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.