How the Common App Saves Time (and Money) When Applying to College

 February 16, 2021
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Applying to a handful of colleges might seem like repetitive work, as each school calls for identical information, high school transcripts and other materials.

You could save time by using the Common Application. Also known as the Common App, it allows you to apply to as many as 20 schools by entering your details and documents just once.

Besides saving time, you might also save money by discovering you qualify for application fee waivers. For more, let’s look…

What you should know about the Common App

Started in 1975, the Common App claims that more than 1 million students complete college applications on its platform each year. The nonprofit organization allows those students to choose from around 900 schools nationally, as well as in 20 foreign countries.

If you’re a high school or college transfer student, you can navigate the platform with or without the help of a parent, teacher or mentor. It provides application guides and checklists to plan, apply and pay for college, so you won’t have to know everything about things like your expected family contribution before completing the application.

Much of your work, such as building a college list and writing essays, will be done off the platform. Having those tasks done ahead of time limits how long it will take you to complete the Common App.

Despite the large number of colleges and universities using the Common Application (916 as of February 2021) to select their next freshman class, not all schools use it. For example, while you can find Stanford University in the application, you won’t find its public school rival, University of California-Berkeley.

So, your first step to using the Common App is ensuring it’s worth using at all. You can explore the 900-plus public and private schools by region or search by a school’s name, state or other characteristics.

3 steps to completing the Common Application

Once you know that at least some of your safety, target or reach schools accept the Common App, follow these three steps to complete the process.

1. Create your account and gather your documents
2. Add your schools and understand their requirements
3. Start the application and submit your Common App essay

Image: The Common Application

1. Create your account and gather your documents

The easiest task comes first. To create your Common App account, you’ll need to enter basic information about yourself, including whether you’re a first-year or transfer student. This whole process takes less than five minutes to complete.

When you’re done, you’ll be assigned a Common App ID (CAID) and land on your dashboard page. There, you can begin answering questions across these six categories:

  1. Profile: Much of this will be pulled in from the account creation process.
  2. Family: Basic information about your household, parents, and siblings.
  3. Education: Detail your high school record, including grades, as well as the degree and career you’re seeking.
  4. Testing: Report your scores for exams like the SAT and ACT.
  5. Activities: Add information about your extracurriculars to highlight outside interests.
  6. Writing: Input a personal essay or complete the Common App essay, a 650-word response to one of seven prompts.

The platform recommends gathering your documents before filling in these six sections, but feel free to browse through them. Information or documents you might need include:

  • High school transcripts
  • Details of your extracurricular activities
  • College entrance exam dates and scores
  • Information about your parent or legal guardian

Does the Common App save automatically?

As you answer the Common App questions that filter into each of your college applications, pressing “Continue” at the end of each section will save your work. As a result, logging out and resuming your application at a later time won’t erase your progress.

Unfortunately, it’s a different story for the essay portion of the dashboard. If you elect to write your essay directly on the Common App platform, save your work periodically. That’s because the Common App doesn’t automatically save what you’ve written (until you hit the “Continue” button), leaving you vulnerable if your computer or internet connection is interrupted.

Image: CommonApp

A safer workaround is to write your essay ahead of time using your preferred word processor, then upload that saved document when you’re ready to submit it.

Because the Common App doesn’t save automatically, the organization has also recommended that you:

  • Keep a backup file of your essay saved on your computer
  • Avoid formatting issues by pasting your essay from a basic processor like Note Pad or Text Edit
  • Proofread your essay to ensure it uploaded correctly to the platform

2. Add your schools and understand their requirements

Before completing any part of the Common Application, particularly the writing section, it’s best to add your preferred schools. Using the platform’s college search function, you can find schools based on their application fees, essay requirements or other criteria. More likely, you’ll be coming to the Common App with your college list already in hand.

To add schools to your dashboard, you’ll click on a plus-sign. Afterward, each of these selected schools’ application deadlines, fees, and requirements will appear on the “My Colleges” tab of your dashboard.

Each school’s requirements will also pop up at various times once you begin filling out the application. Before you reach the Common App essay, for example, you’ll be shown whether your college choices require a personal essay.

The platform will also alert you to upcoming application deadlines for each school.

3. Start the application and submit your Common App essay

Once you’ve gathered your information and documents, along with your list of schools, you’ll be ready to work through the six sections of the application itself.

Some of the half-dozen categories will be easier to complete than others. You can work at your own pace, save and close out of in-progress sections.

Don’t gloss over the basics of seemingly easier sections. In the profile section, for example, you’ll be asked whether you might qualify for an application fee waiver. During the 2016-2017 application year, the most recent data available, nearly 1 million students received fee waivers to cut about $55 million in costs.

You might think the writing section will take the longest to finish. It should actually be the quickest — as long as you have your college application essay written ahead of time in Microsoft Word or another word processor. If you type your essay into the section’s text box, you might be wondering whether the Common App saves automatically (see above), and you’ll risk losing your work.

Planning makes essay writing less of a burden. The Common App provides its essay prompts in advance, giving you time to brainstorm, outline, write and proofread. And you can easily upload documents to the platform.

Given the breadth of the application, you might not complete it in one sitting. But your dashboard will keep you updated on your progress, all the way to the finish line.

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