Common App 101: Tips for Applying to College with the Common App

WeAdmit Master Guides
August 19, 2019
Breaking The Common App Into To-Do List Sized Chunks...

Every year, incoming freshmen from across the country begin the whirlwind process of applying to college. Unfortunately, the process itself seems to grow more complex every year with more testing, fees, and paperwork than ever before.

However, there's an app for that; specifically the Common Application, which is designed to help take the stress out of the college application process.

The Common Application, also known as the Common App, is created by a non-profit organization in order to help both students and schools have a clearer path through the college application process. They offer a single application that a student can submit to hundreds of different schools. This makes the process of applying to college a breeze rather than a winding trail of deadlines and red tape.

The ability to fill out one simple college application that works for multiple schools is a game changer. You can spend more time working on getting ready for college and less time chasing down each individual school’s application. Are you ready to learn more about this valuable and free tool? Read on to find out the basics of how the Common App works along with all of our Common App hints to give your application an edge over the competition!

What You’ll Find In This Article:

  1. What is the Common App?
  2. How to Fill Out the Common App
  3. Common App Hints
  4. Frequently Asked Questions About the Common App
  5. What Colleges Accept the Common App?
  6. Use the Common App for a Strong Start

What Is The Common App?

The Common Application is a streamlined college application process that allows students to fill out a single application for over 800 colleges across the country and internationally. This means students interested in applying to multiple colleges can use the Common App to create one application and essay to send out to all schools that accept the app.

The process of filling out multiple applications and sending in essays for each school you’d like to apply to can seem like a nearly impossible task for students. The Common App helps alleviate this stress by simplifying the process with one easily understood application. This means you can spend more time gathering resources, working on your essay, and polishing your application and less time worrying about which schools require which application.

Colleges use the Common App because it takes the stress out of the process on their end as well. It was originally envisioned by a group of fifteen institutions with an idea that, at the time, was revolutionary: what if students could fill out one app that could be sent to all fifteen schools?

Since it was first created, over 800 institutions have joined the program.

While the application itself is offered for free by a non-profit, some colleges do require an application fee. However, the Common App does allow you to search for colleges based on which ones require no application fee at all. School by school policies on application fee waivers can be researched by students who need financial help, so don’t let application fees discourage you from using this nifty tool to apply for college!

While you certainly don’t have to use the Common App, it’s a great way to take the first step toward applying for college. If you are interested in an institution that accepts the Common App, it’s a no-brainer to go ahead and fill it out. You may be able to send your Common App to several other schools you find yourself interested in along the way.

How To Fill Out The Common App

The Common App is updated every year and the newest version launches on August 1st. The deadline for submission varies depending on which schools you plan on sending your application to. Make sure you leave yourself enough time to properly fill out your application, write your essay, and review your entire Common App before submitting.

Like a lot of things in life, you’ll need to put in some work to make use of all that the Common App has to offer.

Students serious about being accepted to their chosen schools should be prepared to spend a lot of time working on their application, essays, and recommendations. If you only have to fill out a single application, you should spend as much time as you can fine tuning it.

At first glance, the Common Application may seem a little intimidating, but don’t worry! We’ve created a handy step-by-step guide to help you through the process. We’ve used our experience in the college admissions field to provide some of the most actionable Common App hints and tricks that students can use to make the entire application much easier to manage.


Setting up an account should only take you a few moments. You don’t need to wait for a school counselor, teacher, or admissions expert to get started.

To create an account, choose your registration type and select "First Year Student". Create your login information using a unique password. Remember to save your login credentials somewhere you won’t lose them.

Hint: Sign up with an email address that you check frequently, as this is where the Common Application and the colleges you apply to will get in touch with you. Make sure your email account is connected to your phone so you never miss an important or time sensitive email.

Finish filling out the basic registration information including your full name, home address, phone number, and your date of birth. You should use your full legal name as it appears on your school documentation and test records.


Filling out college applications takes time, but gathering all the required information before you get started will help cut down on the amount of searching you have to do to actually fill out the application. Tracking down paperwork is a dreadful, but necessary part of applying for college and it doesn’t have to be difficult if you know what you’re looking for!

Education wise, make sure you have the following:

  • A copy of your high school transcripts
  • Copies of any test scores for the SAT or ACT (or any other college entrance exams)
  • A list of an academic awards, honors, or achievements

Other information you'll want to have includes:

  • Your parental / legal guardian's information, including education information
  • A list of any notable work or extracurricular activities
  • Information about any volunteer efforts, outside projects, or other notable activities outside of school
Hint: Remember that you'll mainly be using this information to fill out your Common App and not for the essay. If you're already sending in your "resume" in the form of the Common App, your essay shouldn't just be the same information formatted into paragraphs! We go more in-depth on how to write an essay later in this guide.


Use the College Search tab to find schools you'd like to apply to now that you've set up your account. The system allows you to search for a college by name, but it also provides handy filters that can help you discover new colleges or locate ones you only remember a few details from.

The filter system also allows you to search for colleges in certain states and countries if you're looking for more local options. Other filter options include the ability to sort by application fees and deadlines. You can also add up to 20 different schools to your Common App Dashboard at any time. You can add and drop schools to this list whenever you want to. This makes the Dashboard a handy tool for being able to see all the colleges you're applying to in a single place.

Because the main selling point of the Common Application is that it works for multiple schools, don’t be afraid to try your chances with multiple schools.

Don’t limit yourself to the schools you feel safe and comfortable applying to. Challenge yourself to send your Common App to at least one school that you consider out of your reach, and you may end up surprising yourself!


Creating your account and gathering your information is only half the battle. It's completely normal to feel a little anxious going into your first college application! Ultimately, the most important part is that you get started. The Common App will guide you through the process of filling in your information and getting set up.

During this process, it may be handy to have a print out or written notes of your own records. This way you can refer to your information at hand rather than searching for files or emails.

When filling out your application, take your time to ensure accuracy. Use your full legal name, an email address you check often, and your personal cell phone number if you have one. Ensuring that all your personal information is accurate and up to date makes the admissions process go smoothly.

The Common Application also offers a mobile app that can be used as a side by side companion to their website. Common App On Track does exactly what it says on the label and is available on both Apple and Android devices.


The Common App offers a flexible list of essay topics for you to pick from. Take your time considering which prompt can best serve you.

The Common App states on their website that the 2019 - 2020 list includes topics such as:

  • “Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?”
  • “Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.”
  • “Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?”

After you've chosen your topic, take the time to plan out your essay before you begin to write. Writing The Perfect College Application Essay is much easier if you draw yourself a roadmap first, whether that’s in the form of an outline, rough notes, or a strong connection to the prompt. Give yourself enough material to get started with and then sit down to write!

Once you're done, make sure to revise your essay. This simply means to thoroughly proofread and edit your work. Because you’ll more than likely be writing this essay over the course of several days or weeks, you also will want a fresh pair of eyes in the form of a counselor or adviser to look at your essay in order to catch mistakes.

Unfortunately, many students find the revision process the most difficult part of writing an essay.

Students facing extra difficulties may benefit from one on one time with a professional college counselor. Not only can they help you refine your essay and work through the road bumps in your Common App, but they can help you improve in other areas of the college admissions process as well.


Though the purpose of the Common App is to allow students and schools to rely on one basic application, colleges will have additional requirements and deadlines that students should be aware of. Beyond the basic questions asked in the Common App, each school may ask additional questions in order to get a better idea of who you are as a student.

Because of this, it's important to keep track of the following requirements on a college by college basis:

  • Application Fees
  • Deadlines
  • Personal Essays
  • Recommendations
  • Testing policy
  • Course availability
  • Academic policy

Keep track of these requirements both in the Common App dashboard itself and in your own records. If you use a note taking app on your phone, you should dedicate a note to each college you’re applying to and their requirements. It may seem like a lot of preparation, but you’ll be eternally grateful you thought ahead when it’s crunch time and you can’t seem to remember a single deadline.

Ultimately it’s the responsibility of the student to be aware of each college’s deadlines and requirements. Learning how to juggle deadlines and dates is one of the hardest things to manage during the high school to college transition. Come up with a system of keeping track that works for you, whether it’s an app, calendar, or sticky notes on your bathroom mirror.


Your application isn't complete until you've gone over it with a fine tooth comb. From making sure your address is written correctly, to rewriting a chunk of your essay that you’re not 100% satisfied with, it's important to put in the work to polish your Common App before sending it in.

Asking your supporters around you, such as friends, teachers, and family, to take a look at your essay can provide a much needed fresh pair of eyes. It's much easier to polish an essay when someone who hasn't been staring at if for eight hours can give honest input and criticism. Work to improve your essay without taking away the personal touches that make it uniquely yours.

Make sure you save yourself enough time before your deadlines to revise!

It's always best to approach revision with as little time induced stress as possible. Take breaks as needed to keep your mind fresh as you approach revising your application and essay.


Once you’re certain that you’ve put your best effort into writing your essay and filling out your Common App, it’s time to send it in!

Submitting your application is a simple three step process.

  • Review your application
  • Pay any application fees
  • Submit the application and wait to hear back!

Remember that you have to be done at a certain point.

There’s only so much polishing one single essay and application can take before you’re no longer perfecting it and are merely changing things. Allow yourself to be satisfied with the hard work you’ve put into your Common App and submit it.

Once you’re done, congratulations on submitting your Common Application! This is a great first step in your college admissions journey. Now it’s time to kick back, enjoy the rest of your time in high school, and keep a close eye on your email inbox.

Common App Hints


Consider your essay prompt carefully. While it may be tempting to go big and write about a national issue that’s close to you or stick to something more routine, there are several prompt options to allow for flexibility. There is no ‘correct’ prompt to choose, so pick the prompt that you feel allows you the biggest opportunity to express who you really are.


Make sure you give yourself enough time to give your essay the attention it deserves. Your number one concern when you revise your essay should be how well you answered the question asked in the essay prompt you chose.


Don’t be afraid to reach out for help! Your school counselors, teachers, and family are there to help you succeed. You should run your essay by at least one other person to ask for feedback before submitting your essay. If you have any questions about the information required by the Common App, your counselor should be able to point you in the right direction.


Treat ‘optional’ items as a chance to showcase yourself. An essay or question marked optional is often a chance for you to share more about who you are. If you can more accurately portray who you are and what your unique story is through an optional submission or essay, you should definitely do it!


Do your best to take time away from your essay. If you’ve given yourself plenty of time to work on your essay, you don’t need to sit and stare at words on a screen when you’re frustrated. Allow yourself to take breaks. Coming back to write with a fresh perspective can do wonders for the quality of your essay.


Don’t let your essay become someone else’s vision, however. It’s vital that your essay speaks to who you are as a person. As corny as it may sound, being yourself is the easiest way to shine a spotlight on yourself. You'll stand out far more for being true to who you are than being one of many simply writing what you think the admissions board wants to hear.

Frequently Asked Questions About The Common App


You should fill out the Common App as soon as possible. Each year the newest version comes out on August 1st. Depending on if you choose early admissions or regular admissions, your deadline will vary.

It's important to give yourself ample time to fill out your Common App. The more time you give yourself to gather information, fill out the application, and review it by yourself and with help, the better your application will be. If you find yourself with free time in the summer before your senior year, create your account and fill out as much information as you can. This will give you a head start when you return in the fall.


The amount of time it takes to fill out the Common Application depends on the student and how much prep time they’ve put in to gather their information. The application itself may take a few days to gather the information, contact your school’s counselor, and fill out your information.

You should leave yourself plenty of time to work on your essay for the Common App. Your essay isn’t something that you should put off until the last minute. Leaving yourself plenty of time to revise your essay after seeking feedback from your support system is key to submitting your best essay.


Deadlines will vary by school. Fortunately, the Common App offers tools to help you set up alerts that you can use to keep track of the various deadlines for each school you wish to apply to.

As a general rule of thumb, expect early admissions to be due around November 1st and regular admissions to be due around January 1st. It’s important that you keep track of each deadline to ensure you get your application in on time.


The Common App itself is free to fill out. Created with the core purpose of making college easier to apply to, the non profit that provides the Common App and its tools is dedicated to helping students with any financial standing apply for college.

While the Common App is free, many colleges charge an application fee that varies from institution to institution. Check with each institution about fees and possible fee waivers.


Your financial aid journey begins with the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FASFA). There you can fill out a form to find out if you qualify for any federal financial aid, work study programs, or federal loans. The FASFA website can also help you figure out your next step in the financial aid process.

The Common Application is designed solely to help with the admissions and application process. Once accepted to a school, it’s the responsibility of the student to ensure that their financial aid is in place.


You can complete the Common App by yourself as long as you have all the required information. You don’t have to wait for anyone to walk you through the application or go over it with you.

Some schools will require that you seek recommendations from people such as your teachers and counselors. In that case, you will need their help in order to obtain recommendations.

While involving your school’s support system in your Common App isn’t strictly necessary, most students would stand to benefit from outside help. Whether it’s being able to ask a quick question or reviewing your admission essay, it pays to have support on your side.

Don’t be afraid to reach out for help if you need it!


Make yourself available for any information that your child may need, as they'll need some of your demographic information to fill out the Common App. Gathering this information for them can help take some of the workload off their shoulders.

Other than doing your best to be a great cheerleader and offering to read over their essay, the best thing you can do for your child in the college application process is to be involved. Show genuine interest in the process and the ups and downs, and find others expert advice from college counselors to share with them. A strong support system makes the stressful process of finding and getting accepted to the right college much easier.

What Colleges Accept The Common App?

The Common App is used by colleges to streamline the application process for everyone from the students to the college administration itself. This allows colleges as well as students to spend their time focused on education rather than paperwork.  

Hundreds of these efficient colleges require no application fee, over a hundred of these colleges are public universities, and there are many world-renowned colleges that accept the Common App.

Over 800 schools across the country and internationally accept the application. Some notable international schools are located in the UK, Canada, and Spain with over 60 schools in total accepting it outside of the United States.

The Common App also has a search function that allows you to narrow down schools based on categories like state, public or private institution, and size. This allows you to easily find schools that fit your needs.


Notable schools that accept the application include institutions such as Stanford, Harvard, Princeton, and Yale. These prestigious schools use the Common App to help simplify the admissions process for everyone involved. Because these schools often find themselves placed on the 'Reach' lists of students, the fact that they accept the Common App makes it much easier for students to challenge themselves by applying to them.

Smaller, but still well known institutions that use the Common App find themselves among names such as Amherst College, Washington & Lee University, Wellesley College, and Williams College. Though on the smaller side of institutions, these schools provide a high quality education in a cozy environment.

Public schools with greater acceptance rates also use the Common App to help students apply for college. Quality institutions such as the University of Iowa, University of Oklahoma, and Michigan State University all accept the Common App.

There is a school for nearly every student that accepts the Common App!

There are a wide variety of institutions that accept the Common App, and a student is sure to find at least a handful of colleges that would make a great fit. Smaller state colleges, private liberal arts universities, and public colleges alike all use the Common App to help provide easier opportunities for potential students.

Use The Common App For A Strong Start

The Common Application may feel like a huge task to undertake at first, but there are plenty of tools and resources available to make filling it out go smoothly. If you find yourself getting lost or overwhelmed, take a step back and refer to guides such as this one, or the one offered by the Common Application itself.

Of course, we know that applying to college can be overwhelming even for the biggest go-getters out there, and this guide to the Common App isn’t all we have to offer you to make the college application process go smoothly.

WeAdmit is a team of experienced college counselling professionals. We’re knee-deep in the admissions process and make it our mission to help every student we can. Whether you’re dreaming of Stanford or a small state school, our team will make it our priority to support you wherever you find yourself in the admissions process.

Don’t be afraid to dive headfirst into the Common App! We’re here to help with anything you may need.

Take A Deep Breath, Get Yourself A Snack, And Let’s Apply For College!



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