All articles

Everything You Need to Know About the Common App [2024]

A girl plans to complete CommonApp

We all know applying to college takes time and discipline. Thankfully there's the Common App to streamline the process. You've heard about the Common App, but you might wonder how to use it or have specific questions about it.

In this step-by-step guide, we'll walk you through the process of filling out the Common App, providing you with tips and best practices to give yourself the best chance at success. We also answer all of your questions towards the end of this piece.

Let's get started. 

What is the Common App

The Common App is an online platform that enables students to complete and submit college applications to multiple participating institutions in one place. Instead of filling out separate applications for each college, the Common App consolidates the core application components, making it easier and more efficient to apply to a wide range of schools.

However, it's important to note that not all colleges accept the Common App. Some schools require you to apply directly through them. You can find a complete list of the member colleges on the Common App website. We also share the link to the specific page below. 

How to Use the Common App

Now for the step-by-step guide for using the Common App, as we promised you. 

Create a Common App Account

Before you begin filling out the application, it's essential to gather all the necessary information. This includes:

  • Your high school transcript: You'll need to enter your high school grades and current courses in the Education section. Some colleges may also require you to self-report your high school transcript.
  • Test scores and dates: In the Testing section, you can self-report your scores for standardized tests like the SATs and ACTs. Each college has different testing requirements, so make sure to check their policies.
  • Academic honors and achievements: Apart from the Activities section, you'll also have the opportunity to highlight any academic honors or achievements from high school.
  • Your activities and responsibilities: The Activities section allows you to showcase your interests and who you are outside of the classroom. Don't forget to include information about your work, hobbies, clubs, and community engagement. Family responsibilities can also be important to share.
  • Parent/Legal guardian information: Colleges collect this information for demographic purposes. You'll be asked for your parents' occupation, employment status, education level, and college attendance.

Once you have all the necessary information, it's time to create your Common App account. You can do it by following these steps:

  • Visit the Common App website and click on "Create Account."
  • Choose your student type. If you're a first-year student, select that option.
  • Create new login credentials and choose an email address you regularly check and will have access to after graduating high school.
  • Complete your registration information, providing your name, home address, phone number, and date of birth.
  • Adjust your communication preferences and accept the Common App privacy policy.
  • Select "Create Account," and you're done!

Pro tip: Common App accounts can roll over from year to year! You can explore the platform, save answers to questions, and build a college list anytime.

Add Colleges to Your Common App

Once you've created your account, it's time to start adding colleges to your Common App. Here's how:

  • Visit the College Search tab and search for the colleges you want to apply to. You can search by name or use filters like state, distance from a zip code, enrollment term, application deadline, and more.
  • When you find a college you're interested in, click the "Add to My Colleges" button to add it to your list.

It's important to note that while some colleges may charge an application fee, others offer fee waivers for qualifying students. So be sure always to check the fee requirements and consider applying for a fee waiver if eligible.

Invite Your Recommenders

Many colleges require letters of recommendation as part of the application process. So conveniently, the Common App allows you to invite and assign different types of recommenders. Here's how it works:

  • From the My Colleges tab, select a college and open the "Recommenders and FERPA" section.
  • Complete the FERPA Release Authorization if you haven't already done so. This allows your school to submit the necessary forms on your behalf. You can read more about FERPA below. 
  • Invite your recommenders using the invite button in each section. You'll need their name and email address.
  • After adding a recommender, you can manage their information using the Manage Recommenders button.
  • Assign recommenders to specific colleges by selecting their name from the dropdown menu and using the assign button.

It's important to note that each college has its own recommendation requirements. Some may require teacher recommendations, while others allow for coach, employer, or peer recommendations. Make sure to review each college's recommendation guidelines.

What is FERPA?

FERPA is a federal law enacted to safeguard the privacy of student education records. Under FERPA, students aged 18 and above or attending a post-secondary institution have the right to control who can access their educational records, including transcripts, grades, disciplinary records, and letters of recommendation. FERPA ensures that your educational information remains confidential and can only be released with your explicit consent or in certain specified circumstances.

Under FERPA, you have the right to review and control access to your letters of recommendation. If you choose to waive your rights and allow your recommenders to submit their letters confidentially, colleges may perceive them as more candid and credible. Remember that the choice to waive your rights is entirely voluntary, and you can always decide not to do so. 

Understanding Each College's Requirements

As you work on your applications, it's crucial to stay organized and understand the unique requirements of each college. Here are some places within the Common App where you can find specific information:

  • Explore Colleges: Each college's Explore Colleges profile provides valuable information about the application process, deadlines, testing requirements, and more.
  • My Colleges: In the My Colleges or College Search tab, you can find detailed information about each college's specific requirements for testing, writing supplements, deadlines, and more.
  • Requirements Grid: The requirements grid within the application lists all the colleges that use the Common App and their individual requirements.
  • Writing Requirements by College: The Common App lists all colleges and their essay prompts. This resource will help you plan your essays effectively.

Remember, account rollover allows you to save answers to Common App questions year after year. However, responses to questions in your My Colleges section do not carry over. Only start working on college-specific questions, writing supplements, or portfolios if you intend to apply during the current school year.

Master the Personal Essay

Writing a personal essay is a crucial part of your application. Here's where you'll have the opportunity to showcase your unique experiences and perspective. Follow these tips to make the task more manageable:

  • Common App Personal Essay: Depending on the college, the personal essay may be optional or required. In the writing section of your Common App, you'll find a table listing each college's requirements.
  • College-Specific Questions: Many colleges include short answer questions or essay prompts in this section. Make sure to address each prompt individually and provide thoughtful responses.
  • Writing Supplements: Some colleges require a separate writing supplement, while others may ask for it based on your answers to other questions. Check your Dashboard or My Colleges tab for more information on writing supplements.

Submit Your Application

Before submitting your application, it's crucial to review all the information you've entered, pay the application fee if required, and ensure everything is in order. Here's a three-step process for submission:

  • Reviewing your application: Take the time to go through every section of your application to ensure accuracy and completeness.
  • Paying the application fee: If applicable, make sure to pay the application fee. However, remember that many colleges offer fee waivers under specific circumstances.
  • Submitting your application: Once you've reviewed and paid, it's time to submit your application.

With that, you will have successfully completed the Common App and taken a significant step toward your college journey. Good luck with your applications!


General Common App Questions

To get started, here are some of the most basic Common App questions answered for you. 

Why Use the Common App?

The Common App saves you time, money, and effort. With the Common App, you can complete one application and submit it to more than 1,000 different colleges and universities. 

Does it Cost Anything to Use the Common App?

No. The Common App doesn’t charge for students to use their platform. However, some colleges charge an application fee, which can be paid via CommonApp. The cost of application submissions will vary between colleges. 

Can I Get a Fee Waiver?

Yes! A fee waiver form can be filled out on the Fee Waiver section of your Common App profile.

Once financial hardship has been established, it will apply to all college application submissions. So you don’t have to fill out that form multiple times. 

Not sure if you qualify? The Common App website provides this list of criteria for eligibility. 

You can also speak with your high school counselor or directly with an admissions officer from the school you’re interested in if you have questions or need assistance with a fee waiver.  

Which Colleges and Universities Accept the Common App? 

Over 1,000 institutions accept the Common App. And that number is growing each year. You can click the link for a full list of colleges and universities that accept the Common App.

There are other application platforms, such as the Universal Application and Coalition Application. However, both have fewer member institutions and different goals in mind. For instance, the Coalition App requires college members to have a certain amount of diversity in their student body, as well as a cap on national student loan debt. 

Ultimately, you’ll want to determine which platforms offer you the most advantages, i.e., which has the most colleges you’re interested in and features you want to use. Today, though, we’ll thoroughly discuss the Common App and what to remember if you decide to move forward with filling out your college applications using this platform.

Do Colleges Treat Common App Candidates Differently? 

Definitely not! Colleges and universities want you to use the platform that works best for you. If that happens to be the Common App, then use it. All member colleges have pledged to treat applicants from Common App the same as any other platform, whether through their own website, statewide platform, or otherwise. In fact, there are a number of colleges that only use CommonApp. 

The one recommendation that most admissions advisors would give is that demonstrated interest is a bit more important. Because it can be incredibly easy to apply once you’ve filled out all required aspects at once, colleges and universities want to confirm that you are truly interested in their institution.

To show demonstrated interest when using the Common App, make sure that you’re individualizing the answers to any “Why Our Institution” questions. Then follow the colleges’ social media pages and attend any virtual events or opportunities they offer prospective students. 

When Does the Common App Open?

Every year, the Common Application opens on August 1st. The exact same day every year, making it a good gauge of when to: 

If you’re applying for Early Admission or Early Decision, applications can be due in as little as four months, while regular admissions deadlines can be as little as five months away (depending on where you’re applying). The Common Application can be a great place to get started with your application, especially if you have two or more colleges that accept it. 

When is the Common App Due? What’s the Deadline?

When the Common App is due depends on what type of application you’re submitting. Are you applying Early Action, Early Decision, or Regular Decision? Once you narrow that down depending on the schools you’re applying to, you’ll see that the Common App due date is usually November or January. But here are the specific details. 

  • Early Action: If you’re going to apply for Early Action, you’ll most likely need to submit your Common App by November 1st. But since you’re not committed to an Early Action School, you’ll also want to submit your Common App to Regular Decision schools which we talk about in a minute. 
  • Early Decision: Like Early Action, Early Decision applications are usually due around the 1st or the 15th of November. But some schools offer Early Decision II, which means the Common App for those schools would be due sometime in January. 
  • Regular Decision: Students applying Regular Decision will usually need to submit their Common App in early January. 

And the application deadline is always 11:59 pm on deadline day in your local time zone. To stay on top of these dates, you may want to bookmark this link for future reference.

The Common App Requirements Grid

Of course, these deadlines are not to be confused with the deadline or due date for the FAFSA

How Long Does It Take to Fill Out the Common App?

It really depends on how many schools you are applying to and how much information they want. Ideally, you should begin your applications at least six weeks before the due date because you’ll want to work on parts of it, save it, and come back to it. 

But to set yourself up for success, begin gathering documents and other components of your application, like the letters of recommendation, long before you’re ready to start the application itself. 

Do I Need a Letter of Recommendation for the Common App?

The Common App itself doesn’t require letters of recommendation, but the schools you’ll be applying to will. 

Each school will specify its own requirements for the letters of recommendation part of the application. For instance, some will specify who they want your letters of recommendation to be from, while others will just ask for a specific number of them. 

It’s like that for test scores and transcripts, too, so be sure to pay close attention to what each college or university requires so you’re sure to submit the right documents. 

I Messed Up On My Application — How Do I Fix it? 

You can edit all sections of the application an unlimited number of times, excluding one: the essay. You can only edit it a maximum of three times. The best way around this is simply to use the essay section right before submitting it. Do your writing and editing in Word or Google Docs so you can edit it as often as you need. 

Can I Preview My Application Before Submitting it? 

Yes! And you should, too. Once you’ve filled out everything, click “Review and Submit.” This will automatically generate a PDF, which, if possible, you should print and manually look over. The simple act of looking at a printed application versus a digital one can allow your eye to notice mistakes it previously missed. 

Click the link for directions on printing your Common App. 

Should I Fill Out My Demographics on the Common App?

Whether or not you share this information depends on personal preference. Colleges ask for this information so they can keep track of the demographics of their application pool and admissions. 

Do You Apply for Financial Aid Through Common App?

Nope! For that, you’ll want to fill out the Free Application for Federal Aid (FAFSA), which every college-bound student should complete as soon as possible after the application opens.

Final Thoughts on the Common App

Filling out the Common App can feel overwhelming, but you can navigate the process smoothly with the guidance shared here. Another thing you can do to set yourself up for success is to go into the application process knowing where you stand in terms of admission. 

With Appily, you can find out where you stand when applying to any college. Simply create a free account, and you can use your academic information — GPA and test scores — to get an estimate of how likely you are to be admitted to the schools on your list. It's free and easy. Just click the button below to get started. 

Want to join our newsletter list? We'll email the best college and scholarship search tips to you monthly.
Create a free Appily account to find, finance, and attend the college that's right for you Get Started Now