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College 101

The Common Application
Article Type: Quick and Dirty

What the Heck Is It?

Last summer at camp, you sent all your family members the following letter:

Dear [Beloved family member],

Things are great here at camp. I’m learning a lot, like when you taught me how to make a [helpful household instrument] out of only [MacGyver-like supply of materials]. Everyone here is really nice, which of course makes me think of [beloved family member’s spouse], and how nice [he/she] always is when I come to visit.

Well, gotta run. We’re about to learn how to carve things out of planks of wood, so I’ll probably try making you a [useless knick-knack to be displayed on mantelpiece for next 20 years], since I know how much you want one!

Love, [Sender]

It got you thinking… what if there was such a handy-dandy tool for college applications?

Yet again, the world is one step ahead of you.

The Common Application was created by a non-profit institution with the goal of providing more equality in the college application process. You’re all for equality. Especially when it means having to do less work.

Basically… if your schools accept the Common Application, you may only need to fill out one application and send it to all of your colleges instead of completing one for each. That way, your senior year will be made that much easier, and you can focus on other things (like whose house you’re going to TP first, the principal’s or your gym teacher’s).

Marie Antoinette
"Let them fill out Common Apps!"


Is It That Simple?

Short answer: No. Longer answer: Nope.

Unfortunately, we don’t live in a perfect world, and the whole process is a little bit more complicated. Here’s why: while nearly 500 schools do accept the Common Application), some of those schools accept only the Common App, some of them accept the Common App or their own application, and some of them accept the Common App plus their own supplemental stuff. Hrumph. Always making things difficult. We’ll just see if they get a letter from camp next summer.

So, because everyone is doin’ their own thing, it is critical that you keep track of who accepts what. Microsoft Excel may become your new best friend. Just be sure it doesn’t try to format any of your cells. It should really be more of a one-way relationship.

Check out our Staying Organized section for help.

Is the Common App for Me?

Well, it’s not just for you.

But… maybe. Your first clue will be whether the schools on your application list accept the Common Application. The bigger question though – what type of school becomes a member and accepts the Common Application? If they’re willing to accept formletters, does that mean they’re also willing to accept… formstudents?

The rules of membership state that a school can only be a member if they take a holistic approach to evaluating applications, which includes a complete picture of the applicant. They’re not referring to a headshot where your ears haven’t been cropped. They want to know who everyone really is, not just skim through a bunch of impersonal statistics.

Which means that if a school only uses GPA, class rank and test scores to decide who gets in… they can’t be a member of the Common App. No shirt, no shoes, no in-depth analysis of each prospective student on an individual basis… no service.

If your grades and test scores are out of this world and you won’t be weeded out based on some formula, you can look outside the Common App schools. Not right outside them. That’s usually where the football field is.

If you hope to depend less on grades and tests and rely more on your experiences, essays and letters of recommendation to be admitted, Common App schools are the type you want. So like… if you got straight C’s but you discovered the cure for lung cancer. Or… something less extreme.

This doesn’t mean Common Application Schools are easier to get into (Harvard, Princeton and Yale are all members) – just that they value a more complete picture of students. So… pull your ears in and say ‘cheese.’

What Should I Expect?

You decide to use the Common Application. Excellent – good luck. We hope using the Common Application leads to you finding… uncommon success.

 First you will need to go to the website and create an account. Write down your password. Yeah, right now you may think that BroncoFan23972394 is locked firmly inside your noggin, but time has a funny way of… clearing your mental cookies. Just jot it down. It’ll take you two seconds.

Next you will identify a teacher and a counselor – you’ll need their email addresses – who will be sent forms to complete and submit (so make sure they don’t harbor some deep-seated ill will toward you, and instead are prepared to give you the most glowing reviews of all time).

You will then complete a few pages of forms which include these sections:

  • Standard Personal Information like your name, address, birthday,etc.
  • Future Plans and Academic Interests
  • Demographics and Family Information
  • Your Education and Academic History
  • Extracurricular Activities and Work Experience
  • The Essay

Since filling out an application is a pretty lengthy process, we recommend printing or saving the completed form to reference if and when you need to complete other applications. You’ll send us an email to thank us later. Unless your motherboard becomes completely fried, in which case a nice, handwritten note on personal stationary will suffice.

The essay, of course, is the scary part (ominous drum plays). The Common Application asks that you write one essay on one of six topics that change often. So your older brother may be able to score you an illegal beverage or two, but his old essay will do you no good.

Have no fear, however, as Shmoop can help you with your Common Application essay at the College Essay Lab.

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