What Are the Most Popular College Application Systems?

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  • Many colleges use centralized applications to streamline the admissions process.
  • The most popular application system is the Common App, which is used by over 900 schools.
  • A competitor to the Common App, the Coalition App is another popular application platform.
  • The Universal College App has fallen out of favor in recent years.

Applying to college can be overwhelming, especially when submitting applications to several schools. Fortunately, hundreds of colleges and universities use centralized application systems, which allow students to input all their personal information, test scores, and essays just once. They can then send that information to multiple schools.

Not all institutions use these centralized applications, but applying to schools that do can make the process far less stressful and time-consuming. Here, we introduce the most popular types of college applications and which schools use them.

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What Is the Common Application?

Created more than 40 years ago, the Common App is the most widely used college application system today, serving over 900 colleges and universities worldwide. This includes all Ivy League schools and many top public and private institutions. Each year, over 1 million students apply to college through the Common App, about one-third of whom are first-generation students.

The Common App is committed to diversity, access, and equity. In 2019, the nonprofit merged with Reach Higher, a postsecondary education initiative started by Michelle Obama, to encourage more students to apply to college and achieve their academic goals.

With the Common App, students can get information on schools they're interested in and keep track of application deadlines. One of the biggest pros of this application system is its diverse array of essay prompts.

What Is the Coalition Application?

A competitor to the Common App, the Coalition App was introduced in 2015 by the Coalition for College, a group of more than 150 U.S. higher education institutions dedicated to supporting all students — especially those from underrepresented groups — throughout the college application process.

Member schools must meet strict eligibility requirements, which include enrolling a certain percentage of low-income or underrepresented students and graduating their students with little to no debt.

Students applying through the Coalition App can access free information on colleges and tips on how to apply. One major pro of the Coalition App is its locker function, which helps you keep track of and upload important materials from high school, such as essays you've written, projects you've completed, and videos of speeches and presentations you've given.

While many of the schools that accept the Coalition App also accept the Common App, a few popular institutions — including the University of Washington and the University of Texas at Austin — accept the Coalition App but not the Common App. In addition, several, but not all, of the Ivies use the Coalition App.

What Is the Universal College Application?

Released in 2007 as a competitor to the Common App, the Universal College App has declined greatly in popularity over the past decade. At one point serving dozens of colleges, today the Universal College App is accepted by just two institutions: the University of Charleston and the University of the Commonwealth Caribbean. Both of these, however, also accept the much more popular Common App.

Unlike the nonprofit Common App and Coalition App, the Universal College App is a for-profit system that doesn't adhere to any particular educational philosophy or mission statement. This lack of commitment to underprivileged students and college access is likely one of the reasons fewer universities are partnering with the Universal College App these days.

What Is QuestBridge?

QuestBridge is a unique application system that primarily functions as a scholarship-matching service.

Geared toward high-achieving students from low-income families, QuestBridge allows students to apply to up to 12 member colleges in the hopes of "matching" with a school, which entails receiving early admission and a four-year scholarship. Students who do not find a match may still apply for regular admission to schools offering generous financial aid packages.

In 2020, 1,464 finalists were admitted early with a full-ride scholarship to a top university. Eligible students must have an impressive academic record and typically have a total family income of less than $65,000 per year. This year's QuestBridge application is due September 28, 2021.

Currently, 45 institutions partner with QuestBridge, including Amherst College, Brown University, Emory University, MIT, Rice University, Stanford University, the University of Southern California, and the University of Virginia.

What Is ApplyTexas?

Texas is home to many community colleges and public universities, but applying separately to each of these institutions can take a lot of time and effort. This is why the state created ApplyTexas, a Texas-specific college application system.

Through ApplyTexas, students can submit a single application to any two- or four-year public Texas college or university, including UT Austin and Texas A&M University. You can also apply to several private universities and graduate schools, such as Texas Christian University and Baylor University. Over 100 schools currently accept the ApplyTexas application.

3 Popular University System Applications

Despite the popularity of the Common App and Coalition App, several well-known public universities rely on proprietary applications as a way to encourage students to apply to multiple campuses within that system. Here are a few of the most famous state application systems as well as an overview of how they work.

University of California Application

Students applying to one or more UC schools — including the highly prestigious UCLA and UC Berkeley — must submit all materials through the UC application. As part of your application, you'll respond to a handful of "personal insight" questions, which ask you to describe things like your leadership experience, your talents and skills, and any challenges you've faced.

The UC application is due each year by November 30, making it one of the earlier deadlines for college applications.

Cal State Apply

The largest public university system in the U.S., the California State University relies on its own application called Cal State Apply. Applicants must submit unofficial transcripts and test scores, among other materials. Students may apply during various application cycles for fall, winter, spring, or summer admission.


Fifty-eight of the 64 State University of New York campuses use a proprietary application system called applySUNY, which allows students to apply to multiple SUNY campuses. If a campus requires a supplemental application, you'll be directed to complete that once you've submitted your base SUNY application.

Which Types of College Applications Should You Use?

The above are just some examples of the different types of applications colleges accept. Schools that don't use any of these systems typically rely on proprietary applications. For example, Georgetown University uses neither the Common App nor Coalition App; instead, it requires all students to apply through the university's personalized application system.

Other renowned schools that don't accept any of the above applications include Brigham Young University, the U.S. Military Academy (West Point), and the U.S. Naval Academy.

Most students apply to several colleges to give themselves a variety of options. Ultimately, the types of college applications you should use will depend on the institutions you choose and what they accept. For example, if all your schools use the Common App, you should apply through that.

Make a list of your schools and which application(s) they accept. Those that use only proprietary applications will have to be completed separately, but applying to schools that share an application system can save you time and reduce stress.

Feature Image: elenaleonova / E+ / Getty Images

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