Common App: One Way to Apply to More Than 500 Colleges

The Common App uses one application for multiple colleges.

The Common App uses one application for multiple colleges.
One single application. Multiple colleges. This is the idea behind the Common App.

In 1975–1976, a handful of private colleges and universities founded The Common Application with the idea of providing a common, standardized application for use across member institutions. Today, it works with more than 500 schools and is exclusively online.

10 Common App Founding Institutions from 1975

Niche Academics Grade
A+Carleton CollegeNorthfieldMN2,037
AColgate UniversityHamiltonNY2,850
AColorado CollegeColorado SpringsCO1,983
AEmory UniversityAtlantaGA7,368
B+Goucher CollegeBaltimoreMD1,409
ALafayette CollegeEastonPA2,438
A-Mills CollegeOaklandCA894
AOberlin CollegeOberlinOH2,889
A-Trinity University - TexasSan AntonioTX2,252
AVassar CollegePoughkeepsieNY2,370

Why the Common App?
During the late 1800s, elite colleges only enrolled students from private schools, with admittance based on Latin and Greek entrance exams, while state schools had more lax admission requirements, letting in most students who graduated from high school. However, when private colleges started to open their doors to public high school students, administrators realized that admission based on academic merit alone would not be fair to the students who came from less prestigious high schools.

After Columbia University released the first form of the modern college application in 1919—with questions including “religious affiliation,” “mother’s maiden name in full,” and a photograph submission—soon, “character”-driven applications started to spread throughout schools in the Northeast, meaning admission forms highlighted more than just grades.

Quote: "A character-driven application developed into the Common App."

Eventually the idea behind a “character”-driven application developed into the Common Application. In addition to highlighting student attributes other than academics, the creation of the Common App also made it possible for students to use one application to apply to multiple colleges within the CA system. By 1980–81, 100 college institutions became members of the Common Application system, and with each year since its inception, it’s managed to add more schools to its system, including Ivy League institutions like Harvard and Yale.

Drawbacks to the Common App
With high school seniors applying to more colleges, such an influx generally means that a smaller percentage of students will be accepted to colleges. In a 2013 Time article, Dan Edmonds noted that this inflation of college applications can be traced to the Common App for streamlining the college admissions process and making it so simple.

Quote: "The Common App suffered some serious glitches in 2013."

Also, in the fall of 2013, the Common Application suffered some serious glitches when it launched its new version, with some schools extending their Early Decision deadlines to accommodate the issues, which just goes to show the impact the system has left on modern-day students. In some ways, the Common App could be considered a monopoly of sorts, as the only other similar application venue is the Universal College Application, which doesn’t have nearly as many institution members (and only three Ivy League schools). So when the Common App shuts down, it affects a lot of students and schools.

Another thing critics debate is the idea of an application being used by schools that admit fewer than 10 percent of applicants as well as schools that admit more than 70 percent. Should all schools have the same application process when some may be drastically different from one another?

Common Application Costs
There are no fees for registering with the Common App; the application fees for each school vary from $25 to $90.

Common Application Requirements
While the Common Application is generally the same across all member institutions, deadlines and supplements may vary by school.

What’s on the Common Application?

  • Profile – Info includes whether you’re a U.S. citizen, ethnicity, first language, etc.
  • Family – Number of siblings, colleges family members have attended, parent occupations, etc.
  • Education – Class rank and GPA, recognitions, secondary school info, highest degree completed, any college credits to report
  • Testing – ACT and SAT scores, any other test scores to report
  • Activities – Extracurriculars, positions held in clubs, etc.
  • Writing – Essays
  • Recommendations – Teachers and counselors can submit Common Application recommendations either online or offline—but they should be one way or the other, not both.

Common Application Supplements
Quote: "Make sure to find out if your prospective college requires additional work."Some colleges will provide additional prompts to go with the Common Application. For example, Notre Dame requires that students submit the Notre Dame Writing Supplement, too, which is available to registered members of the Common App and can also be completed online. Make sure to find out if your prospective college requires additional essays.

Common Application Essay Questions
In 2013, the essay word limit was increased from 500 to 650 words, and the six original essay prompts were replaced with these five options:

  1. Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
  2. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?
  3. Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?
  4. Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?
  5. Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.

The Bottom Line
The Common App was created to ease college application woes, even if critics have disputed its purpose and execution as it has evolved through the years. Whether or not it’s the best application route is ultimately up to the student—and the prospective college.