The Common App: A Quick Guide To U.S. University Applications


If you’re thinking about applying to universities in the United States, you’ll likely need to use the Common App.

There’s often lots of confusion around this whole application process, and it’s true that it’s complex to navigate in places.

The good news is, it doesn’t need to be!

So, what exactly is the Common App?

The Common App is an online platform that allows you to apply to multiple schools with one application. It’s used by over 700 colleges and universities in the US and by most applicants. Teachers and counsellors can upload documents and monitor the progress of your application.

In this article, I’ll explain what the Common App is and how it works, and by the end, I’ll make sure you’ve got the resources you need to get started on your statement of purpose.

What is the Common App, and why is it Important?

The Common App is an online application system that allows you to apply to multiple colleges and universities with just one form. That means that you’ll only need to pay one application fee most of the time.

You’ll only need to enter your personal and educational details once, which is excellent for saving time and effort.

It’s a convenient way to apply to schools, and it also saves you time and money by reducing the number of individual applications you need to fill out.

The Common App is accepted by over 700 colleges and universities in the US, so you’ll likely find several courses or institutions that meet your academic or personal goals.

The Common App also allows you to track your applications so you can see which schools have received your details and which ones haven’t. It offers you the convenience of a single platform from which to monitor all your ongoing interactions.

Another great thing about the Common App is that it allows you to upload both an essay and a statement of purpose.

Using these documents, you can tell colleges and universities who you are, what makes you unique and outline your plans for undergraduate study.

Upload Your Personal Information Once

The Common App also allows you to include information about your extracurricular activities, awards and work experience.

A few colleges don’t use the Common App, so be sure to check the list of schools before you start filling out the application.

Some of the more well-known non-Common App schools include Bates College, Bowdoin College, and Carleton College. Even if you’re not interested in any of these schools, check the list of schools before you start your application so that you don’t waste any time.

Check out my post for 10 great tips on the kinds of questions universities ask here, or hit the link below.

Completing the Common App Form and Essays

The Common App can seem a little complicated because there are many different prompts to answer and questions to fill out.

However, it’s worth taking the time to complete the application correctly because it can save you a lot of hassle later. Check the list of documents that each school requires and submit all the necessary documents with your application.

The Common App costs $75 for the first school and $25 for each additional school. So, if you’re applying to three schools, the total cost would be $125.

The Common App fee is non-refundable, so make sure you’re ready to submit your application before you pay the fee.

One common mistake students make when filling out the Common App is not reading all the questions carefully.

It’s essential to take your time and answer each question accurately. Your application will be disadvantaged if it can’t be processed appropriately due to errors.

You should think of every aspect of your application as having equal importance and give it the appropriate level of focus. An admissions panel are unlikely to offer you a place if you can’t follow simple instructions or complete an application with accurate spelling and grammar.

If you’re concerned about making those kinds of mistakes, I strongly recommend using software like Grammarly. Grammarly is a browser-based tool that helps you proofread, edit and refine your writing, making your work concise, accurate and original.

I often recommend the free version to students I work with, as it gives you everything you need and, even better, will be a tremendous help through college and beyond.

You can find out more about Grammarly here or hit the link below.

Write a Compelling Essay Answer in the Common App

The Common App form asks for basic information about you, your family, and your academic background. As well as your personal statement (or statement of purpose), you’ll also need to answer essay questions designed to learn more about you and your view of the world.

The Common App platform provides several essay prompts. They change annually, but here’s an example of the 2021-2022 questions…

You’ll need to write one essay from the list you’re given, but some schools might ask for supplemental information or other essays. You should aim to write around 500 words, but the maximum amount is 650.

The Common App website has excellent resources to help you write your essays, including sample essays and tips from admissions officers.

There are lots of resources on the web to help you complete them, but my favourites are:

  • Best Colleges has a very informative site that outlines the best strategies for picking an essay title and writing the essay itself.
  • BridgeU has lots of solid and helpful advice and includes a downloadable resource to help you plan and write your essay.
  • Prep Scholar offers you a comprehensive and detailed guide. This is the option I’d pick if I wanted to get a thorough overview of the entire process of writing your essay.

What Should I Include in my Supporting Documents?

In addition to completing your personal details and essay(s), the Common App will ask for your transcripts, letters of recommendation, and a statement of purpose.

Your transcripts record your academic progress, so they should be drawn from all the schools and colleges you have attended, even if you did not finish your education there.

The Common App will also require a letter of recommendation from a teacher or counsellor.

Most schools have staff who are experienced at providing these, but it is always worth communicating clearly with whoever is going to submit this for you. You should share your aims and ambitions, and if the staff member doesn’t know you well, make sure they have a complete picture of your suitability.

You might even work with them to develop aspects of your essay or statement of purpose. They should see drafts that help them write the most effective recommendation letter possible.

Write Your Academic Statement of Purpose

Finally, you will need to write a 500-word statement of purpose.

This is a very different document from your essay.

It has much more educational bias and should reflect your strengths and accomplishments as a learner.

It should also make a case for why you want to study a particular subject or in a specific college. That means you may well need to write more than one, although do remember that the point of using the Common App system is to reduce duplication and workload.

Although a statement of purpose is less prescriptive than a college essay, which has to follow the demands of a prompt, it does need a clear structure.

It should evidence your suitability for the course, explain why you want to attend a particular institution, and outline the value you’ll offer as a student.

You can check out my detailed post on how to write a statement of purpose here.

If you’d like more help structuring and developing your statement of purpose, then my original eBook gives you all the tools you’ll need.

You can find out more about my Personal Statement Template eBook here, or click the link below to pick up a copy.

When is the Common App Deadline for Submission?

The Common App typically opens applications for the next cycle on 1 August, with 1 January being the expected closing date, by which time your application should have been submitted.

Applicants who submit their details very early in the process aren’t generally at a significant advantage for offers. However, it’s highly sensible to plan ahead and submit your application sooner rather than later.

This will give your teachers and counsellors time to complete their parts of the application, but it will also take the stress out of meeting the deadline and give colleges a positive impression.

And of course, there are more places available at the start of the cycle…

You can check out my post here about the best time to start your application.

I’ve divided the process into three phases and given some last-minute advice, just in case!

What if my First Choice School does not Accept Me?

If you’ve been accepted, congratulations!

You will now need to complete the next steps to finalise your enrolment, including providing additional information or documentation, submitting a deposit, and completing housing paperwork.

If you’ve been rejected, don’t despair!

There are many reasons why students are not accepted to their first-choice school, and it doesn’t necessarily reflect on your qualifications or mean that you won’t be successful elsewhere.

Talk to your parents, teachers, or guidance counsellor about your options and next steps.

Bear in mind that the Common App makes it easy to apply to multiple schools. If you’re not accepted into your first-choice school, you can add additional schools to your list and submit another application.

There’s no need to start from scratch for each university – the Common App allows you to fill out one application and then submit it to multiple schools. This makes the application process much simpler and more streamlined.


If you’re applying to US universities, the Common App is essential for your application process. By taking the time to understand how it works and what’s required, you can make the process a whole lot easier.


Good luck with your US university application and your statement of purpose, and don’t forget to contact me if you’d like some 1-1 support.

You’ve got this! D

Research and content verified by Personal Statement Planet.

David Hallen

I've worked in the Further Education and University Admissions sector for nearly 20 years as a teacher, department head, Head of Sixth Form, UCAS Admissions Advisor, UK Centre Lead and freelance personal statement advisor, editor and writer. And now I'm here for you...

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