A Step by Step Guide to the Common App

The Common App is a great way for students to submit simultaneous college applications. Particularly popular in the USA but with member institutions all over the world, it’s a system college counsellors need to know well. And with our Common App guide, you will!

counsellor guiding student step by step through the common app with two laptops and some papers between them

The Common Application - often referred to as the Common App - is a powerful system for your students to submit applications to colleges and universities. Although institutions all over the globe accept applications through the Common App, most are in the USA.

The founding premise of the Common App is simple, and probably resonates with any counsellor who handles global applications: to simplify the time-consuming and tedious process of filling out repetitive application forms.

So over forty years ago, 15 colleges and universities in the USA banded together to unify the process. An application that was sent to one of the 15 schools could be copied and sent to any of the other 14. Students would no longer have to write out their personal details over and over again!

This so-called Common Application Experiment gained traction, and lots of other institutions soon joined in. Now, it boasts nearly 900 member colleges and universities all around the world, and helps over a million students every year apply to higher education.

Clearly, it’s an important topic! You’ll probably find that many of your students come to use the Common App. You’ll want to be able to support and advise them as they do.

So in this comprehensive guide to the Common App, we’ll be breaking down the profile sections, explaining recommendations and references, and even honing in on the infamous personal essays. Read on, and you’ll be a Common App expert in no time!

Which colleges and universities accept the Common App?

A key first question is, of course, whether the Common App is even an option.

As we mentioned, Common App members are getting close to the 1000 mark, so there’s a good chance most of your students will find some of their favourites on the list, particularly if they’re keen to study in the United States.

Though the majority of Common App colleges are based in the USA, there are partner institutions the world over, from Canada to Japan.

Your students can easily find out if a particular college accepts the Common App by browsing the Common App’s Explore page.

Note: Plenty of institutions that are on the Common App will also offer their own application systems, so students don’t necessarily have to use the Common App. But if they’re applying to at least one member institution - and certainly if they’re applying to more than one - it can be a really convenient option.

The Common App’s key dates

Once students know whether the Common App is an option at all, they’ll need to start mapping out their timelines. It’s a good idea for counsellors to be familiar with the Common App’s timelines so that you can make sure students’ applications are on-track.

Free Common App Timeline

Download this printable timeline to make sure you and your students always know exactly where in the process they should be up to, and what deadlines are approaching. It's a great way to stay on top of the many different Common App dates and systems!

When should students sign up to the Common App?

The platform launches a new application cycle on the 1st of August every year. This is when new universities are added and fuller college details are provided.

From this point on, students can tailor their Common App applications with all of the newest information and features. For those who feel daunted by the essay (which is understandably a lot of students!) it can be a good idea to start some broad planning. In fact, the general consensus is that June - August before students’ last year of secondary school is the best time to start building Common App applications and planning essays.

Crucially, students don’t need to wait until the 1st August to get started with their Common App profiles. Accounts roll over from year to year, so younger students could start filling out their basic information.

If they do decide to start early, it’s really important that you let your students know that when the Common App refreshes on the 1st of August, changes they have made in their profiles could be lost if that particular section has been altered. Last year, for example, the Common App made changes to the 'Activities' section in line with the pandemic. Also, if a student waived their FERPA rights before the Common App reset, they'd have to do this again.

But general planning and research can never be lost, and it’s always a good idea to get started with it as soon as possible! That way, students can explore the institutions available on the Common App, and see if there’s anything they missed during the university research process.

When do students need to submit the Common App?

While some students might be particularly eager to get a head start on their profiles, all of them will need to be aware of the final application deadlines.

Unfortunately, there isn’t one single, definitive date. Colleges and universities set their own deadlines, so students need to check each institution.

There are some broad trends, though. They’ll depend on the type of application your students hope to submit.

Early Action

Applying through Early Action means - unsurprisingly - that students submit their applications before the regular deadlines. The Early Action deadline is usually the 1st November 2021 for US colleges and universities.

Early Action is a good option for students who need to start making plans early, because these applications receive decisions from colleges early - often by mid-December, or in January.

When students receive these decisions, they’re not committed to any school that might accept them. They can wait until the 1st May to accept or decline offers.

If students don’t get any Early Action acceptances, they can often be ‘deferred’, which means they can be added to the Regular Decision pool of applicants. Policies on this kind of deferral will vary between colleges, so students should find out if it’s an option they’d be interested in!

Note: There is also Restrictive Early Action, which means that students can only submit one Early Action application. Students generally have to wait until they receive and respond to the school’s decision before submitting any more early applications (should they choose to reject the offer).

Early Decision

This option is quite similar to the Early Action option, as students again submit their applications in November. There is a less common Early Decision deadline in January too (seen more commonly in private schools, particularly liberal arts colleges). Some schools have both Early Decision deadlines.

These applications also receive decisions within (at most) a couple of months of submission. As well as the bonus of being able to start making plans earlier, opting for Early Decision lets the college know that your students are committed to it - that is where they truly want to go. It also shows that they’re motivated, organised and focused.

This brings us onto the key difference and defining quality of Early Decision applications: they are binding. Students who are admitted through Early Decision are expected to accept the offer. For that reason, this type of application is also restrictive, in that students can generally only send one Early Decision Application.

If they have sent out other applications when they receive their Early Decision response, they should withdraw any other applications (anywhere in the world - not just those submitted using the Common App). They should then submit the matriculation fee as soon as possible.

Because these applications involve commitment, they’ll require students to sign the Early Decision Agreement on the Common App before submission.

When they make the submission, their counsellor (possibly you!) will receive a notification that they’re sending this type of application, and be asked to confirm that they have advised them to commit to the Early Decision stipulations. A parent will also confirm the Early Decision commitment.

Regular Decision

This is by far the most popular option, giving students some extra time to perfect their applications.

Regular Decision deadlines can vary from college to college, but typically fall on the 1st January 2022, or sometime during the month. Students can expect to receive decisions in late March or early April. They’ll then have a month or two to weigh up their options before accepting or declining any offers on the 1st of May.

Rolling Decision

A final option is rolling admissions. It allows students to apply throughout a long window - usually all the way from August until spring. Of course, for their best chance of success students should apply as early as they can!

Decisions on applications are made on a rolling basis, and the decisions are non-binding and non-restrictive.

Completing the Common App

Now that you know who can use the Common App and when, we can think about what it involves. There are several sections and a few different documents to gather. That’s why it’s a good idea for you to encourage students to start the process as early as they can, even if they just tackle the basics first!

Step 1: Gather required materials

Before students even put proverbial pen to paper, they can make a start collecting the documents, information and ideas they’ll need to create a great Common App submission:

  • High school/secondary school transcript
  • A list of out-of-school activities
  • Test scores and dates
  • Family information

Note: Although it’s a good idea for students to gather as much as they can before they begin completing their applications in earnest, remember that they can create an account even before this stage if they wish to! It will roll over into the following year.

Step 2: Register a Common App account

These first stages should be quite straightforward - students can begin with things they’ll know off the top of their heads, like their name, address and date of birth.

There are a few important things to note, though. Instead of going through each section (some are really self-explanatory), we’ll pull out a couple of key points in some of them.

Student profiles

First, students should register with an email address they access regularly. This is how Common App and colleges will get in touch, so they won’t want to miss these communications!

Second, ensure students fill in their name exactly as it appears on their official school documents and standardised tests. Otherwise, colleges might not be able to match the documents to the student.

Education

The ‘Education’ section seems like a straightforward review of students’ school information and grades, but it can actually cause some confusion and consternation. It can be particularly tricky for students studying different educational systems, like the IB or A Levels, as a lot of the terms won’t match. The main thing is that you make yourself available to answer students’ questions, and let them know you’re there to help!

There are also quite a lot of questions, which in itself can cause stress. Remind students the purpose of this part: to bring all schools out to a general level of comparison so that colleges can see where students’ academic achievements lie on the scale with other schools.

Students will provide basic information about their current school (i.e. the school you work at) as well as any other schools they’ve attended in the past. They’ll also be asked if they’ve attended any colleges or universities - they almost certainly won’t have if they’re still in secondary school!

Of course, some students do take college courses (a.k.a. modules or classes) whilst still in school, so these should definitely be indicated. In these scenarios, students usually won’t have earned a degree, so that section can be left blank.

Students are then asked about their current class, or year-group. The Common App wants to know about its size (i.e. how many students are in their year) and how your school ranks those students. The options in the dropdown menu are decile, quintile, quartile or - if your school doesn’t rank students - none.  

Under 'Current or Most Recent Year Courses', students are asked how many courses they’re reporting - that just means how many subjects they’ll receive qualifications (e.g. IB, A-Levels) for. If any course has a level designation that isn’t in the menu, they can indicate the level in the course title (e.g. “A-Level Geography”). For IB, note which subjects are Higher and Standard.

Grades are requested in GPA form, so students can leave these blank or use a GPA converter if they’re unsure. They’ll be able to enter their final and/or predicted grades in the Testing section. All previous qualifications (like GCSEs) will be part of their Transcript.

Note: It’s really important that students pay particular attention when entering their grades. Colleges will see their official transcripts, so the grades and courses need to match exactly. You might want to advise students to complete this section with their transcripts in front of them.

The final part asks students to fill in a series of drop-down menus regarding their future plans, which can be alarming for some. After all, they’re only just submitting college applications!

Of course, colleges don’t expect students to commit to their answers, but they are hoping to recruit students with varied and worthwhile goals. Any notion students have of what their Major will be, whether they hope to continue their education after graduation, and a career they’re interested in will be valuable.

Testing

In this section, students can enter any results for the following tests:

  • SAT/ACT
  • TOEFL, IELTS
  • Academic subject tests (e.g. SAT II, AP, IB, A-Level)
  • Other

With so many options and international curricula out there, it goes without saying that this section will vary greatly student to student! Every university will also have different requirements when it comes to testing, so students should make sure they know which scores they need to submit.

Remember, though, that even if students can input their tests and scores in this section, they’ll need to send the official score reports to their chosen colleges, too. 

Activities

This section and students’ essays are the most distinctive parts of the Common App, giving students a chance to convey their personalities - encourage them to do so!

That being said, students who are involved in all kinds of extracurricular activities and have a plethora of fascinating hobbies will have to get decisive: they can only list up to ten activities.

Activities should be entered with the most significant first, in descending order. Students will need to decide significance for themselves, but they should always keep in mind the context. What interests and goals are they highlighting in their Common App applications, and how do different activities fit in with them?

Another important factor is their personal position within the activity: were they president? Leadership roles should be highlighted! Of course, level of commitment and involvement matter, too. Activities which students have been doing for years, and still do regularly, are more relevant.

Note: The character limits in the Activities section are tight. If students are really struggling to condense an activity, they might have found a brilliant topic for their personal essays, or something they want to expand on in the Additional Information section!

Step 3: Add colleges to the Common App

The moment has come for students to start selecting colleges! By now, you’ve probably done lots of university exploration and research with them, but if they do have some time before their deadlines, the Common App could be a useful tool for reviewing their options.

Students can tailor their Common App searches according to factors that matter to them, including:

  • The institution’s state or country
  • The enrolment term
  • The application deadline
  • Its writing, testing and/or recommendation requirements

Students can add colleges they’re interested in to the ‘My Colleges’ tab of their Dashboard as they browse, with an upper limit of 20 colleges at one time. They can add and remove colleges whenever they like up to the point of submission.

Step 4: Make a note of each school’s requirements

Because the US application system isn’t entirely centralised, there can be a lot of variety in terms of requirements and deadlines.

Once students have an idea of the places they want to apply to, they should create a document listing the different requirements. These can include lots of areas, like:

  • Deadlines
  • Writing requirements
  • The information and minimum thresholds they need for courses and/or grades
  • Standardised tests
  • Recommendations

There are many places where students can look to find out this information. The most reliable will almost always be the university itself, of course.

If students want to review requirements from within the Common App, they can refer to each school’s Explore Colleges profile, or the Common App’s requirements grid.

Admittedly, it can be really challenging to keep on top of all the different dates and materials students (and their advisers!) need to track.

That’s where platforms like BridgeU can be so useful, as they allow you to monitor where applications are up to and what documents are still outstanding, as well as providing feedback on the materials students have written. There are also free resources like the University Application Calendar which can help!

Step 5: Get recommendations for the Common App

As we mentioned, each college sets its own recommendation requirements, so students do need to check exactly what they’ll need for every Common App application.

Recommenders are separated into categories of counsellors, teachers or ‘Other’. This final category can, unsurprisingly, be quite broad. Depending on where students are applying, it might be a sports coach, an employer, a dance instructor or so much more!

Which teachers should students ask for recommendations?

It can be tricky for students to know who to ask for recommendations. Sometimes, their ‘favourite’ teacher isn’t actually the best choice. Another common impulse is to choose teachers from the subjects in which students achieve the best grades - but again, that’s not always wise.

Colleges want to hear from teachers who can write about students’ drive, persistence, curiosity and commitment. While a student might achieve straight As in Maths, they might sit quietly in class and often turn in homework late because - although they have an aptitude for it - they’re simply not that interested.

On the other hand, they might be seeing more mixed results in Politics, but make lively contributions to debates, create innovative projects and arrange one-to-one sessions with the teacher to try to improve their grades.

In this scenario, the Politics teacher will probably be able to write a much more compelling recommendation than the Maths teacher could!

As a rule of thumb, students should also seek out teachers who taught them during their penultimate year of school. Those who are teaching them in their final year might not yet know them well.

It’s a good idea to get recommendations from teachers of core subjects: English, Maths, Sciences, Foreign Languages and Social Sciences. If a college wants more than one recommendation, it’s usually best to try and get them from two different subject areas.

How can students add recommenders to the Common App?

Students will need to invite each recommender individually. After sending the invitations, students need to assign each recommender to the appropriate college.

Recommenders won’t receive any notification until they’re assigned to a specific college. So students should remember to assign recommenders to colleges right away, rather than simply adding them generally!

Step 6: Essay writing

Usually, there are three crucial elements of writing in students’ Common App applications:

  • The Common App Personal Essay
  • Writing samples
  • College-specific essays

Again, not all colleges will require all (or even any) of those three categories.

There are also optional sections which students can use for longer-form writing:

  • Disciplinary History
  • Additional Information

This year and last year, the Common App has also added a COVID-19 related question which students and counsellors can choose to answer.

Let’s look at some of these written tasks in a little more detail.

The Personal Essay

For many students, this is the most daunting (and sometimes dreaded) aspect of the Common App. But it needn’t be! There is plenty of advice and guidance to help with writing the Common App personal essay and set students’ minds at ease.

While there isn’t room here to go into everything, there are some general points to make.

Firstly, all colleges which students send Common App applications to will see their personal essay, so they shouldn’t tailor it to a particular institution.

Students should also try to avoid rehashing material they’ve already covered in other areas of the application. If they wrote about being president of the school’s Model United Nations in the ‘Activities’ section, the essay’s the time to veer into something new! It’s a great opportunity to show a less explicitly academic side of themselves.

It’s also worth noting that the essay has a limit of 650 words. While students don’t necessarily have to use all 650, it’s advisable that essays be at least 500 words long. If students are struggling to write that much, they might want to think about whether they’ve chosen a topic that they’re really invested in.

Additional Information

Students can use this optional 650 word essay to talk about anything else they think is relevant to their Common App applications. The question usually appears as: "Do you wish to provide details of circumstances or qualifications not reflected in the application?"

This space can be used to give colleges a stronger sense of their identity, or their relationship with education. It can also be a chance for students to talk about circumstances that have affected their school lives. They might also discuss exceptional achievements, like publishing a short story in a literary magazine, or completing a summer internship.

The Common App’s COVID-19 question

Last year, the Common App added a question which gave students the chance to talk about how COVID-19 had impacted them, something they’ve retained for 2021-2022.

Students can write a 250 word response to this prompt:

Community disruptions such as COVID-19 and natural disasters can have deep and long-lasting impacts. If you need it, this space is yours to describe those impacts. Colleges care about the effects on your health and well-being, safety, family circumstances, future plans, and education, including access to reliable technology and quiet study spaces.
Do you wish to share anything on this topic? Y/N
Please use this space to describe how these events have impacted you.

Admissions officers aren’t usually looking to hear about challenges that most students experienced - they’re all-too familiar with these already! If students want to use this space simply to talk about remote learning or standardised tests being cancelled, it might be better to leave it blank.

If, however, they feel strongly that their final grades were impacted by COVID-19, then both they and their counsellor should explain it.

Equally, students who did still achieve great grades but surmounted exceptional challenges and feel they developed/demonstrated resilience, perseverance or other worthwhile qualities can write about that!

Step 7: Submit the Common App!

Congratulations are in order - your students are nearly ready to send off their completed Common App. There are just a few housekeeping items to take care of...

Submitting standardised test scores

Students need to arrange directly with the testing body to send a report straight to the college (i.e. not to the student for them to pass it onto the college).

Completing any supplementary requirements

As we mentioned earlier, some colleges will set additional essays for students, and these can be completed any time after the main Common App submission has been sent. Students can click on the ‘Writing Supplement’ heading, and then ‘Review and Submit Writing Supplement’. From there, they will follow the instructions given by the particular school and see a process similar to the wider Common App submission.

It’s worth reiterating here that all colleges students send applications to will see their Personal Essay. That means students shouldn’t repeat the same material in their supplementary writing, or it will be a very repetitive read for admissions officers. Encourage them to explore other aspects of their personalities and interests, particularly as they relate to the college and course in question.

Students needn’t feel too much pressure to come up with a whole new side of themselves to show off though; these essays are usually shorter than the main Personal Essay.

Once the writing supplement has been filled in, they should return to the Dashboard and see a green tick next to the school’s name under the ‘Application’ college. That means the application has been sent!

Students will need to repeat steps 1 and 2 for every college and university they’re applying to before each college’s deadline.

Common App requirements for schools and counsellors

Now that you know the student’s journey through the Common App, you might want to find out about the school’s role.

Recommendations

As discussed, counsellors and teachers provide recommendations for their students. Remember that recommendations need to be entered and assigned for each individual college that each student applies to.

That gives recommenders a great opportunity to tailor each reference to that particular college. They can talk about how the student is well-suited to the college’s academic and cultural environment, and what he or she can contribute to it.

It’s worth noting that Common App recommendations are very different from UCAS references. Colleges in North America often look at students more holistically. That means teachers and counsellors can speak more about the student as a whole, and talk about their personalities and relationships in the school community.

Approving students' Early Decision applications

As we mentioned, students’ advisers will also need to sign off on any applications they make that come with a commitment.

It’s a good idea to find out early from students if they plan on making these kinds of applications. Because they’re time-sensitive, you won’t want to delay in confirming that they plan to accept any Early Decision offers.

Submitting the required documents

After students send off their Common App, counsellors will need to provide any documentation a college needs. That might include forms, official transcripts or other types of evidence.

Every college can have different requirements, and counsellors will need to send each college its copies of documents separately.

Generally, this will require a Common App account - but a platform like BridgeU lets you skip this step!

The Common App’s COVID-19 question for school counsellors

The Common App also introduced an optional question for counsellors to answer. It brings a generous word limit of 500 words, and allows you to explain any disruptions at your school caused by COVID-19. This can include changes to grading policies, instructional methods, testing requirements, or any other extenuating circumstances.

To support your answer, you can also upload files or attach URLs that you feel are pertinent to school or district policies.

Everything you include in your response can be uploaded to each of your students’ Common App applications. Of course, that means that you absolutely should not be disclosing anything personal about any single student’s experiences with COVID-19.

BridgeU and the Common App

Understandably, this process can seem a bit overwhelming. There are lots of steps, and many of them have to be repeated for every different college. Plus, the stakes are high - this is students’ futures, and at least three years of their lives!

But there are ways of streamlining the Common App application process. Obviously, we would recommend BridgeU…

BridgeU’s Common App integration makes everything much simpler for students and counsellors alike. It has lots of functionalities, including:

  • Allowing counsellors and teachers to submit supporting documents without a Common App account.
  • Linking students’ BridgeU and Common App accounts and syncing their Common App colleges with the institutions they’ve shortlisted in BridgeU.
  • Enabling students to request recommendations through BridgeU.
  • Keeping students, counsellors and teachers on top of key Common App deadlines and document requirements.

That means counsellors and other advisers can see at a glance where all of their students’ applications are up to, not just those sent using the Common App.

If you’re interested in seeing how BridgeU can simplify your students’ Common App journeys - and so much more - you can book a free demo with one of our team.

And in the meantime, download our handy Common App timeline to make sure you and your students always know what deadlines are coming up. You'll be able to map out your year in counselling accordingly, and make sure students keep up the necessary pace!

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