6 Tips For Filling Out the Common App

August 1st was a big day for rising high school seniors and their parents: The latest version of the Common App went up online, marking the start of college application season. Class of 2024, here we come!

By Melissa Milrad Goldstein


The Common App: What's New and Why You Should Get Right On It

The Common App (short for Common Application) is the online application platform that helps students organize and funnel all their applications through a single portal. It includes teens’ activity rosters, personal and supplemental essays, recommendation letters, self-reported SAT and ACT scores, and family information, among many other things. Through the platform, you can apply to multiple colleges at the same time without having to repopulate many of the details that all schools require. 

“For many students, this will be their main home for the college application process,” explains Rachel Elmer, director of admissions counseling at Private Prep, an educational services company offering tutoring, test prep and college admissions services nationwide.  Currently, the Common App is accepted at nearly 900 schools across 50 states and 18 countries. This year they’ve added 62 new members, plus 6 international schools. 

Some schools also use the Coalition for College platform which is similar with “one big exception,” says Elmer. “The essay prompts are comparable, but with a shorter word limit. Be prepared to submit an edited down version.” Other private institutions (lookin’ at you Georgetown and MIT), only accept applications through their websites.

New to the Common App this year: a redesigned logo, cleaner graphic design, improved usability on mobile devices, and the elimination of a question asking candidates for their criminal history. Additionally, there’s a new Twitter-esque 150-character tally to describe each of your teen’s 10 awesome extracurricular activities. And of course, a new “congratulations” page that showers the screen with digital confetti when you’ve completed your application, because there’s nothing this generation loves more than positive reinforcement for their accomplishments. 

Now you may be asking yourself, “what’s the rush? School is still weeks away, and I’m still working my way through my first tube of SPF.” I’m going to say this loudly for the people in the back: Submitting your college applications is not something you can bang out in an afternoon or even a weekend. There are a lot of moving parts, some that are under your control (essays, filling out forms, your FAFSA), others that aren’t (recommendation letters). It will take weeks to go through the process depending on the number of schools you're applying to and your tolerance for mental breakdowns—both your child’s and yours.

Which brings up to the Common App pre-show and some simple housekeeping to get straightened out before you log in. 

Common App Best Practices

1. Make sure your student has an email account with an appropriate user name, and make sure they check it daily. Explain to your teens that there are many deadlines and information the school will be communicating to them exclusively through said email. Make sure they log in as often as they check their finsta. Real life > your friends’ fake Instagram accounts.  

2. Review your student’s social media accounts; they should have appropriate photos and be set to private. “Not all colleges are looking kids up online, but it’s not worth the risk,” says Elmer. 

3. Ask your guidance counselor about your high school’s protocol for requesting teacher recommendation and transcripts, advises Elmer. Do teachers limit the number of recommendations they’ll write? And will the teachers write recommendations over the summer or in the fall? “Students are expected to stay on top of this.” 

4. Set goals about deadlines. Most early decision (ED) and early action (EA) applications are due on November 1st, and you don’t want to be filling out the Common App on October 31st. Bribery works; As do threats. While it’s tempting to let them figure it out themselves, who are we kidding? They’re teenagers! Schedule enough time to work through this process together without tears (theirs) and tequila (yours).

5. Get the busy work out of the way before school starts. Work with your teen to fill out the profile section of the Common App—they’ll need to ask you for help with it anyway. It asks basic things like your address along with more detailed information on parents’ educational history and graduation years. This won’t take long, and you’ll all feel very accomplished. Resolve to knock out this step before the end of August. 

6. Request fee waivers. Most colleges require a fee to process your application and those costs can add up quickly.  If you’ve already received ACT or SAT fee waivers or feel your financial circumstances may qualify you for assistance, you’ll find the criteria and waiver request in the Profile section of the Common App. 


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