The Common Application

When Applying to College, Here's What You Need to Know about the Common App

Sign for a University Admissions Office
Sign for a University Admissions Office. sshepard / E+ / Getty Images

In the 2017-18 academic year, The Common Application is used for undergraduate admissions by nearly 700 colleges and universities. The Common Application is an electronic college application system that collects a wide range of information: personal data, educational data, standardized test scores, family information, academic honors, extracurricular activities, work experience, a personal essay, and criminal history.

Financial aid information needs to be handled on the FAFSA.

The Reasoning Behind the Common Application

The Common Application had modest beginnings in the 1970s when a few colleges and universities decided to make the application process easier for applicants by allowing them to create one application, photocopy it, and then mail it to multiple schools. As the application process moved online, this basic idea of making the application process easier for students has remained. If you are applying to 10 schools, you will need to type in all of your personal information, test score data, family information, and even your application essay just once. 

Other similar single-application options have emerged more recently, such as the Cappex Application and the Universal College Application, although these options are not as widely accepted yet. 

The Reality of the Common Application

The seeming ease of using one application to apply to multiple schools certainly sounds appealing if you are a college applicant.

The reality, however, is that the Common Application isn't, in fact, "common" for all schools, especially the more selective member institutions. While, the Common Application will save you time entering all that personal information, test score data, and details of your extracurricular involvement, individual schools often want to get school-specific information from you.

The Common Application has evolved to allow all member institutions to request supplemental essays and other materials from applicants. In the original ideal of the Common App, applicants would write just a single essay when applying to college. Today, if an applicant were to apply to all eight of the Ivy League schools, that student would need to write over thirty essays in addition to the "common" one in the main application. Moreover, applicants are now allowed to create more than one Common Application, so you can, in fact, send different applications to different schools.

Like many businesses, the Common Application had to choose between its ideal of being "common" and its desire to be a widely used application. To achieve the latter, it had to bend to the whims of potential member colleges and universities, and this meant making the application customizable, an obvious move away from being "common."

What Types of Colleges Use the Common Application?

Originally, only schools that evaluated applications holistically were allowed to use the Common Application; that is, the original philosophy behind the Common Application was that students should be evaluated as whole individuals, not just as a collection of numerical data such as class rank, standardized test scores, and grades.

Every member institution needed to take into consideration non-numerical information derived from things such as letters of recommendation, an application essay, and extracurricular activities. If a college based admission solely on GPA and test scores, they could not be a member of the Common Application.

Today this is not the case. Here again, as the Common Application continues to try and grow its number of member institutions, it has abandoned those original ideals. More colleges and universities do not have holistic admissions than those that do (for the simple reason that a holistic admission process is much more labor intensive than a data-driven process). So in order to open the door to the majority of institutions in the country, the Common Application now allows schools that do not have holistic admissions to become members.

This change quickly resulted in the membership of many public institutions that base admission decisions largely on numerical criteria.

Because the Common Application keeps shifting to be inclusive of a wide range of colleges and universities, the membership is quite diverse. It includes nearly all top colleges and top universities, but also some schools that are not selective at all. Both public and private institutions use the Common App, as do several historical black colleges and universities.  

The Most Recent Common Application

Starting in 2013 with CA4, the newest version of the Common Application, the paper version of the application has been phased out and all applications are now submitted electronically through the Common Application website. The online application allows you to create different versions of the application for different schools, and the website will also keep track of the different application requirements for the different schools to which you are applying. The roll-out of the current version of the application was fraught with problems, but current applicants should have a relatively trouble-free application process.

Many schools will ask for one or more supplemental essays to complement the essay you write on one of the seven personal essay options provided on the Common Application. Many colleges will also ask for a short answer essay on one of your extracurricular or work experiences. These supplements will be submitted through the Common Application website with the rest of your application.

Issues Related to the Common Application

The Common Application is most likely here to stay, and the benefits it provides applicants certainly outweigh the negatives. The application is, however, a bit of a challenge for many colleges. Because it is so easy to apply to multiple schools using the Common App, many colleges are finding that the number of applications they are receiving is going up, but the number of students they are matriculating is not. The Common Application makes it more challenging for colleges to predict the yield from their applicant pools, and as a result, many schools are forced to rely more heavily on waitlists. This uncertainly can come back to bite students who find themselves placed in waitlist limbo because colleges simply can't predict how many students will accept their offers of admission.