How the Common App Saves Time (and Money) During the College Application Process

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The Common App

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About half of college freshman in 2017 applied to at least five schools before enrolling, according to a Niche survey.

That’s a lot of applications calling for the same personal 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.

What is the Common App?

Started in 1975, the Common App claims that nearly 1 million students complete 4 million-plus college applications on its platform each year. The nonprofit organization allows those students to choose from over 750 schools across 48 states, plus Washington, D.C., and 14 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 an application dictionary and virtual counselor videos. 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 amount of colleges and universities using the Common App to select their next freshman class, not all schools use it. For example, while you can find the University of Arizona in the application, you won’t find its rival, Arizona State University.

So, your first step to using the Common App is ensuring it’s worth using at all. You can explore the 750-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.

Common App

Image credit: 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 took me about 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

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 check a box next to their name and click “Add.” 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.

Common App essay

Image credit: Common Application

The platform will also alert you to upcoming application deadlines for each school. If you want to keep tabs on your applications on paper, you can print out this requirements tracker.

3. Start the application and submit your Common App essay

Once you’ve gathered your information and documents, as well as 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; you can 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, nearly 1 million students received fee waivers to cut about $55 million in costs, according to the Common App.

You might think the writing section will take the longest to finish. It should actually be the quickest — as long as you have your Common App essay written ahead of time in Microsoft Word or another word processor. If you type your essay into the section’s text box, you 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. It also offers Google Drive integration, allowing you to 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. Yellow circles, for example, mean that your work hasn’t yet been submitted to schools.

The Common Application

Image credit: Common Application

Complete your Common App today

Instead of filling in the same information on multiple college applications, you can take the Common App’s batch approach. Besides saving time, you might also save money by discovering you qualify for application fee waivers.

So, as long as two or more of the schools on your college list use the Common App, you can save time by giving it a try. Then, you can move onto the more fun stuff — like finding out if you’ll gain admission to your favorite school.

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