Applying to college is a tedious and often stressful process for students and their parents. In addition to finishing their last year of high school, teens may also be juggling the SAT or ACT, college tours if available and applications for numerous schools.
The Common Application, which is accepted by more than 900 schools, including some colleges located outside the U.S., helps streamline one essential part of the admissions process for students.
Through the platform, first-time and transfer applicants alike can apply to multiple colleges at once. So students only have to fill out details that most schools require, including name, address, parental employment and education and extracurricular activities, one time.
"The idea behind the Common App is to try and reduce the barriers that students face when applying to college," says Jenny Rickard, president and CEO of The Common Application.
Despite its popularity, the Common App may be confusing for some families who are new to the college application process. The guide below can help ease students and parents through the application.
When Can I Start Working on My College Application Through the Common App?
The new edition of the Common App opens Aug. 1 every year. Updates for this year include the addition of at least 40 new schools, expanded search and filter options, a guided tutorial for users after an account is created, more robust details on colleges including highlighted academic programs, and an optional question for students to explain how the coronavirus has affected their lives as high schools largely went remote in the spring. The optional coronavirus question has a 250-word limit.
Students don't have to wait until Aug. 1 to get started on the Common App. They can create an account at any time and transfer their information into the new app when it opens.
To start, applicants can go to commonapp.org and click on the "Apply now" button to get details about how to create an account and log in to work on an application through the platform. Students can download the Common App's mobile app to keep track of deadlines, invite recommenders and set reminders.
The summer before senior year of high school is a great time for students to start on their applications, experts say. "If you aren't going to be out of town or out of the country with no access to the internet, please start your application Aug. 1," says Marissa Warren, a school counselor at Yorktown High School in New York.
Students don't have to submit their applications during the summer. But starting in August gives them the opportunity to review the requirements for schools they're considering, draft essays and get some of the tedious background information completed before they get bogged down with homework and activities, Warren says. Starting early also allows students to get the help they need at the beginning of the school year, she adds.
How Long Does It Take to Fill Out an Application?
The time it takes to fill out an application varies based on a school's requirements, experts say. However, students need to give themselves at least six weeks to get everything they need for college applications, says Christine Chu, a premier college admissions counselor with IvyWise, an education consulting company based in New York. That's two weeks to fill out any background information and at least a month for other required documents.
In addition to any parental information needed – such as employer details and educational background – many schools require first-year applicants to submit recommendation letters and transcripts. Students need to give teachers and counselors enough time to submit those materials to the Common App before deadlines.
High school counselors encourage students to ask their teachers for recommendation letters before the end of their junior year so that educators can work on them during the summer. Seniors who need recommendation letters should ask for them early in the school year, experts say.
What Are the Common App Essay Prompts, and Where Can I Find Them?
The Common App first-year essay prompts for the 2020-2021 school year will be the same as the seven prompts used for 2019-2020. "The current prompts do their job well," the Common App website reads.
Applicants have a 650-word limit for essays.
The topics vary. A few require students to reflect on their experiences and share examples of learning or personal growth. Students also have the option to share an essay on any topic of their choice or simply describe a topic that captivates them.
Applicants can see the essay prompts on the Common App's website. The organization reviews the prompts every other year.
With seven options, it doesn't matter which prompt is chosen as long as it's one that allows an applicant to provide insight into his or her identity in ways that aren't reflected in other parts of the application, experts say.
"You never want to echo what's in any of those other pieces," says Bonnie Casson-Deweese, director of college match for KIPP Houston Public Schools. She encourages students to look beyond academics to think about what makes them special. For example, being a high school valedictorian when applying to Harvard University isn't notable because just about everybody who applies is at the top of their class, she says.
Not all schools require students to submit an essay. Some institutions may require students to submit a supplemental essay or additional information. Applicants can see the requirements for all schools on the Common App when they log in to their student accounts or download a PDF from the Common App's website.
Applicants can also preview supplemental questions for schools before they start their applications through the platform's Student Solutions Center.
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