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What You Need To Know About The Common App

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.

Back in the stone age of college admissions, prospective students applied for college on paper applications to their local state teacher’s college or business school. As technology (thankfully!) advanced and the Internet sprung into our lives, college applications began to move online. With access to more information about colleges from all over the world readily available and the possibility to apply to college online, suddenly the geographical scope widened for many students as the potential to attend school across the country became a new possibility. 


In 1998, a group of colleges and universities gathered together to simplify the college application process. One application, multiple college options. Suddenly, the Common Application was born. 


Today, over 875 colleges and universities participate in the Common App, which streamlines the admissions process by allowing you to fill out one application for every school that accepts it. You can check out the Common App website for a complete list of colleges and universities that accept this application form. 


What’s Inside?


The Common App looks like an extended college application, giving colleges more information than their own in-house applications might ask. It is the “one-stop shop” where teachers, counselors, or other recommenders can be invited to submit a letter of recommendation, record your AP test scores and list the high school courses you’ve taken.


There is also a Dashboard where you can add every college on your list that participates in the Common App and further access their school-specific information, like additional supplemental essays. You can see the colleges you have added in both your Dashboard and the My Colleges tab. Your Dashboard allows you to add up to 20 colleges. This page keeps track of which college applications have been submitted and is essential to keeping you organized. It includes information from each college on deadlines, application fees, and standardized test policies. 

Your Guide To Acing The College Admissions Essay

Where Do My Extracurriculars Go?


Rather than ask every student to find a professional resume template to upload into the application, the Common App includes an Activities section to once again simplify the application process. The Activities section allows you to describe 10 of your extracurricular activities, limited to 150 characters for the full activity description and 50 characters for the position or leadership title and organization name. This is your space to describe your accomplishments within each activity. With such limited space, you should include only the most important details. 


For example, a concise description of an extracurricular activity may read: “Co-founded a school club dedicated to organizing four clothing donation drives each year to benefit a local foster home facility.” 


What’s the Personal Statement?


The Common App gives you a place to showcase your personality and dreams in a 650 word essay, also called the Personal Statement. In order to get into your dream school, you’ll need not only great grades and test scores but also a strong personal statement. This essay allows schools to do a holistic review of your application because it allows them to see the full picture of who you are as an applicant and a person beyond a resume. This is not the time to simply restate your resume or just casually introduce yourself, this is the time to stand out and let your words create a powerful message of your character and your story.


If you’re looking for advice on essay topics to avoid as you brainstorm the perfect topic, check out our article Topics to Avoid on Your Personal Statement. For a free copy of our guidebook on writing the Personal Statement, download Moon Prep’s College Essay Blueprint. 


For the past few years, the seven Common App essay prompts have remained the same:


  1. Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, please share your story.
  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?
  3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
  4. Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma — anything of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.
  5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
  6. Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging 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?
  7. Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you’ve already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.
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Author: Michaela Schieffer

Michaela Schieffer is a former admissions counselor and now independent college counselor, guiding students through their college applications and essays through Moon Prep's specialty lies in the Ivy League, direct medical programs (BS/MD), and highly competitive universities.