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What is the Common Application?

A high school senior on a laptop applying to college using the common app with her mother

The Common Application is an online college application tool that lets you apply to more than 1,000 participating universities in the United States and abroad.

Developed by the nonprofit access organization Common App, it emerged 40 years ago to help simplify college admission and make the process more accessible to students.

The free platform continues to gain in popularity. In its March 2023 Deadline Update, Common App reported that its “distinct first-year student” applications were up 20% as of March 1, 2023, from the 2019-2020 school year (Common App PDF source). Today, more than 1 million students each year use the Common App to apply to college.

Infographic with the text 1 million students use the Common App annuallyFirst-year and transfer students can use the Common App to apply to up to 20 schools at a time.  While it's the most widely-used platform in the country, some schools use other online platforms or prefer you to apply directly, according to the Massachusetts Educational Financing Authority (MEFA).

The Common App continues to grow and attract participating public, private and nonprofit universities, reports the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER). After colleges became a part of the Common App, they experienced a 12% increase in the number of applications for admission, according to a 2019 NBER working paper that looked at college admission rates between 1990 and 2016.

What is the Difference Between a College Application and a Common Application?

Even though the Common App is a standardized application, it's preferred by admission officers at many schools. You can still apply directly to the college of your choice; however, doing so does not necessarily increase your likelihood of admission, according to the Massachusetts Educational Financing Authority. Colleges and universities that join the Common App must promise they won’t favor direct applications over other options.

“Some colleges do not participate in any of these platforms and instead require students to apply directly through their own website,” said Tim Whittum, associate vice president for campus admission at Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU). “All of that to say, the differences in applications are the result of the needs and focuses of individual institutions — not the application platform.”

Applying through the Common App makes the application process easier for students, said Whittum. SNHU accepts the Common Application and allows students to apply directly to the school, if they choose. Either way, it does not charge an application fee.

Because the Common App allows you to save your personal information and educational background in one platform, you can save time and money by:

  • Sharing your information with multiple schools at once
  • Organizing application materials, such as your activities, personal essays and grades, in one platform
  • Updating your information or making any changes at one time, in one place

Other adjacent tools in the platform help you research colleges you might have yet to consider applying to and tap into financial aid resources.

Whether you apply to a school through the Common App or directly, many require you to pay application fees. Application costs can add up quickly, depending on the number of schools you apply to. For example, the average college application cost in the United States in 2023 is nearly $45, but some colleges may charge up to $100, according to U.S. News & World Report.

The Common App allows you to see which schools charge application fees and what you can expect to pay in total before you submit. While you're still responsible for paying each school's fees if you apply through the Common App, the platform allows you to request a fee waiver based on your family's financial status or through a recommendation from a college counselor or community member.

Before you get started, be sure to check out the Common App’s Explore Colleges guide that lists what each university requires from you as part of the admission process. For example, some schools don’t mandate the Common App personal essay, but others require college-specific essays and letters of recommendation. The guide also indicates whether particular colleges require first-year and transfer students to pay application fees.

What is in a Common App?

To begin your application in the Common App platform, you first need to visit the organization's website. After you create a password-protected account, you’ll indicate whether you’re a first-year or transfer student, an education professional or a parent.

The first screen you’ll see is the Dashboard, from which you can research schools, select colleges you’re interested in applying to through the Common App, access financial aid resources and fill out the application itself.

The Common Application includes the following sections:

  • Personal profile: Provide your name, address and other personal information, and include financial information that may qualify you for a Common App Fee Waiver. 

  • Family: Provide information about your parents and siblings.

  • Education: List your high school course information and provide your grades, academic achievements and any community-based work you’ve completed.

  • Testing: Self-report several different tests you've taken or plan on taking here, including the SAT, ACT, SAT Subject Tests, Advanced Placement tests and TOEFL scores, to name a few. 

  • Activities: If you participate in sports, extracurricular activities, community service or internships, you can record your experiences here. Family responsibilities and paid work hours count, too.

  • Writing: Respond to one of six writing prompts from which you'll craft your 650-word personal essay. (The Common App also gives you the option to write about a topic of your choice.)

  • Courses and grades: A select group of colleges requires you to provide a transcript of your classes and grades here.

How Difficult is the Common App?

The primary application is relatively easy to complete; however, the complexity of each college's individual sections will vary, said Whittum. 

Tim Whittum and the text Tim Whittum

“On average, it should take no longer than 20 minutes to complete and submit SNHU’s individual section, which requires a personal essay,” he said.

For example, SNHU does not require admission test scores or additional writing samples.

No matter how many schools you choose to apply to, you’ll need to set aside time to research schools before you apply to them and complete application requirements.

If you need more time to fill out online applications or want to know what's required explicitly from you ahead of time, the Common App provides a tutorial and walk-through to guide you through each section. If you're a transfer student, the platform provides a Transfer Application Guide.

Plan and Begin the Process Early

Each year, the Common App opens up to students on August 1. If you want to apply to one or more colleges under their early decision or early action process, you’ll need to meet November and December deadlines, according to the College Board.

Most regular decision application deadlines occur between January and March, and others, like SNHU, offer rolling admission. Transfer students may need to follow college-specific transfer admission deadlines.

The College Board suggests setting aside at least a month to collect the required admission materials, including letters of recommendation and transcripts. After you’ve collected your materials, you should be able to complete your actual application in less than an hour, the College Board reports.

Focus on One Section at a Time

One advantage of the Common App: you can save and update your information as you go along.

You can start by filling in your personal profile and family sections, which remain consistent across participating schools, before responding to college-specific requirements, Whittum said. Particularly if you haven't decided where you want to apply, you should complete college-specific requirements later.

Narrow Down Your List of Schools

The Common App only allows you to apply to 20 schools each academic year. Before you write your personal essay, you should know if there are any additional essays your schools of interest require.

You can complete that research as part of the process, which will clue you into any special requirements you'll need to fulfill inside and outside the Common App.

Track Additional Requirements

While the Common App provides convenience and consistency, it's essential to follow up on any special items you might need to complete as part of the admission process. For example, you'll want to ensure that any test scores or letters of recommendation are sent to the schools you're applying to.

By tracking requirements under the My Colleges Tab in the platform, you'll see which colleges are asking you to provide the names of recommenders, answer additional questions, or require essays in addition to the Common App personal essay.

In some cases, depending on your intended major, you may also be prompted to submit a portfolio of work.

Be Mindful of Potential Pitfalls

While the Common App provides convenience, it doesn’t allow you to customize your application for each school.

While this isn’t necessarily a drawback, it does limit your ability to personalize your materials. And, while you can apply to many schools at once through the Common App, the schools you’re applying to may each have their own admission deadlines. If you don’t submit your application in time, you could miss critical deadlines if you’re not paying attention.

Still, there are clear advantages to applying through the Common App. If you’re looking to apply to more than one school, it can help guide you through the admission process and introduce you to new schools and financial resources that could make choosing the right college easier.

Online. On campus. Choose your program from 200+ SNHU degrees that can take you where you want to go.

Krysten Godfrey Maddocks '11 is a writer and marketing/communication professional. Connect with her on LinkedIn.

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About Southern New Hampshire University

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SNHU is a nonprofit, accredited university with a mission to make high-quality education more accessible and affordable for everyone.

Founded in 1932, and online since 1995, we’ve helped countless students reach their goals with flexible, career-focused programs. Our 300-acre campus in Manchester, NH is home to over 3,000 students, and we serve over 135,000 students online. Visit our about SNHU page to learn more about our mission, accreditations, leadership team, national recognitions and awards.