Ask the Admissions Consultant: “How do I use the Common Application?”

High School StudentQuestion: How do I use use the Common Application?

Answer: If you are applying to private schools, and even some public schools, chances are you will be using the Common Application. The Common Application acts as an electronic clearinghouse for all undergraduate admissions applications submitted to its 456 member schools (including some in Europe). You can even submit an art supplement through it. Last year, about 2.5 million applications were processed through the Common Application.

What the “Common App” does is streamline the application process. It consists of two main components: one part acts as a sort of “central application” containing information required by all schools while the second part, called the “supplement,” provides information specifically requested by a particular school. The University of Pennsylvania, for example, asks different questions than does Cornell. And, yes, each part requires an essay or set of essays. More on that below.

To familiarize yourself with the Common App, I suggest the following steps.

1. Go to the Common Application website and get an account.

2. Familiarize yourself with the tabs in the lefthand sidebar. The green tabs represent pages for selecting your schools and filling out their supplements. The grey tabs link to various parts of the Common Application.

3. It is best to familiarize yourself with the Common App tabs and pages first. Do not worry about Future Plans yet; this tab works only when schools have been selected. The first three – Applicant, Demographics and Family – should be pretty clear.

4. Under the Education tab, you will need to enter your school’s code and your guidance counselor’s information. Once you have completed this part, you will be able to send counselor report forms to your guidance counselor through the School Forms tab. Also note the checkbox at the bottom asking if you’ve taken any college courses for credit. If you have, when you check the box, it will expand into a form for entering that information.

5. Click “Save” often.

6. Under the Academics tab, you will be asked to enter your GPA, standardized test scores and current year courses, as well as academic distinctions earned since ninth grade.

7. When you click on Activities, you will be asked to list your extracurricular, volunteering and work experiences in the order of their importance to you. Be careful about how you word your “Position Held,” “Honors Won,” etc., since you are not given much space. Abbreviate well. For example, if you have played on the volleyball team, making your way up to captain and winning a national club championship, for “JV/Varsity Volleyball,” you might write something like this: Varsity member (9th, 10th), Captain (11th, 12th); 13th in Nat’l Jr. Olympic Tournament (10th).

8. Next comes the Writing tab, where you will find space for a very short essay about an activity. Here is where you will also submit your personal essay, otherwise known as the “Common App Essay,” which needs to be 250 to 500 words. While you need to cut-and-paste your answer for the short essay, you can upload a document for your personal essay. You will find the prompts for the personal essay on this page.

9. The Signature tab provides you with the final step of the process: submitting your application to a particular school and paying the application fee.

You can not apply, however, until you’ve selected your schools and completed each supplement. To gather your list of schools, click on the Search for Colleges tab and then type in the name of the school. Once you have checked the appropriate school (sometimes more than one comes up for your search term) click “Add,” and you will be directed to your My Colleges page.

The My Colleges pages will pretty much become your dashboard. On that page, you will see a grid listing your chosen schools. From there, you will be able to access each supplement where you will need to fill out some basic information (each school has its own variation) and submit your supplemental essay or essays. You will also be able to complete the Future Plans section of the Common Application for each school at this point.

Remember, each school’s supplement is unique. You must read its questions and essay prompts very carefully to make sure, for example, that you are writing an appropriate personal statement. Note, too, that you should submit your strongest essays to the supplemental portion. Target the supplement. Admissions officers pay particular attention to it.

For more information, you can access the Common App instructional video on their FAQ page. There is also a Help page. And if all else fails, contact good ol’ Applicant Support (link on the Help page). Good luck!

Check out all the colleges you are considering on

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Dr Amy MorgensternDr. Amy Morgenstern, Blue Stars Admissions Consulting, is a former university professor and administrator. She holds a Ph.D. in philosophy from University of Memphis and an M.F.A. in contemporary art from San Francisco Art Institute.

Have a question for the admissions consultant? Email The Explorer.

2 responses to “Ask the Admissions Consultant: “How do I use the Common Application?”

  1. Pingback: New Poll: The Common App | The Explorer

  2. Pingback: Poll Results: The Common App | The Explorer

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