Application solutions center also provides helpful information about the various sections of the application, including a 24/7 support service where applicants can ask additional questions.

Common App Essential Information
Common App OpensAug. 1, annually
Common App DeadlinesTypically Nov. 1 for early decision and Jan. 1 for regular decision, annuallyhese can vary by college, so check each school’s site to ensure you’re on track for its application deadlines.
Recommended Time to Begin Preparing Your College ApplicationsSummer before senior year of high school
Budget Your Time for
  • Visiting prospective colleges you might be interested in attending
  • Studying for and taking standardized tests (SAT, ACT, etc.)
  • (Optional) Completing the FAFSA form
  • Finding and applying to scholarships
  • Collecting your background information
  • Giving recommenders enough time to write letters of recommendation
  • Giving your counselor enough notice to submit your transcript
  • Writing the Common App personal essay and receiving feedback
  • Writing any additional required essays or answers to question prompts

Is There a Common App for Scholarships?

Similar to the college application process, applying for scholarships can take a significant amount of time and energy. The Common Application offers financial aid resources, including access to the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation’s scholarships.

Users can also connect their accounts to the College Board’s scholarship search to save time on individual applications. This free service operates similarly to the Common Application and shares reusable information with scholarship providers.

The Common App for Transfer Students

Transferring between colleges can be a daunting process, but the Common Application helps ease the transition. Like first-time students, Common App transfer students can save time by filling out their general information online. Applicants also need to provide details on their previous education and experience, along with any important scheduling information.

Transfer students can use the Common Application to move between schools, change programs, or transition from traditional classrooms to online colleges. The additional information provided by Common App transfer students allows schools to accommodate their diverse needs to offer unique and personalized pathways.

Ask the Expert: Acing Your Common App

Portrait of Johnnie Johnson

Johnnie Johnson

Johnnie Johnson, a Chicago native, joined the Transylvania University admissions staff in July 2011 and has held roles including associate director of admissions, director of operations, director of multicultural recruitment, director of admissions, and his current vice president position. Johnson is also the immediate past president of the Kentucky Association of College Admissions Counseling, a board member of the YMCA Black Achiever Program, and a proud member of Kappa Alpha Psi. He holds a degree in economics, business, and sociology from Cornell College.


What Are the Most Common Mistakes That Students Make on Their Common App Essays?

The most common mistake we see is students not proofreading the final product — checking for grammatical errors, sentence structure, etc. The admissions reader can tell if there was care put into the essay, and finding proofreading mistakes is an indication of quick work.

The essay allows the reader to learn more about the applicant. You might tell a personal story, create a fictional character, or explain something from your academic history; however, if the essay is not correctly put together — structurally, grammatically, accurately — the reader can tell that not much effort has been dedicated to the essay. Have someone read over your essay for the little things you might overlook.

How Should a Student Choose Which Common App Essay Prompt(s) to Write?

Choose a topic that interests you or something you have knowledge about. Whether it’s a personal story or a topic of public interest, you as the writer need to be confident in what you’re writing.

If you happen to write a fictional essay, be as creative as possible and take the story to places that create vivid images for the reader. Remember, admissions officers are reading hundreds (maybe thousands) of essays. Make yours stand out!

What Are Your Top Three Tips for How Students Can Write Stand-Out Common App Essays?

  1. Choose a topic that you are passionate about or can easily speak on.
  2. Go through at least two drafts before placing the final draft in your Common Application.
  3. Have someone read your essay and make sure they understand what you are trying to convey with the writing. If they come out with a different takeaway, you should adjust the language to make sure it says exactly what you want it to say.

What Can a Student Do to Make Their College Application Process as Smooth as Possible?

  • Stay ahead of the deadlines. Every school has a different set of deadlines and requirements, and it’s up to the student to manage all of those expectations. Create a calendar or schedule for yourself to make sure you are meeting the deadlines for each institution.
  • Find ways to make yourself stand out. What are you doing that no one in your immediate peer group is doing? Why did you choose that particular activity or experience? What did you learn from it?
  • Proofread, check it, and check it again. Then have someone else look over it. Don’t let grammatical errors or small mistakes distract from the overall application you are presenting.
  • Keep in touch with your guidance counselor and college admissions counselors. We are your advocates and want to help you be successful, not only in completing the application but also in securing admission and scholarships. Ask questions, make sure you have the complete answers, and stay present with those individuals.

Frequently Asked Questions

The Common Application is a streamlined application service. Prospective students fill out their basic information, and the service shares the data with all of the applicant’s chosen schools. University applications are the individual application processes that schools use, independent from one another. Some schools use both types of application.

Students need to research their prospective schools to identify the best pathway for each. The Common Application can save candidates time when sending out multiple applications, but some schools may require that applicants send in their materials directly, or they may have additional application requirements beyond what the Common App collects.

Yes. They need to provide much of the same information as first-time students, plus information about their prior college training and work experience.

Once prospective students upload their transcripts to the Common Application with their guidance counselors, the service will send the documents to any school the degree-seeker chooses to apply to.

Each school has its own deadlines, but the Common Application usually posts a Nov. 1st deadline for early admission. Some schools have Jan. 1 deadlines for general applications.

Portrait of Doug Wintemute

Doug Wintemute

Doug Wintemute is a Toronto-based freelance writer with professional writing interests in higher learning and entertainment. He completed his BA and MA in English at York University, graduating summa cum laude and earning academic merit, research, and writing awards at both levels. Since 2014, he has contributed content and editorial work for award-winning digital trade publications, global SEO copywriting projects, and hugely popular online brands. He can be contacted through LinkedIn.

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