11 Things To Know About the Common Application

We’re in the thick of college application season, which is why I’ve been getting questions lately about the Common Application. Today I’m providing you with answers to some of the most frequent questions.
There are 456 colleges that use the Common Application, which is intended to make applying to colleges easier. With the Common App, you fill in information about yourself and your family only once.
If you are applying to lots of schools, it’s convenient to only have to fill in such things your contact information, your coursework, extracurricular activities and your parents’ background one time. Each school, however, inserts its own supplemental questions into the application so applying to each school will take extra effort.
If you’re curious what the document looks like, you can see the PDF of the Common Application here.  Here is the list of Common Application colleges and universities.

 Common Application Answers

While the premise of the Common App is simple, it generates a lot of questions. Consequently, I asked Scott Anderson, the director of outreach at The Common Application, Inc., to field some of the issues that students often encounter. Here are his answers:

1. You can create more than one application.

Students can create up to 10 versions of their application, but 97% of applicants generate three or fewer. Ninety percent of students stick with the original application.

2. You can upload a new essay.

Students can create an alternate version to update or correct an essay (or any other part of the application).  The process is explained in detail on the main instructions page of the student’s account.  Students should NOT use alternate versions to tailor essays to individual colleges.  That is what the supplements are for.

3. Watch the essay word count. 

Because the essay is an uploaded document, the online system cannot enforce a word count.  Nonetheless, applicants are expected to adhere to the instructions specifying a range of 250-500 words.”
Note from Lynn: Here is a recent article from The New York Times  about the Common App’s new 500-word maximum for the college essay:
College Application Essay as Haiku? For Some, 500 Words Aren’t Enough
And here is a neat illustration from the newspaper that suggests how a student can cut their college essay down to 500 words.

4. No need to update an application to add the latest ACT or SAT scores.

There is no need to update testing via the application itself.  Students are asked to self-report testing already taken and indicate future tests to be taken.  Thus colleges know if a student has new scores pending, and the student should send those scores directly to the colleges from the testing agencies.

5. Don’t forget to preview.

Students often forget to preview the application, which allows them to see exactly what the college will see.  Once they hit submit, they cannot retrieve the application. If they discover errors afterward, it’s too late for that application.

6. Make sure you really did submit the application.

The application, supplement, and payment submissions are three distinct processes.  Students sometimes misunderstand this and think that submitting a payment or supplement also submits the application.  Their My Colleges page will always show the correct status for each submission at each college, but some students fail to check this information and incorrectly assume a college has received an application when in fact it has not.
Note from Lynn: This happened to us when my son was applying to a college in 2010, but luckily I caught it in time.

7. Communicate with your high school counselor.

If counselors are submitting their school forms online, the forms will not arrive at their destination college until and unless the student submits a Common App to that college.  About two thirds of our members accept alternate applications, so it is important for students to communicate with counselors if they elect not to submit a Common App.

8. You can mix online and snail mail forms.

Students want to know if they can submit online if their counselors and teachers elect to mail school forms, and the answer is absolutely yes.  They also want to know if the submission sequence matters (app before school forms or school forms before app), and the answer is no.

9. If you don’t know, ask.

Have a question, just ask by heading to the Common Application’s Support Center.
All of our support emails come from the commonapp.net domain.  We always respond to requests for help–usually within about 35 minutes–but SPAM filters can get in the way.  This is especially problematic for AOL users. All applicants and school officials should make sure that email domain is on their safe list.

10. Low-income students can obtain fee waivers for their applications.

All schools that use the Common App accept both the NACAC and College Board fee waivers.  As long as students meet the criteria outlines by these organizations, members will accept the waiver.  Students indicate their intent to submit a fee waiver in the Payment section of the application.  From there, students need to consult with their counselors, who need to verify eligibility.

11. It’s best not to wait until the last minute to apply.

December 31 is the single busiest day of the year. Our servers have ample capacity to handle the volume of that day or any other.  One of my colleagues likes to refer to the system as a Ferrari that sits in the garage 364 days a year.
Despite urban myths to the contrary, the system has never slowed or crashed because of the volume.  The big downside to waiting until (literally) the 11th hour comes when students find they need help.  Our support team will be ready to assist them, but there is no guarantee that we’ll be able to help them resolve their problem before the clock strikes midnight.

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  1. Once you are accepted to a college or university, can you remove that university from the list so you can apply to more schools?

    1. Post

      You can remove the university once its received your application. You don’t have to wait until you’ve been accepted.
      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

  2. Everyone seems to forget these young people are current students who take multiple ACT/SAT tests, fill out Common apps, Coalition apps, write scores of essays, scholarship apps, prep for interviews, travel to visit colleges and now need to consider documenting their extra projects for portfolios or make time to attend two day maker fests or whatever nonsensical hurdle their chosen college erects next year! They are CURRENT students with AP classes and sports and clubs and families and jobs, etc. . The application process is wringing them out, making families crazy, it’s truly a sickness.

  3. Hi Lynn,
    Scott shares great advice for The Common Application but I have to point out that in late 2008 the system did slow down, due to a variety of factors. The Common Application staff and Hobson’s who support the system immediately dealt with the issue and increased, appreciably, the hardware running the system to guard against this ever happening again. Tamar Lewin on the slowdown for the New York Times on New Year’s eve that year. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/01/education/01apply.html.

    1. Hi Seth,
      Thanks for sharing that bit of history and the NYT’s link. Hope all is well with you at Pomona!
      Lynn O’Shaughnessy