Common Application Process

By Eric Eng

By Eric Eng

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Simplifying the Common Application Process – A complete guide with Q & As

High school students in the United States, or aspiring students outside the US who wish to seek admission in top colleges here, face the arduous task of filling out really lengthy application forms. The Common Application Process, which is accepted by nearly 900 schools, including some colleges located outside the U.S., helps streamline one essential part of the admissions process for students.

They already have their hands full with the stress of preparing for SAT, ACT, competitive exams, and undertaking college tours, etc. And then comes the additional burden of filling several application forms, which can be truly overwhelming and frustrating. It may indeed be far more challenging for first-timers or students whose parents or siblings haven’t already been through this drill themselves or don’t have any advice/shortcuts to offer.

Thankfully, after the introduction of the Common Application, the process of seeking college admissions has become a lot simpler, efficient, and stress-free. Students from all around the world, using the Common Application, can apply to as many colleges, including some of the most prestigious Ivies, with a single application form. But, despite being extremely popular, this application comes with its own set of terms, conditions, rules, and requirements.

Students and their families who are new to the college application process might find it quite confusing. If you are a high schooler or a highschooler’s parent who wants to approach the Common Application the right way, we at IvyCollegeadmit will help you ace this submission process. For this, we have created a comprehensive guide that addresses all common concerns about this application process. This guide also covers some interesting tips to enable your submission to shine and stand apart from the crowd. Let’s walk you through some of these.

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When and why the Common Application Process came into existence

Founded in 1975, the Common Application centralizes the process of applying to any of the more than 800 member colleges and universities in Columbia, Canada, China, Japan, and some European countries. Over 100 public universities, 10 Historically Black Colleges and Universities, and over 250 institutions that do not require an application fee, accept college admissions through one single platform – the Common Application.

A not-for-profit member organization, the Common App sees more than a million students apply to colleges using the platform every year. Here’s why:

The Common App is deeply committed to making college admissions a trouble-free process for students. The idea is to reduce the barriers that students have to overcome just to get their application across.

Whether it is a  high schooler, who wishes to apply to four colleges or four hundred, he/she should not have to repeatedly fill tens and hundreds of similar forms for each college. By using the Common App dashboard you can fill in general information like your address, GPA, extracurriculars, and certifications, and they’ll be shared across all colleges that you wish to apply to, as and when required.

Additionally, the Common App dashboard is so organized, it helps you easily track the deadlines of submitting your final, overall application to your preferred schools or Universities. By ‘overall application’ we mean your essay, and supplemental documentation, like letters of recommendation, that the schools you wish to apply to might need.

Apart from easing the application submission process, the Common App strives to promote transparency, equality, and integrity in the selection process.

You see, in America, the college admission process is deeply flawed. It is not 100% based on merit. So, even if you get top scores in SAT or GPA, it does not guarantee your admission into an Ivy League college. It is rather based on how well you can project that you are the best choice for a college of choice. That’s where the need for a platform like the Common App arises, which makes overall student assessment easier for college officers.

Students applying to colleges using the Common App have to submit essays, showcase their class rank and have to prove their passion for the subject they wish to pursue through extracurriculars. That way, this non-merit based process becomes free of bias while evaluating students’ competency levels only.

Addressing your questions and confusions about the Common Application Process

Applying through the Common App is certainly not a one-hour ‘form filling’ exercise. It is rather quite an elaborate process in itself, and a  crucial deciding factor in whether you will be one step closer to your dream school/university or not. You have to be doubly sure that all your questions and doubts are adequately answered before you start applying to colleges using the Common Application.

We at AdmissionSight have compiled a list of common questions regarding the process. Check out if one or more of your concerns have been addressed in the following list.

What colleges accept the Common App

There are over 880 schools that you can apply to through the Common App. These schools/colleges comprise private and public institutes. Be it a liberal arts school or engineering university that you wish to enrol for, the Common app covers a varied list. If you wish to apply for top colleges and universities around the globe know that:

  • Eight Ivy League schools – Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania, and Yale, accept admissions through the Common Application.
  • Highly selective and prestigious schools, such as Stanford, the University of Chicago, Caltech, Johns Hopkins, Northwestern, Vanderbilt, and Rice, are member schools of the Common App.

You must always check if your school of choice accepts admission via the Common App platform. There are always exceptions to any process. For example, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is a top college that isn’t listed as a member school in the Common App. Similarly, Georgetown University doesn’t accept college admissions through this application.

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When should you start working on your application?

Each year the Common App opens its new edition August 1st onwards. When the new app opens you can create your account and start submitting your information on to the dashboard. It’s advisable that you start filling in details in August itself.

You don’t have to submit your final, completed application in August. However, uploading details like address, extracurriculars, certifications, etc. will save you a lot of time later.

If you start early you will have sufficient time to do your own research, understand the school requirements, and refine your final application to make a lasting impression. Do keep in mind, the further you delay the preparation process, the higher the risks of losing out the opportunity to polish your application, because later you may have several other tasks pressing for your attention like senior year exam preparations, homework, project work, etc. Plan in advance to build your essays, start around early summer, before your senior year of high school, this should give you sufficient time to prepare.

Time management is a key aspect of a successful application submission process. Start early, prepare well and submit your stellar application on Common App.

What is the deadline for sending in applications for admission?

Deadlines for receiving completed applications vary from school to school. You must look up the dates on the Common App dashboard and keep a track of these. You can mark your online calendar with these dates and set a reminder 2 days in advance.

Your application deadline should also take into account whether you are applying for an early decision or a regular decision.

What is ‘early decision’ and when should you opt for it?

Some colleges allow students to send in their applications and submissions for an early deadline. If you have a list of schools that you really wish to graduate from, applying ‘early decision’ is a good way to show that you are really earnest about your choice of school.

But before you do so you should also consider a few points, which are mentioned as follows:

  • Early decision is binding in nature. This means if you are accepted through early decision application you will unfailingly have to attend that school. It will also require you to withdraw applications that you have submitted to other schools for regular deadlines.
  • You can’t apply to more than one college under early decision. To other schools you wish to seek admission to, you will have to submit applications under regular decision.
  • If your early decision application is rejected or deferred you may not be able to reapply the same year. In case your application is deferred, you may be reconsidered during the regular admission period.

November is usually the deadline for early decision applications. Students are notified about their application status in December.

Early decision is the right approach for those aspirants who are completely sure about their school of choice. It will definitely give your application a leg up in case you have made up your mind on a particular school or college.

We suggest that if you are really sure that a certain school is the best fit for you, are aware of the faculty for the subject of your choice, you qualify all criteria for a sure shot admission, and can afford the tuition fee, it’s best that you apply early decision. Even then, don’t skip applying to a few other prestigious schools too through regular decision. Ever-increasing competition slims the odds even for the best to get a seat in their dream school.

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What key components of the Common Application Process will you be required to fill?

The Common Application requires you to fill in with accuracy and in detail the following components:

  • Personal information such as your name, school name, your address, and some basic information about your family.
  • Test scores that your choice of school considers for admissions. For example, for some schools, you might have to fill in your SAT scores or ACT scores. Not all the schools ask for these scores though.
  • Letters of recommendation from teachers and school counsellors. Two to three letters of recommendation that can help college admission officers know more about you than just your grades are usually enough. However, you should check if different schools that you are applying to have different requirements. Some schools may have strict guidelines regarding who should be writing your letter of recommendation, how many should you be sending in, and what should be the format of the letter.
  • Your high school transcript that keeps a record of the courses that you have completed in high school and the grades you’ve achieved in them. Your grade record will be sent from the high school counselling office. Therefore, you’ll need to submit with them a transcript request to be sent on your behalf to the admissions office.
  • An essay that you’ve written on a topic of choice selected from the Common App Essay Prompts. You’ll be required to submit one essay through the platform for all the schools. Pick your topic wisely. How? We talk about it right in the next two questions.

What are Common App Essay Prompts?

As a part of your application through the Common App, many colleges will ask you to submit a personal essay of about 250 to 650 words is optimal but beyond that is not encouraged. These essays or prompts are a way to help college admission officers to get to know you better, through the experiences that you share in them. Or, to assess your capabilities through the exhibited problem-solving examples you’ve cited in your essay.

Apart from your grade record and letters of recommendation, the college admission officers use the Common App essays to evaluate a student’s overall personality, abilities, capabilities, demeanour, and presentation skills. Some of the Common Essay Prompts for 2019-2020 and our recommendations on these prompts are as follows:

Prompt #1: Share your story – Any incident that you’ve witnessed or experienced that stirs you up emotionally, holds the promise of making a good story. Have the skill to present it such that college admission officers feel connected and drawn to it? Then take up this prompt for your college essay.

Prompt #2: Learning from defeat or failure – Recall a failure that really dampened your spirit. Recount what it took you to overcome it. What were the five key learnings from that failure? For example, you may not have won a spell bee competition but you could talk about the learnings that you walked away with. Did you become more disciplined about reading the dictionary? Did it make you more competent? Having tasted failure, what changed in you for the better?

Prompt #3: Challenging a belief – Only a few brave hearts have the stomach to stand up against preconceived beliefs and notions. Fewer have the courage to question their own pre-existing convictions. If you are picking this prompt as your personal essay, start by brainstorming if you’ve ever tried to negate a personal bias with logical reasoning. What was the outcome when you fought out a pre-existing belief with data, logic, and rational thinking.

Prompt #4: Solving a problem – The world is full of problems. Some of them might bother you more than others. You may not be committed to solving the kind of challenges that mute people face while interacting, but you may be really keen on finding an answer to stray dogs’ health and hygiene in your locality. Admission officers want to evaluate your outlook towards problems and want to understand your thought process when finding solutions to real-life problems. Start with why you think that the problem at hand matters so much to you. Explain how everyone can benefit from a solution to it. And, what would be your proposed solution for it?

Prompt #5: Your personal growth journey – Did a personal event or happening has pushed you to outgrow your limitations? Did winning or losing a certain competition or an accomplishment help you understand your strengths and weaknesses better? Share how over the years you’ve strived to learn from such moments of victory and defeat.

Prompt #6: Something that captivates you – Talk about inventions, ideas, discoveries, or theories that get your heart beating a little faster. College officers are looking for curious students who absorb themselves in subjects they are really passionate about. They want to see how you become the best version of yourself when talking about a topic of interest.

Other than the above listed prompts individual schools might at times require additional essays. Topics for these essays are up to the discretion of individual schools. You may have to write on any subject – your favourite book, why you wish to attend that particular school, a person you admire and why, etc.

How can you make your Common App Essay stand out?

The college admission officers receive heaps of essays submitted through the Common App, alongside admission applications. Some essays are impressive. Few are outstanding. You’ve got to really work hard to get yours counted in the latter category.

If you are aiming to get into an eminent college of the league of the Ivies, your essay holds the key to the door. All that effort that you have put into extracurricular and leadership activities will be pointless if you can’t mould it into an impressive story and present it in your essay. Don’t take the writing exercise lightly.

Before penning down your essay, read through some of the previously submitted ones. The internet is flooded with examples. Have you, for instance, read the brilliant and funny “The Punk Rock Philosopher’ essay? The essay is a perfect fit for Prompt #1 Share your story. It’s a well-crafted self-branding essay that draws the reader in. The student has used his cool sense of humour, honesty, and self-introspection as the tools to nail the essay perfectly. A personal statement essay like The Punk Rock Philosopher is exactly what most of the Ivy League colleges are looking for in an essay submission.

Having skimmed through some of the most interesting, entertaining, thought-provoking, and beautiful writings, you now know what it takes to write a stellar essay. A few danger zones to watch out for would be:

  • Letting parents take the lead in dictating what your essay should be about
  • Using too many difficult words and phrases in your essay that extract the fun out of reading
  • Not having the draft proofread by others and sending it in unedited
  • Missing out on little details that can intrigue and impress
  • Treating it like a boring ‘to-do’ task. Not stretching your imagination and skills to their best capability
  • Ignoring the power of humour

It’s great if you have a natural flair. Even if you don’t you can still come up with a fantastic essay given that you are really passionate about the topic you’ve chosen to work on. You can work on ‘beautifying’ your writing once you are on track with the idea. Keep things simple and don’t try to attempt something that’s out of reach. Even a simple story like how spending quality time with grandparents has changed your outlook towards life can be very impressive.

Concluding remarks

Using the tips and tricks we’ve shared in this article you will be able to fill in your admission application through the Common Application with ease. Even then if you feel that help from professionals can help you put together a well-crafted application, we are happy to help.


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