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The Common App: What it is & How to Make Yours Amazing

Applying to college is a stressful whirlwind of trying to figure out where you belong, which programs best fit your academic goals and who has the best dining hall food (you know it’s important!). But filling out college applications is 10 times easier when you use the Common Application. Haven’t heard of it? Don’t worry; HC is here to explain how the Common App can turn your application process into smooth sailing.

1. What is the Common App?

The Common App is a not-for-profit organization that serves to provide applications that students and school officials can send to more than 500 colleges. Put simply, the Common App is your key to successfully applying to multiple colleges using the same application. After signing up and making an account, one application can be sent to several colleges at once, eliminating time spent on filling out an individual app for every school you want to apply to. 

So here’s the scoop: The Common App will present you with an application similar to what you’ve probably seen a million times before when applying to jobs. You fill in all of your personal information, like your name, your address, your high school information, etc. Then, the Common App will give you a section where you can brag about all of your high school activities that set you apart from the rest of the pack. Finally, you get a selection of personal essay options that can be sent to each school you apply to (more on this and how to rock the essay later!). 

What makes the Common App unique to every school is the supplemental part of the application. This is where each college you apply to can ask you individual questions that reflect what their admissions officers specifically want to hear. You can expect to see questions like, “Why are you the perfect fit for  University?” It’s the part of the application where colleges test not just your GPA and your activities, but what you’ll contribute to their specific school. 

In terms of deadlines, you’ll have to stay on top of when your top colleges want the application by. Be aware of the early decision, early action and regular decision deadlines for every school, because the Common App will not remind you of those dates.


2. Who uses the Common App?

More than 500 private and public universities and colleges accept the Common Application. The odds are in your favor that your dream school could be one of those 500! Check out the list of schools that accept it here

“Every school I applied to during my senior year of high school wound up accepting the Common App,” says Nicole M., a junior at Marist College. “It made my life so much easier!”


3. Why is it worth filling out?

As the Common App becomes more and more popular, it also could become your only option to apply to a college as colleges phase out their individual applications in favor of the Common App. “If you want to apply to many private colleges, the majority of well-known and highly ranked schools, they only use the Common App,” says Michelle Podbelsek, a college counselor at College Counseling Associates. “That is their application.”

Prestigious universities such as Boston University, Columbia University, Dartmouth College, New York University, Northeastern University, Northwestern University and Yale University have all become known as “exclusive users,” meaning that they only use the Common App for their admissions.

“The Common App is much more convenient instead of having to fill out separate applications for every school you apply to,” says Melissa, a junior at the University of Delaware. “It saves a lot of time and is simple to understand.”

4. Tips and tricks for an application that can’t be rejected

If you’re still uneasy about using the Common App, know that there are a ton of things you could do to make your college application shine! One of the most important components of the application is your list of high school activities.

“Most of the Common App is just data about you – address, date of birth, your high school, etc.,” Podbelsek explains. “The parts that require strategy are the activities section and the essay.”

Podbelsek suggests that “for the activities part, each student should first lay out all of their info on a separate Google or Word doc. List every single thing and then put them in the order of importance.” Although you can only include your top 10 activities on the Common App, you can put any extra clubs or sports in the Additional Info section to be sure that colleges know all they can about you.

But perhaps the most important aspect of your application is the personal essay (and we know that Elle Woods would agree!). The Common App requires one main essay that each college you apply to will receive and then the supplemental questions asked by specific colleges.

Podbelsek recommends that collegiettes keep their essays personal and informal and show who they are through what they write about. College admissions officers are looking to get to know you through your essay, so be genuine and write about something that really means a lot to you.  As heartwarming as a story about your father and how he is your hero would be, that’s not something that helps admissions officers get to know you (instead, they’ll get to know your dad!). Write about a tough time in your life, something that you volunteered for or an event that changed your life. These are the things that will show you have grown as a person and will continue to do so throughout college. You may not feel as if you stand out from the crowd as an average high school student, but think about it: your life is unique and you’ve had experiences different from everyone else’s that made you who you are today. 

The Common App can be one of your greatest assets when you apply to colleges. It saves you time and makes it easier to send everything you’ve worked so hard to accomplish in high school to every college you want to apply to. So now that you’re a Common App expert, go write those essays and knock those admission officers’ socks off!

Nicole Knoebel was the President and Editor-in-Chief of Her Campus Marist and is a former National Contributing Writer for Her Campus. She attended Marist College and majored in English (Writing) and minored in Journalism. Nicole has been an editorial intern at Marie Claire, Us Weekly, Seventeen and ELLE and spent a semester living in New York City to test out the Carrie Bradshaw life (minus the Manolos). You can follow her on Twitter at @nicoleknoebel!