What Is the Common Application? A Complete Guide

portrait of Tyler Epps
Tyler Epps
Read Full Bio

Editor & Writer

Tyler Epps is an editor for BestColleges. He writes and edits content about higher education, specializing in degree planning and college rankings. He is passionate about helping students prepare for college and navigate their educational journey. He...
Updated on March 21, 2023
Learn more about our editorial process

  • The Common App allows you to apply to multiple schools at once.
  • About 950 colleges and universities around the world accept the Common App.
  • Applications typically open on August 1 and close on January 1.
  • Some schools still maintain proprietary applications or use other application systems.

In the past, applying to college was often seen as a daunting, tedious task. Since many schools maintained their own proprietary applications, students had to complete each one individually — and they often required different components, too.

Nowadays, most major colleges and universities accept the Common Application, a streamlined college application system that allows you to apply to multiple schools at once. This process not only saves you time but also alleviates the stress of having to gather various application materials for each of your prospective schools.

BestColleges.com is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

Ready to Start Your Journey?

Even if your college doesn't accept the Common App, most schools require similar components, allowing you to quickly transfer materials, such as official high school transcripts and standardized test scores.

For those unfamiliar with the Common App, you can access a step-by-step guide on how to use it at the official Common App website.

How Does the Common App Work?

To get started, first-time students should create an account and proceed to fill out each section once. Required application materials include official transcripts, a list of extracurricular activities, SAT or ACT scores, contact information, academic honors, and a personal essay.

While the Common App is a free service, some schools require separate application fees. This isn't always the case, though: 48.9% of colleges do not charge any application fees. Be sure to check whether there are any fees for each institution you're applying to.

Once completed, view each of your prospective college's school-specific supplemental requirements, such as additional essays or letters of recommendation. Although your personal statement can generally be used for multiple schools, some colleges alter their prompts slightly or tailor them to school-specific resources and opportunities, so be prepared to spend time writing these individually.

Today, the Common App is the most widely used college application system in the U.S., but many universities offer multiple avenues for application submission. For example, several private and Ivy league schools allow students to submit their application materials through the Coalition Application or Universal College Application instead of the Common App.

While these two systems maintain some popularity, the wide variety of essay prompts provided by the Common App and the vast number of schools that accept it make the Common App the preferable option for most first-year applicants.

Popular Online Programs

Learn about start dates, transferring credits, availability of financial aid, and more by contacting the universities below.

What Does the Common App Look Like?

In 2019, the Common App underwent a full redesign, which improved mobile device functionality and gave the system a smoother interface. In addition to a better user experience, these mobile updates increased access for millions of students who lack a computer and/or internet access.

The Common App homepage features five tabs. Students typically start by adding schools through the "College Search" feature. Once added, students can view them on the "Dashboard" tab, which provides an overview of your application progress and required tasks for each school.

The next step is to switch to the "Common App" tab, where you'll provide all of your application materials, including your family history, transcripts, and test scores.

Below are the five Common App sections and an overview of how they work:

  • Dashboard: The first tab you'll see after creating an account, Dashboard includes each of your prospective college's application progress and required tasks.
  • My Colleges: Similar to Dashboard, My Colleges maintains a running list of your added colleges, as well as deadlines, application fees, and contact information for each school.
  • Common App: The Common App section is where you'll fill out the majority of your application information, such as your family history, official transcripts, and test scores.
  • College Search: As the name suggests, this tab allows you to search for and add any colleges that use the Common App. Simply click on the blue plus sign to add a school to your list.
  • Financial Aid Resources: This final section teaches students how financial aid works, how to apply for it, and how to explore scholarship opportunities. You can also review financial aid offers here.

When Is the Common App Due?

The Common App opens on August 1 each year, meaning this is the earliest date students can submit their application. Those looking to get a head start on the application process can create an account and complete all general components at any time before this date.

College application deadlines vary depending on multiple factors. If you're applying early action or early decision, most schools will require you to submit your application around November 1. Regular decision applications are generally due by January 1. These are the most common dates for each application window, but deadlines also vary by school, so be sure to check each of your prospective colleges.

Regardless of your desired application window, you should have all of your application materials prepared ahead of time. While the Common App stays open until 11:59 P.M. (in your local time zone), it's best to submit your application earlier to avoid any technical issues or system delays, as many students will be trying to submit their applications at the last minute.

What Schools Accept the Common App?

As the leader in college application systems, the Common App is accepted by approximately 950 colleges and universities. Though the majority of these schools are larger, public universities, several international institutions and all Ivy League universities accept the Common App as well.

It's worth noting that many Common App schools also accept the Coalition App and/or offer their own proprietary system. In other words, you're not required to use the Common App should you prefer another application system.

Below are some prominent U.S. colleges and universities that accept the Common App:

  • Arizona State University
  • Brown University
  • Columbia University
  • Cornell University
  • Dartmouth College
  • Duke University
  • Harvard University
  • Johns Hopkins University
  • Northwestern University

Even though more universities join this list each year, many top schools continue to rely on separate application systems; these include Georgetown University and the entire University of California system.

4 Essential Tips for Using the Common App

Before you begin applying to college with the Common App, read these critical tips to help keep you on track.

1. Start Early

Although the Common App opens on August 1, students can start collecting materials and filling out information at any time prior to this date. Application components such as letters of recommendation and official transcripts can take considerable time to obtain, so make sure to collect these early on.

2. Familiarize Yourself With the Common App System

Some application components can be confusing and may require additional help to fully understand. The financial aid section, for example, typically requires parental information, such as income levels and tax statements.

3. Prepare Your Personal Statement Ahead of Time

The Common App lets you view possible essay prompts well before the application opens, giving you plenty of time to brainstorm, organize, and even draft your personal statement.

4. Be Aware of Application Deadlines

Set aside ample time to submit your application, as waiting until the last possible day to gather your materials can make an already stressful process even more challenging. A calendar or planner can help you keep track of upcoming due dates for all your schools.

Additional Resources for College Applications

BestColleges.com is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

Compare Your School Options

View the most relevant schools for your interests and compare them by tuition, programs, acceptance rate, and other factors important to finding your college home.