Tips for Completing the Common Application

The Common Application, also known as the Common App, is going to be your best friend during the college application process. This online tool offers a standardized application, including one set of essay questions, accepted by more than 700 colleges and universities. If you are applying to more than one college, the Common App will save you time and effort, and what busy high school student doesn’t appreciate that?

The Common App goes live each year on August 1 for applications for the following school year. Although your application deadlines may be in fall or early winter, it’s best to get a head start on the process. Here are some pro tips to help the process go smoothly.

Prep Work

* Get started as soon as possible on the process. Do not procrastinate. You’ll need time to gather what you need as well as start thinking about and drafting your answers to the questions and essay prompts. Did you know that admissions officers are trained to detect last-minute essays? Our successful students spend 20 to 30 hours on their applications and write five or more drafts of their essays. Schedule your time accordingly so that your application reflects your best effort.

* Request a copy of your most recent high school transcript and your SAT/ACT scores. You want to make sure the information you enter on the Common App is accurate, so don’t enter data from memory. Did you take AP or honors courses that offer additional grade points (such as 5 instead of 4 grade points)? If so, report your weighted GPA.

* Make a list of extracurricular activities, awards, community service/volunteer work, and jobs.

* Ask your high school guidance counselor to write you a letter of recommendation. It is best to send your request formally by email or letter and allow plenty of time so your counselor does not feel rushed.

Sign up for a Common App account and create a secure password. Familiarize yourself with the website, making sure to read the “How To Apply” section.

* Be sure the colleges you want to apply to accept the Common App. Many colleges participate, but some state colleges and universities and some private schools do not. Check the list on the Common App website to see if the schools you’re applying to use the Common App.

Check the requirements for the schools on your list. Be sure that you can satisfy them and that you have gathered the necessary materials. Note that some schools require supplemental essays in addition to the standard essays in the app.

Filling in the Blanks

* Read all directions and follow them. Colleges receive many applications and review them thoroughly. If you skip a mandatory question or don’t include all the required supplements, your application may be rejected. Also, pay attention to limits on word count or number of extracurricular activities. You may have to decide what is most important to include.

* Report your best individual test scores, even if you took the tests at different times. If you are not satisfied with your scores, see if there is time to take the tests again.

* List the courses you are planning to take in your senior year. If you end up making major changes to your academic course schedule, be sure to notify the colleges you applied to. This is especially important if you drop a more advanced class to take a less rigorous one.

* In the Writing section, you will be asked to write about one of your extracurricular activities. If you’ve already mentioned an activity in your main essay, select another activity to talk about in this shorter response.

* The Common App has an additional information section to let colleges know if you have any special circumstances. Examples include health needs, significant life challenges, or special education needs or accommodations. Do not use this space to squeeze in a work sample, for instance.

* If you have any disciplinary action on your record, own up to it. Don’t try to hide it; your counselor and teacher will likely mention it in their recommendation letters. If a college learns from another source that you were disciplined, that college could reverse their decision to accept you. You may want to ask a supportive teacher or counselor to help you write an honest, thoughtful explanation that shows how you learned and grew from the experience.

* A college application is an opportunity to share who you are with the schools you would like to attend. These schools want to get to know you as much as possible to help decide if you’ll be a good fit. Work on presenting a different aspect of yourself in each question (while staying on topic, of course). Also consider answering optional questions as a way to offer admissions committees a fuller picture of who you are.

* The Common App is a very useful tool for students who want to apply to many schools, but each school you are applying to is unique. Be sure to tailor your responses so that they convey why you are applying to that particular college or university.

Last Steps

You’re in the home stretch now. You’ve invested much time and hard work in this process, so you want to make sure a simple error doesn’t trip you up.

* Make sure that the application is complete and that you have followed all directions. Remember, admissions committees may not even consider incomplete applications.

* Read through your application for spelling errors, grammar mistakes, and typos. It is best to do this after a couple days to ensure you have fresh eyes. Then—even if you won the class spelling bee in fourth grade—ask someone else to proofread your application. It’s easy to miss errors in your own writing.


Filling out the Common App is not easy. It takes a lot of hard work. If you’d like some help putting your best foot forward, our team is here to help.