What is the Common Application?

The Common Application, or Common App, is a form that lets you apply to multiple colleges. This saves you time and energy. The Common App is used by over 900 colleges and universities. You can use it to apply to public and private schools, large and small, all across the country. Even some international schools use the Common App.

Visit www.commonapp.org to start your application and see a list of participating schools.

The Common App includes:

  • Personal, demographic, and family info
  • Education history
  • High school transcript: your official transcript must be sent by your high school counselor
  • Standardized test scores (if available)
  • Activities
  • Personal essay
  • Letters of recommendation

When you’re ready to start filling out the application, gather these materials:

  • High school transcript
  • Activities list: extracurricular, volunteer, and work experience
  • Test scores: SAT and/or ACT, including scores and dates for each test taken
  • Parent/step-parent/legal guardian information: occupation, employment status, and education

Important to note:

  • When you’re ready to apply to a school, tell your school counselor. They’ll need to forward your transcript and other materials to the college.
  • Most colleges won’t consider your application complete until they’ve received all pieces.
  • Some colleges will require extra questions or essay(s).
  • Fee waivers are available if you qualify. Talk to your school counselor before you apply to find out if you’re eligible.

10 Steps of the Common App

Follow these steps to make sure you complete the Common App fully, on time, and to the best of your ability!

  1. Start early: The Common App opens on August 1st each year. Start early! You can pause and save your progress.
  2. Gather your materials: Round up everything you’ll need and keep it together.
  3. Get organized: Stay on top of each college’s deadlines and requirements. Try a list, calendar, or spreadsheet.
  4. Use your voice: The application is meant to show who you are. Use it to stand out from the crowd and share what you’ll bring to campus.
  5. Ask for letters of recommendation: You’ll probably need one recommendation letter from your school counselor and at least one from a teacher. Ask two teachers, so you’re prepared. Junior year teachers are best, since they had you in class last year and senior year teachers probably don’t know you well enough yet. Make sure your letter writers know when deadlines are and find out how much time they’ll need to write your letters.
  6. Shine through your activities: You can include up to 10 activities, in order of importance to you. If you have more, include them on your college resume. Working and family responsibilities count as activities!
  7. Use the Additional Information section: Add info that doesn’t fit elsewhere in your application, or that gives more context and sense for who you are. For example, if you’d like to explain a poor grade you received (without blaming your teacher!), this is the place to do it.
  8. Knock out essays: Your essay is a big part of your application, so take your time! Choose your topic(s) carefully, and build in time for multiple drafts, reviews, and editing.
  9. Check your work: After you submit the application, you can’t make changes. You’ll have to contact each college to submit any changes or add anything you might have forgotten. So take your time, proofread, and then proofread again!
  10. Breathe a sigh of relief: When you complete your Common App, take a moment to pat yourself on the back – this is a big accomplishment!

Need help with your Common App? Schedule a meeting with your high school counselor. Or schedule an appointment with Granite Edvance! We’re here to help.

The Common App Essay

Spoiler alert: We have the 2022-2023 Common App essay prompts! Take a look and give them some thought. Choose the prompt(s) that speak to you. And remember to get started early! For more on crafting the perfect essay, check out Write the Essay.

2023-2024 Common App essay prompts

  • Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
  • The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
  • Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
  • Reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you?
  • 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 that 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?
  • Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you’ve already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.

Know the types of applications & admissions

Different types of applications and admissions have their own timeframes and deadlines. It’s important to know the difference between rolling and regular admission. And there are several types of early admission. If you know your top-choice college, applying early might be the way to go. Check out the table below to see the differences between the types of applications and admissions.

Admission typeDetailsDetails Commitment
Rolling Admission
  • First-come, first-served
  • Applications are reviewed as they’re received, so applying later may mean you miss out (even if you’re a qualified candidate)
Within specified time frame until class is filled Non-binding
Regular Admission
  • All applications are reviewed before decisions are sent
November – January Non-binding
Early Action (EA)
  • You’ll receive a decision well before the school’s regular response date
October – December Non-binding
Restrictive Early Action (REA)
  • You can’t apply ED, EA, or REA to other schools
  • Shows you have a strong interest in the college
October – December Non-binding
Early Decision (ED)
  • You can’t apply to more than one school ED
  • If admitted, you agree to enroll and withdraw all other applications
October – DecemberBinding

Binding vs. non-binding: Know the difference

  • Binding: If you’re accepted Early Decision, you MUST ATTEND that school. You’ll have to rescind (take back) applications to other colleges.
  • Non-Binding: You don’t have to commit to the college until National College Decision Day on May 1st.

Stay on top of deadlines

Meeting application deadlines is critical. Keep an organized and up-to-date list of due dates for each part of your application for each school. You may have an admissions application, financial application, and other items to track. It might help to keep a college-only calendar or spreadsheet.

Should I apply early?

If you’re certain of your top choice, you’re a good fit for the school, and financial aid isn’t a big factor, you may want to apply early. Early applicants should have grades and test scores at or above the school’s average. Remember that if you apply Early Decision and are accepted, you will have to attend that school. Remember, there are three types of early applications:

  • Early Action: You can usually apply Early Action to multiple schools. Early Action is non-binding, which means you don’t have to attend a school that accepts you.
  • Restrictive Early Action: You can only apply to one school using Restrictive Early Action. This is also non-binding, so you don’t have to attend if a school accepts you.
  • Early Decision: You can only apply to one school this way (you can apply to other schools at the same time but not by Early Decision), and you must attend if you’re accepted.

There are pros and cons to applying early:

  • Applying early shows your interest and enthusiasm.
  • Early Decision applicants are accepted at a higher rate than regular decision applicants at some schools.
  • You won’t get a chance to get or compare financial aid offers from other schools.
  • Early Decision applicants tend to be highly qualified, so the competition is stiffer. Your application might be stronger if you retake the SAT or ACT in the fall and get your first semester grades.

If you decide to apply early, you’ll need to send parts of your application as soon as November of your senior year. Unsure? Talk to your school counselor to help you figure out which type of application is best for you.

Transferring to a new school?

Check out our tips.

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