The Universal College Application vs the Common Application

Learn How the Universal College Application Differs from the Common Application

Plant Hall at the University of Tampa. Photo Credit: Allen Grove

While the Common Application is still the online application format of choice for the majority of colleges that do not use their own applications exclusively, a few dozen schools have also begun to accept the Universal College Application. Some use this newer format exclusively or in addition to their own institutional application, but many accept both the Universal College Application and the Common Application, leaving the choice up to the applicant.

So what’s the difference?

The Common Application is accepted by nearly 700 colleges and universities across the country and internationally as of the 2016-2017 application cycle. About a third of these colleges are Common Application exclusive, meaning that they do not have a separate institutional application or accept applications in any other format. The Common Application actively originally promoted a philosophy of “equity, access, and integrity,” meaning that member colleges used a holistic approach to their application review process, taking into account letters of recommendation, the personal essay, and any other supplemental information provided by the student in addition to test scores and high school grades. This requirement, however, has eased recently as the Common Application works to bring more schools into the fold.

The Universal College Application has never promoted any specific philosophy or application requirements. Colleges must simply be accredited institutions that adhere to the National Association for College Admissions Counseling Statement of Principles of Good Practice in order to use the Universal College Application. Only 34 colleges and universities currently use this application, and they vary widely in size and prestige, including everything from Ivy League and other highly selective schools to small, private liberal arts colleges.

Like the current Common Application, colleges on the Universal College Application do not have to require letters of recommendation or a personal essay. Most members do still require these elements, but some, including the Milwaukee School of Engineering, the University of Tampa, and Nazareth College, have chosen to make the personal essay optional. But even for the majority of schools who do require an essay, the Universal College Application does not have specific prompts. The personal essay can be on any topic the student chooses (an option that was eliminated from the Common Application in 2013) as long as it’s no longer than 650 words.

Aside from these differences, these two applications are fairly similar. Both ask the same basic questions on biographical and family information, academic records, and extracurricular activities, and there aren’t many significant differences in the format of the applications—which isn’t too surprising, as they were, in fact, created by the same company, Applications Online.

But will using a different application put you ahead of the pack during the application review and admissions process? As far as most colleges are concerned, no. According to the Princeton admissions office, “We view the two applications as equivalent and treat them equally. Please feel free to submit whichever application you prefer."

Cornell, another Ivy that accepts both formats, takes a similar stance. From their admissions website: “Although there are slight differences in the applications, it is important to recognize that both applications provide us with the critical information that our selection committees will need to make thoughtful admissions decisions, and they will be viewed equally.”

At the end of the day, both applications serve the same purpose: to help the admissions office decide if you’re a good fit for their school. But if you’re still unsure of which application to use, here are a few more fast facts that might tip the scales in favor of one or the other:

  • Looking to get a head start on the application process? The Universal College Application launches a month earlier than the Common Application, on July 1 rather than August 1.
  • If you’re applying to a number of schools, keep in mind that the Common Application has more than 650 member colleges compared to the Universal College Application’s 34, so the odds are much better that most, if not all, of the colleges on your list accept it. Make a list of all of your colleges and which applications they accept; if only one or two are on the Universal College Application, it will certainly save you some time to stick to the Common Application.
  • The Universal College Application has a few additional features that may appeal to the technologically savvy applicants out there. It is compatible with most tablets and mobile devices, so you can edit your application on the go. Also, if you have a website or other online content that you’d like to share with the schools you’re applying to, this application has a section to add those links. (Do yourself a favor, though, and leave the link to your Facebook out of that section.)

Ultimately, whether you apply to your dream school via the Common Application, the Universal College Application, or the college’s own institutional application, the most important decision you should be making during the process is not the paper (or website) you put the information on, but how to present yourself in the best possible light to tell the college who you are and why you’d be a great addition to their student body.

Also, with the Common Application loosening the restrictions on its membership and with the emergence of the new Coalition Application, the future of the Universal College Application is uncertain. While the other two applications have been gaining members, the Universal College Application lost a dozen members in the past couple of years.

As of the 2016-2017 admissions cycle, 34 colleges and universities accept the Universal College Application, ranging from highly selective Ivy League institutions to small, private liberal arts colleges and research universities. Any accredited institution that adheres to the National Association for College Admissions Counseling Statement of Principles of Good Practice is permitted to use the Universal College Application.

The following is a list of schools that currently accept the Universal College Application. Click on a school for more information including admissions requirements, SAT and ACT data, costs and financial aid, and more.

American University in Bulgaria
     Location: Blagoevgrad, Bulgaria
     AUBG official website

Beloit College
     • Location: Beloit, Wisconsin
     • Beloit College Profile
     • GPA, SAT and ACT Graph for Beloit College

Bryant University
     Location: Smithfield, Rhode Island
     Bryant University Profile
     GPA, SAT and ACT Graph for Bryant University

University of Charleston
     Location: Charleston, West Virginia
     Official UC website

The University of Chicago
     Location: Chicago, Illinois
     University of Chicago Profile
     GPA, SAT and ACT Graph for the University of Chicago

Cornell University
     Location: Ithaca, New York
     Cornell University Profile
     GPA, SAT and ACT Graph for Cornell

Fisher College
     Location: Boston, Massachusetts
     Fisher College Profile

Harvard University
     Location: Cambridge, Massachusetts
     Harvard University Profile
     GPA, SAT and ACT Graph for Harvard

Johns Hopkins University
     Location: Baltimore, Maryland
     Johns Hopkins University Profile
     GPA, SAT and ACT Graph for JHU

Johnson & Wales University
     Location: Providence, Rhode Island
     Johnson & Wales University Profile
     GPA, SAT and ACT Graph for JWU

Lake Erie College
     • Location: Painesville, Ohio
     • Erie College Profile

Landmark College
     Location: Putney, Vermont
     Landmark College Profile

Lawrence Technological University
     Location: Southfield, Michigan
     Lawrence Tech Profile

Lynn University
     Location: Boca Raton, Florida
     Lynn University Profile

Milwaukee School of Engineering
     Location: Milwaukee, Wisconsin
     MSOE Profile

Nazareth College
     Location: Rochester, New York
     Nazareth College Profile

Newberry College
     Location: Newberry, South Carolina
     Newberry College Profile

Notre Dame of Maryland University
     Location: Baltimore, Maryland
     NDMU Profile

Princeton University
     Location: Princeton, New Jersey
     Princeton University Profile
     GPA, SAT and ACT Graph for Princeton

Randolph College
     • Location: Lynchburg, Virginia
     • Randolph College Profile
     • GPA, SAT and ACT Graph for Randolph College

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
     Location: Troy, New York
     RPI Profile
     GPA, SAT and ACT Graph for RPI

Rhodes College
     • Location: Memphis, Teennessee
     • Rhodes College Profile
     • GPA, SAT and ACT Graph for Rhodes College

Rice University
     Location: Houston, Texas
     Rice University Profile
     GPA, SAT and ACT Graph for Rice

Rochester Institute of Technology
     • Location: Rochester, New York
     • University of Rochester Profile
     • GPA, SAT and ACT Graph for U of R

University of Rochester
     Location: Rochester, New York
     Rochester Institute of Technology Profile
     GPA, SAT and ACT Graph for RIT

Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD)
     • Location: Savannah, Georgia
     • Savannah College of Art and Design Profile
     • GPA, SAT and ACT Graph for SCAD

Southern Vermont College
     Location: Bennington, Vermont
     SVC Profile

University of Tampa
     Location: Tampa, Florida
     University of Tampa Profile
     GPA, SAT and ACT Graph for the University of Tampa

Thiel College
     • Location: Greenville, Pennsylvania
     • Thiel College Profile

Utica College
     Location: Utica, New York
     Utica College Profile

Vanderbilt University
     Location: Nashville, Tennessee
     Vanderbilt University Profile
     GPA, SAT and ACT Graph for Vanderbilt

Wentworth Institute of Technology
     Location: Boston, Massachusetts
     Wentworth Profile

Wilson College
     Location: Chambersburg, Pennsylvania
     Wilson College Profile

University of Wyoming
     Location: Laramie, Wyoming
     University of Wyoming Profile

Check out this list for colleges that accept the Common Application.