A parents’ guide to the Common Application

By Suzanne Shaffer

Applying to colleges can be a daunting task, especially for students who apply to multiple schools as most do. Happily, there is a time-saving tool that allows students to fill out only one “common” application. Yes, I’m talking about…

The Common Application

The Common App is an online admission application used by over 600 colleges and universities — public, private, large, and small. Each year, more colleges are added to the Common App list as they recognize the value of its ease of use.

About one-third are “exclusive members” that use the Common App as their only admissions application form. If a member college has a separate application of its own, it is required to give equal consideration to applicants using either form. As an added bonus, several dozen schools that accept the Common App will reduce or waive the application fee if a student applies online using the Common App.

Your student may already have created a Common App username and password; if not, she can access the form at and view a list of participating colleges and universities. Early Decision and Early Action deadlines are usually November 1 and 15; most Regular Decision applications are due January 1 or January 15.

story-icon-bar-convo-3New in 2015-2016: Member colleges may choose not to require the personal essay. Students may submit the essay, however, even if a school does not require it.

The basics

The Common App collects information in several areas: personal and family information, educational data and academic honors, standardized test scores, extracurricular activities, work experience, a personal essay, and criminal history.

Many colleges require a supplement (usually an extra essay). Students using the Common App must be sure to enter all additional information requested by a specific school. Verify on the college’s website any additional requirements and/or forms to ensure the application is complete.

The parent’s role

How much should you be involved in the Common App completion and submission process? Parents should never assume a student’s identity and fill out the application. However, there’s plenty of work that can be done as a team.

Parents can provide:

  • Personal information (family data, etc.) required by the application
  • Brainstorming help if a student is having a hard time getting started on the essay, or finding the common narrative thread — her “story” — that will help her create a stronger application
  • Institutional memory if your student did not keep a record of activities, volunteer and work experiences, academic honors, etc. over the years
  • Feedback on the essay(s)
  • A second set of eyes to catch typos or omissions
  • Encouragement to stay on track

Get started!

The first step is to get comfortable with the site and the application:

  1. After your student creates an account on the Common Application website , she’ll receive an email confirming her registration and Common App ID.
  2. Next, she can explore the tabs at the top. There are tabs for searching for and selecting colleges. Once she’s added a college, it will appear on her dashboard and in the “My Colleges” tab with all the information for that college. The “Common App” tab links to various parts of the application.
  3. She should familiarize herself with the Common App tab and pages first. The first two — Profile (demographics, including a question about waiving the Common App fee) and Family — are straightforward.
  4. A nice thing about the Common App: she can work on it in stages and return as often as she wants. Each time she clicks “Continue” at the bottom of a screen, the information she’s entered will auto-save. Remind her not to walk away from the computer without clicking “Continue” first!
  5. Under the Education tab, she will locate her school’s code and enter her guidance counselor’s name and contact information. It’s here that she will list any college courses taken for credit, self-report her grades and GPA (if she chooses; this information will also appear on her transcript), and list her current year courses along with up to five academic or community honors earned since ninth grade. “Educational interruptions,” which includes transferring high schools, can be detailed here.
  6. The Testing tab is next. She can self-report her highest ACT and/or SAT scores, as well as scores on AP exams, and indicate future test dates. Note: Official test scores are not reported through the Common App. Your student must have them sent separately from the ACT and College Board (SAT) websites. AP scores are also ordered from the College Board here. This should be done well in advance of the application due date.
  7. Under “Activities,” your student may list up to 10 extracurricular, volunteering, and work experiences in the order of their importance. She should be careful with wording as space is limited (use abbreviations when possible) and only list activities that have been meaningful and to which she made a serious commitment. Tip: Name the activity/organization first and then the position/title (for example, “Student Council – Class Treasurer” or “Flanagan’s Restaurant – Hostess, Busser”).
  8. The writing tab is next. Here, she will copy and paste in her personal essay, also known as the “Common App Essay,” which should be 250-650 words. The prompts for the essay are on this page. There is also an opportunity to submit Additional Information (up to 650 words). For more ideas and help in completing the essay, click here).
  9. Your student will invite recommenders in the “Recommenders and FERPA” section. If her school uses Naviance, this happens through Naviance instead but the two accounts can be “matched” (via the Naviance “Colleges I’m Applying To” tab). Though recommenders can be assigned even after your student has submitted her applications, she should request recommendations ASAP if she hasn’t already done so.
  10. On every screen there are “Instructions and Help Center” options plus the Applicant Solutions Center is available 24/7. Your student can click “Preview” to review her work page by page (click “Continue” first to see the latest version). She can edit and remove information as often as she likes. Green checkmarks next to a section name will let her know that she’s filled in everything that is required.
  11. Once she’s completed the application, she should read it over carefully with a parent (you can print out a pdf version). Then she will submit it to her selected school(s) and pay any required application fees.

“Avoid the last-minute approach if at all possible. Encourage your student to finish applications before winter vacation so that the whole family — including your senior — can enjoy the holidays!”

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