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The Ultimate Guide to the Common App

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This post is from a student, parent, or professional contributor. The opinions expressed by the author are their own and do not necessarily reflect the positions, viewpoints, or policies of Niche.

On August 1, the Common Application (Common App) went live. As someone who is looking to apply to earn an undergraduate, higher educational degree at a higher educational institution, this is the article for you. 

According to their website, the “Common App is a non-profit college access organization that helps students apply to college every year. Common App’s free college application tool is designed to make applying to college faster and easier. With Common App you only need to use one system to apply to multiple colleges and universities. There are two main parts you fill out: a set of common questions and each college’s own specific questions. The best part is you only have to fill out the common questions one time!”

When it comes to graduate programs, those are typically more specific and do not have anything like this where you can apply to more than one graduate program at a time. Therefore, the Common App is only for students who are applying to be an undergraduate student.

I used the Common App to apply for over half of my college applications. If you are an international student, you are still eligible to use this application. For more tips, read: An International Student’s guide to Applying to College in the United States. They have 50+ international universities in 15+ countries. 

Benefits of using Common App:

The benefits of using the Common App are endless. Here are my top 3: 

  1. Applying to multiple schools at once in one portal is convenient, saves you time, and helps you stay organized. 
  2. There is a way to request a fee waiver for the schools you are interested in applying to if you meet certain criteria.
  3. It reduces barriers and makes the process more accessible. 

Which Schools Use the Common App:

A great way to check if the school you are interested in applying to uses the Common App is by using their “Find a College” link on their website. There you can search by a wide variety of information, such as name, region, minority serving, campus setting, financial aid, type of institution, enrollment size, and more.

The Common App has over 1,000 participating colleges and universities, and you can apply for a maximum of 20 of them. Some students worry their application will hold less importance, but have no fear. Your application will be given the same weight of importance.

Things You Will Need to Gather: 

  • High School CEEB Code: A unique identification number assigned to high schools and colleges by the College Board. Some international schools may not have an assigned CEEB code.
  • Class Ranking Report: This is how your school ranks students and what your actual rank is within your class. 
  • A Copy of Your High School Transcript with GPA Scale:You will need to know your GPA and class grades which are on your transcript. For an official one, you will likely need to contact your school’s guidance counselor or college counselor to send it to the college directly through the mail or an online portal. 
  • Citizenship Information:
    • Social Security Number, if you intend to apply for financial aid via FAFSA (For U.S. citizens, U.S. nationals, U.S. dual citizens, U.S. permanent residents, U.S. refugees, and U.S. asylees). 
    • For Permanent Residents: A copy of your green card. 
    • For non-U.S. citizens: U.S. visa type, number, and date issued. If you do not yet have a U.S. visa but intend to apply for one, you can indicate that in the application.
  • State of Residence Information: If you think you qualify for in-state tuition for a school you might be asked to share more information about your residence in that state.
  • High School / College Counselor Information: Name, phone number, email address, and job title. You may also want to get their office hours just in case you need to meet with them for guidance about your application. 
  • Parent/Legal Guardian Information: The Common App will ask for their preferred email addresses, phone numbers, education level, and permanent places of residence. Even financial information may be necessary. 
    • Occupation
    • Job title
    • Education level
    • Name of college(s) attended 
    • College location 
    • Degree earned 
    • Year degree earned
  • List of Activities: These include any work experience, hobbies, clubs, community engagement, and even family responsibilities. You have the option to enter up to 10 activities you participated in during high school.
  • Test Scores: If you have your English as a Second Language (ESL),Test Of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL), Pearson English Language Tests (PTE), International English Language Testing System (IELTS), Duolingo English Test, Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), Advanced Placement (AP), International Baccalaureate (IB) or American College Test Scores (ACT), there will be a place to put that information down. 
    • If a school is test optional, this means you have the option to submit your test scores for your application. This option serves as a way to not hurt your application if you do not have the best test scores. They may request additional supplemental essays. 
    • To remove test scores all you need to do is go to the Tests Taken section and remove the test(s) you selected. If you do not plan on submitting any scores to a college, answer “No” you do not want to self-report scores. That will complete the section and remove any information you had previously entered from any future submissions. 
    • Do not worry! The information you entered will not completely disappear. To add your previously entered test scores, answer “Yes” you would like to report scores. Then, add back the test you had listed before. The sections will reappear, along with your answers.
  • Academic Honors and Achievements: This includes any awards or Honors Organizations, for example National Honors Society. It is an opportunity to show where you excel and have been recognized for your contributions. You can include up to 5 academic honors you received during high school. You will need to include the honor’s title, when you received it, and the level of recognition you received (regional or national, for example).

Transfer Students

  • Check if your college has articulation agreements to help students with transferring credits. The agreement clarifies which courses will or will not transfer toward your intended major. The goal is to help students graduate on time and reduce the loss of academic credits. Guaranteed admission agreements between colleges can help students transfer with confidence. If a student meets specific academic requirements, they can apply to transfer and the partnering college will automatically accept their application. Guaranteed admission is also sometimes referred to as transfer admission guarantee (TAG), automatic admission, or guaranteed transfer. Collect information about your standing at your current institution. You may need to gather this information from more than 1 official at your institution, such as the advisor, dean, or registrar.
  • Mid-Term Report
      • Collect information about courses in which you are currently enrolled. Please print the form and follow the instructions provided before mailing to each of your colleges.

How to Access: 

You can access the Common App through their website or on their app in the Google Play Store and the Apple App Store. You will need to make an account and a password. They will ask what kind of student you are, a first year student or transfer.

A first year student is someone who has never applied to or attended college. Even if the student took dual enrollment credits, they should still select first year student.

Typically, these students have not yet received their High School Diploma or their General Equivalency Diploma (GED). An international student would typically also chose this option if they have not completed their pre requisite requirements. A transfer student is someone who has attended and enrolled in college before and has pre-existing credits. 

You may be wondering what the FERPA Waiver is at the beginning of your application. This refers to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. Waiving your right lets colleges know that you do not intend to read your recommendations, which helps reassure colleges that the letters are candid and truthful.


  • Use a Desktop: Even though it may be nice to keep up with deadlines on your phone, when it comes to filling out applications and submitting, I would HIGHLY suggest using a desktop website to ensure no chance of error. 
  • Chose Your Email Address Wisely: Schools may use the address you register with to get in touch with you. Therefore, I would not use your high school email, one you never check, one that has silly names or phrases, or one with a lot of complicated letters and numbers. A good rule of thumb is to use a combination of your last name and first and middle initials.
  • Use Your Official Legal Name: To make sure there are no issues with your application, be sure to always use your official legal name that shows up on all of your documents, even if it is your deadname. 
  • Roll Over: Common App now has an account roll over feature so from year to year your college list, past applications, and Common App tab responses can be saved. Be sure to save any college application responses in another document because these will get deleted due to college’s applications being changed so frequently. 


Making an account is free! Some colleges may even have a free application. On Common App, 500+ colleges have no application fee for domestic students and 500+ colleges have no application fee for international students. 

As mentioned above, there are ways to apply and receive fee waivers for your college applications. If you are applying for a program within the school, they may require another application fee.

For example, at my school, the artistic application for admittance was $40 even though the application to be a student at the school was free. I paid up to $300 in total for application fees. 

A fee waiver lets you apply to a college without paying an application fee. Common App wants to make sure that application fees are not a barrier for any student trying to submit an application.

The Common App Fee Waiver waives the application fee of any college you apply to through Common App. You can find the Common App Fee Waiver in the Profile section of the Common App tab. 

The criteria are:

  • You are enrolled in or eligible to participate in the federal free or reduced price lunch program (FRPL).*
  • You have received or are eligible to receive an SAT or ACT fee waiver.
  • Your annual family income falls within the income eligibility guidelines set by the USDA Food and Nutrition Service.
  • Your family receives public assistance.
  • You are enrolled in a federal, state, or local program that aids students from low-income families (e.g., GEAR UP, TRIO such as Upward Bound or others).
  • You live in a federally subsidized public housing, a foster home or are homeless.
  • You are a ward of the state or an orphan.
  • You have received or are eligible to receive a Pell Grant.
  • You can provide a supporting statement from a school official, college access counselor, financial aid officer, or community leader.

*You must enroll or be eligible for the FRPL. Students who attend schools where all students receive free lunch do not automatically qualify for a Common App fee waiver.

Some of these government programs have websites that are hard to navigate. Please reach out to a counselor or another trusted adult if you are unsure if you qualify. 

To apply for this fee waiver: 

  1. Answer “Yes” to the fee waiver statement. 
  2. Select all the indicators in the list that apply to you. 
  3. Enter your signature to certify your request. 
  4. Your counselor will also be asked to confirm that you are eligible for this waiver. You will still be able to submit your application without a fee while your counselor confirms.

575K+ applicants received a fee waiver in 2021-2022 and $100M in Common App fee waivers were granted in 2021-2022. 

When it comes to paying for college visits, my advice would be to only visit after you have been accepted, especially if you cannot afford to visit the college in person. There are now many other ways to demonstrate interest and see if that college could be somewhere you see yourself attending. 

Once you have been accepted, a tuition deposit and housing deposit will be required. You should only pay these to one school and never before you have officially decided to commit to that school. Those will hold your “place” at the school. Each can range from $50-$350+ depending on the school.

What You Need To Know About The Common App


Each school will have different requirements when it comes to their college application prompt. 

Below are the prompts for the Common App for 2022:

  1. Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
    • Think about your community, environment, family, and culture. What you are deeply curious about and how you spend your time? What makes you proud? People and experiences that have shaped your life?
    • Ask yourself what is missing from the rest of your application? Is there context to help colleges understand who you are?
  2. The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
    • Think about all obstacles: big, small, personal, and societal, hardships faced by family or friends that also impacted you, or unresolved challenges you are still struggling with. 
    • Ask yourself: How did I cope? How did I grow? Who helped me?
  3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
    • Think about anywhere you spend time, school, clubs, work, home, or place of worship, and everyone you interact with, friends, teammates, family, teachers, coaches. 
    • Ask yourself if the experience clarify or change your values, what the impact was on your relationships and did you surprise yourself or anyone else. 
  4. Reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you?
    • This would include any and all types of interaction. For example, compliments, criticism, gifts, advice, and support. 
    • Who did this involve? Make sure to think about people who know you well and people who do not. 
    • What made the interaction surprising? How did you feel? How did you react?
  5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
    • Think about the full range of your achievements, both public and private.
    • Even small or everyday experiences that had a powerful impact on you. 
    • Maybe even times when you were surprised by what you learned or discovered.
    • How did you change? How can you continue to grow? How can you share what you learned with others?
  6. Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?
    • How you choose to spend your free time? 
    • What are your hobbies or your classes that spark your curiosity? 
    • What do you read, what you write, what you create?
    • How did your curiosity start? What does this interest tell others about you? What does this interest tell you about yourself?
  7. Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you have already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.
    • What you want to share? (Not what you think colleges want to hear.) 
    • What are topics that reveal who you are and what matters to you?
    • Does this essay provide new information to your colleges?
    • Is there anything left unsaid in your application?

They will also still have the optional COVID-19 question within the “Additional Information” section where you can write about how COVID-19 affected you. 

When it comes to the word count, this essay will be from 250-650 words. Be sure to adhere to this, and use your word “real estate” wisely. 


  • Use a dynamic and eye-catching first sentence: This can showcase who you are, your creativity, and what your essay is about. 
  • Write About YOU: A common mistake is rewriting your resume or activities section or focusing on another topic other than you. This is your opportunity to share more about what makes you you, what you’re passionate about, and experiences that shape who you are. 
  • PROOFREAD: Make sure you get a couple of eyes on your essay and make sure you are submitting the right essay to the right place. Grammar mistakes, typos, and spelling mistakes are not so easily forgiven due to the spellcheck and grammar software available. 
  • Start Early: Staying ahead of deadlines when you have a lot of organize can be tricky. By getting ahead and time managing when it comes to your essays, this will lead to a better result and less stress. 

Extracurricular, Activity, and Academic Honors Section: 

This is where you can really showcase your passions and the reason WHY you are doing the extracurricular things you are doing. For each activity you will list the years of participation, hours per week and weeks per year spent on the activity, position/leadership held, and a brief description. 

Having a common theme throughout your application can help. For example, I am passionate about supporting the arts and so everything circled back to that theme. One of my extracurriculars was outreach work.

I would also put them in an order that makes sense when it comes to your level of involvement and not just the length of time you have been in them. When it comes to describing the activities, do not only use adjectives but also include measurable skills and numbers.

Going back to my outreach example: “With my organization, I visited elementary to middle school aged children bringing a full hour dance program with an interactive activity towards the end. Furthermore, performed for various schools brought to our theatre for a professional grade performance exposing dance to those who may have never had the opportunity. This experience has allowed me to enhance my abilities to communicate both through dance and personal interactions.” 

Below is a useful chart and / or exercise to organize and brainstorm the best way to present your activity:

How to use:

  • What I Did: Not only a list of what you did day to day responsibilities but even special projects. Include tasks that fell slightly outside the scope of my responsibilities, too. If you won any awards or recognition for the activity, be sure to include those as well. 
  • Problems I Solved: Think of the internal problems you solved, for example, an insecurity of public speaking, and any personal challenges, like ADHD. What problems externally did you solve for your friends, family, school, or community? For example, you got everyone involved and working together at a time where you couldn’t not physically be together. If you tackled a larger global issue, you can include that – example, food insecurity. 
  • Lessons I learned & Values/Skills I Developed: This includes any soft skills learned- communication, teamwork, problem-solving, time management, critical thinking, decision-making, organizational, or stress management. Did you learn any specific software or gain any certifications? Did you learn any new languages or ways to communicate with others? You could also include survival skills, like how to start a fire or purify water. What are you better at now than you were before you participated in this activity? Would you have done anything differently?
  • Impact I Had (On Self, School, Community and/or Society): How did this activity impact your my family, friends, and school? Who else did it benefit? What impact did this have on you personally? Did this change your life/perspective? How?
  • Applications to Other Parts of School/Life: What skills did I develop and lessons did you learn that will make you a better _______? (tutor, debater, advocate, volunteer, programmer- fill in the blank)? How so? What did you do to build onto what you already knew or the skills you already had and what took what you learned to the next level? What surprised you about this experience? How might you continue this activity during college and beyond?

You can include up to 5 academic honors you received during high school. You will need to include the honor’s title, when you received it, and the level of recognition you received (regional or national, for example). 

Teacher Recommendations: 

When it comes to letters of recommendations (LOR), my suggestion would be to give them at least 4-6 weeks notice before the deadline. Then give them a “brag sheet” that includes all of your extracurriculars, any awards or achievements, what your plans are, and deadlines.

You may also want to ask in person or meet briefly in person just in case they have any questions. Writing them an email with the details after asking never hurts as well.

Furthermore, I would always recommend to write a thank you note. They could be writing letters for multiple students and time is valuable so showing appreciation is important.

Remember, you can ask anyone to write you a LOR, not just teachers. Whoever can speak on your work ethic, character, and personality is a candidate. This could include bosses, mentors, extracurricular leaders, or community leaders.

If they decline for any reason, this may happen, so be emotionally prepared for that. It is normally discouraged for family or fellow peers to write LORs due to the potential of them being unfairly biased. 


  • Be Sure They Know Where to Send It: My school had three ways my recommenders could send their letters: directly to the school, Navient, or Common App. Make sure they know how and where to send their letters once they are done. 
  • Send a Reminder Around the Deadline: A friendly reminder never hurts, and it is also a good opportunity for them to ask you any questions if they came up during the writing process. 
  • Ask People Who Would Have No Trouble Hyping You Up: This may be obvious, but make sure the people you ask to write your recommendation are enthusiastic about you as a student and believe in your dreams and goals. If they do not feel like they know you well enough to write you a recommendation, this is ok. If they know about personal challenges you face, I would not be afraid for them to include these in their recommendation because no one is perfect and perseverance is a very strong and desirable characteristic.

Final Tips:

You should be all ready to apply now! Good luck! If at any point you need help with your application, Common App has a support center and way to contact their support team! You can also check out Common App’s various Resource Guides!

  • AUTHENTICITY!: It all comes down to quality over quantity. In every part of your application, aim for authenticity. You should be proud for all you have accomplished and this is a one in a lifetime opportunity to showcase who you are and what you are passionate about. 
  • Be Sure to SAVE Along the Way and hit SUMBIT: Having your application deleted because you did not hit save or submit can be so frustrating. I would save all answers or extra material, like your resume, on another application like Google Drive, your computer’s hard drive, or OneDrive to avoid your material getting lost in the shuffle. 
  • The Process Does Not Stop After You Hit Submit: Be sure to check any portals or emails, keep applying to scholarships, and keeping up your demonstrated interest. Your future starts after you have been accepted.
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Author: Rosalie Anthony

Rosalie is currently attending Point Park University earning her Dance- B.F.A degree with a minor in French. Previously, she attended and graduated from the Alabama School of Fine Arts in dance. She is passionate about learning, teaching and mentoring. In her spare time, she enjoys working out, chatting with friends, and discovering new places to go in Pittsburgh.