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An Easy Guide to Filling Out the Common Application

Applying to college got easier with the Common Application, but the application can still be daunting. Here's a step-by-step guide to the Common App.

Let’s face it: applying to college can be a daunting task, especially if you’re interested in multiple schools. The good news? If the colleges you’re planning on applying to use the Common Application, you can create one account that allows you to upload and save application materials, demographic data, and even letters of recommendation to send to multiple schools when it comes time to apply. Both first-time and transfer applicants can use the Common Application to apply to nearly 900 different schools, including some outside the United States. Sounds exciting, right? But before you jump into this process, take some time to check out these step-by-step instructions on how to fill out the Common Application.

Create an online account

Even though the Common App doesn’t go live until August 1 each year, you can create an online account anytime by going to CommonApp.org and clicking on “Create an Account.” Select the “First Year Student” button. You’ll be prompted to enter basic information like name, email address, phone number, etc. Make sure to use an email address you regularly check so you don’t miss any notifications. At the end, select “Create Account,” and you’ll be all set. If you’re eager to get started, you can complete this step before senior year. That way you can take some time to navigate the app and get familiar with the requirements. 

Creating an account and completing the Common App is free. That said, some schools do charge a fee when you apply. If you can’t pay this fee, see your school counselor about a waiver. You may qualify if you have a financial hardship. And you’ll be happy to know that Common App offers a mobile app called Common App On Track that’s a companion to the official website. “This sounds obvious, but make sure your contact information is accurate.  Every year we send an acceptance packet to an address that doesn’t exist because a mistake was made on the Common Application. We can’t give you good news if we can’t reach you!” says James R. Fowler Jr., Vice President for Enrollment Management at Salve Regina University

Gather application materials 

Before you begin the application, take some time to gather all the materials you need to complete the process. The Common App recommends having all these documents at your fingertips when you go through the online application:

  • Copy of your high school transcript
  • List of extracurricular activities, work, hobbies, clubs, and family responsibilities
  • Test scores and dates from college entrance exams
  • Parent/legal guardian information (employment status, occupation, education level, etc.)
  • Academic honors and achievements

Add colleges to your list

This is your chance to search for schools that use the Common App and add them to your “My Colleges” list. If you’re not sure where to start, spend some time going through the “Explore Colleges” section. You can find details about each college such as deadlines, campus culture, and more. Avoid the temptation to click on every school that sounds interesting; you’re only allowed to add up to 20 colleges. Once you have a good start, check out the requirements for each school. Just because they all use the Common App doesn’t mean they all have the same admission requirements, deadlines, and fees. A quick way to scan for this information is to check out the requirements grid, a comprehensive PDF that lists all the colleges that use the Common App and their requirements.

Related: How to Build the Perfect College List in High School

Create your profile

This should be the easiest part of the process. It’s also the first step under the “Common App” tab. In addition to entering information about yourself (name, address, birth date, citizenship, etc.), the Common App also asks for some basic info about your family, so make sure you double-check that section before you submit.

Education

Following the profile section, you’ll answer questions about your current education status. This tab requires inputting info about your school counselor, so make sure to have this info handy. You’ll also enter information about your grades, class size, class ranking, and GPA.

Testing

In addition to sending official scores to colleges, you can self-report your standardized test scores for the ACT, SAT/SAT Subject Tests, AP, IB, TOEFL, PTE Academic, and IELTS. “Some schools are now test optional. A common mistake is sending in low test scores when the school doesn't require them. If your score is lower than the average admitted freshman, it might be a disadvantage to send in those scores. Check with the schools first to see what their policies are before sending in scores,” says  Lindsey Conger, independent college counselor at Moon Prep.

Activities

This section allows you to showcase your commitment to extracurricular activities, employment, hobbies, clubs, and family responsibilities. Conger also suggests, “If you have circumstances that stopped you from participating in extracurricular activities, you should include that in your Common App. A student who has to babysit younger siblings while their parents work or who had to get a job to contribute to the family's finances will not have the same extracurricular résumé as other students.” 

Related: How Extracurriculars Benefit Your College Applications

Writing

If there’s one part of the Common App you need to reserve some time for, it’s the essay. This is your opportunity to share something about yourself that isn’t represented on your transcript, test scores, or application, so make sure the common app prompt you choose is one that will allow you to shine. The Common App essay prompts have included topics like lessons learned from an obstacle you encountered, a time when you challenged an idea or belief, and accomplishments that sparked growth. A lot of students opt for the final prompt: Share an essay of your choice. Some schools will require an additional writing sample or a specific prompt. The Common App website has a section that lists all the writing requirements by the college that you need to reference before submitting any applications.

Other

You will also be prompted to answer a question about discipline history. The final tab gives you a chance to offer any additional information you feel may not have fit in the previous sections you completed.

School forms and recommendations

The Common App has a section for inviting teachers and counselors to write letters of recommendation and submit the school report online. Your first step is to complete the FERPA Release Authorization. Once this is done, you can ask someone appropriate if they'd be willing to write one and then send them an invite to submit it through Common App. “Ask teachers and counselors during second semester of your junior year for letters of recommendation. Give them your résumé so they can complete it before the fall of your senior year,” Conger recommends. You'll need their full name and email address to complete this step. You can then review their info using the “Manage Recommenders” button. Check the requirements for each college. Some may want more than one letter from a teacher, while others may only want a counselor.

The supplement

Don’t forget about the supplement! If any of the colleges you’re applying to require supplemental materials, you need to fill them out. This is an excellent opportunity to show admission teams why you are a good fit for their school. “Many schools post a deadline for Common Application submission but may not require supplemental materials to be submitted at the same time you submit your application, so don’t wait to submit. The sooner you do, the increased likelihood your review will be at the front of the queue. College admission officers are just like anyone else; they are more alert and focused at the start of application reads than at the end,” says Fowler.

Related: Do I Need to Submit Supplemental Materials With My College Applications?

Take a deep breath; you’re about to complete this process. Before you do, take your time to review your application. Make sure all the fields are complete and check for typos. If the college you’re applying to requires an application fee, you’ll be prompted to pay this before you can submit.

Find and learn more about colleges you want to apply to through the Common App using our College Search tool!

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