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Common Application Tips

Tips for Seniors Applying to College via the Common Application

Tip 1: Sign up for the Common Application to set up an Account

Common App 

  • Use an email address you check often.
  • Set up an easy user name and password.
  • Text yourself and save this info!
  • Link Common Application and Naviance. If your school uses Naviance (Family Connection), go to Naviance and connect the two by entering your username name and password.

Tip 2: Overall Application  

You can keep changing info until the minute you submit the application. You can go back and make changes. Any requirement with a red star over the prompt is MANDATORY to fill in. If you plan to apply for financial aid, you need to add your SSN. If you don’t have one, enter all 0s.

When you’ve completed one section or college, a green check will appear. Your goal is to have all green checks in a college row by the time you submit each individual college.


Tip 3: The Top Row

Once you get an account, you will see the Top Row for the first time. The row includes from left to right-Dashboard, My Colleges, Common App, and College Search. You will see basic information here and then details about each tab below.

College Search is where you will start.  You can search colleges by name, location, or type. Once you find a college, you can use the information on this first page. If you click on the blue name of the college, it will bring you to the college page with all vital statistics from deadlines, fees, and required recommendations. Go back to the college row, and you can add it to your list. It will give you a chance to go to the Dashboard or back to college info. There are also links to individual college websites. Remember, if you use Naviance, you will have two lists—one here and one on Naviance. They are not connected as many schools do not use the Common App. So you must keep track of both lists.

Common Application. The next tab left of College Search is the Common Application. This is your working document where you complete your application.

My Colleges. Third from the right. This page lists each college on your list. When you click on the college, it will provide core information about college in the center. To the left, it will list the status of Questions, Recommenders, The Common Application, and if required, Writing and Arts Supplements. A green check will appear if a section is completed. You can click on each to complete the section. You can also track when recommenders have submitted their materials. If the Common Application is completed, Preview and Submit will appear. You can begin the submission process here.

Dashboard. Just left of Common Application is the Dashboard. This is where you see the status of each application you have in progress: You will see a row for each college with Deadlines. Common Application and Writing Supplement. If there is a green check you have submitted that section. You can click on that check and get to the date submitted and the PDF of your application or supplement. A yellow dot means you have started the process but have not submitted it. A red dash means a section is not required.


Tip 4: The Common Application Sections

The Common Application now has several sections you must complete, and you can go back and forth between sections. You can track the sections on the left. The different sections include Individual Information, Family Information, Educational Information, Testing Information, Activities/Honors, and Additional Information.

Individual Information-This where they track your address, demographics, and languages spoken.

Family Demographics. They ask you to identify your living arrangements and your family members.  You will need to add your parents’ education. This is confusing if your parent has a graduate degree. You will need to put college, and then enter the number of colleges and graduate schools. They will pop up when you enter the number.

Educational Information. This is where you provide your academic history. You can put in all schools you’ve attended, including universities. You will need to provide explanations for certain educational pathways. You need the date of your graduation as well as your GPA and class size. Honors go in this section. You can list up to 5 honors. You cannot move their order around.

Testing.  The Common Application asks you to report how many times you took particular tests and your scores for each one. But remember, the contract of testing is between you and the testing organizations—The College Board, the ACT, not with the Common Application. So you can opt not to report data here. No matter what–You must send your official scores directly from the College Board or ACT to the colleges to which you are applying.

Activities. Here you can list up to 10 activities. The Common Application asks for lots of context, so have information ready such as hours per week and weeks per year. You have a few words to provide your leadership and one line to describe your engagement with each activity. In those 130 characters, be as specific as possible.  Start with verbs and try to tell three specific things you have done with each. You can move activities up and down. Always put your most important activities at the top.  Once your get to preview the application, make sure your order of activities is correct and that you have no typos.

The Essay. The essay must be pasted in or typed directly in the box. You have 250-650 words and must select a prompt to answer. To get the best formatting possible, use TextEdit or WordPad to paste your essay. Then, paste it into the text box in the Common Application. When you save, you will not know if the formatting took. You will need to wait until you Preview to check the formatting. Check as italics, bold, and underline make the text increase in size and occasionally cuts out text.

Additional Information. The Common Application will ask you some questions about potential struggles or challenges you had. You need to be honest, but they will give you space at the end to explain each. They give you 650 words to explain shifts in your education or difficulties with the law. Be honest but focus on remorse or the positive consequences of a shift in education.


Tip 5: The Essay

Start working on the essay now!  The Common App is now requiring students to write one 250-650 word essay answering one of its five new prompts, and then paste it into a text box using simple formatting.


Tip 6: Member Questions

For each college on your list, you will see several tabs within each tab, some questions are mandatory and will have a red star over them. When you finish a section, you will see a green check over it. Remember, these answers only go to the particular college to which it belongs. All colleges will not ask for all categories. MANY ESSAYS AND SHORT RESPONSES ARE NOW EMBEDDED WITHIN MEMBER QUESTIONS. SO DO NOT ASSUME THERE IS NO WRITING ASSIGNMENT IF THERE IS NO WRITING SUPPLEMENT.


Tip 7: Assigned Recommenders

This section will let you know how many recommendations the individual colleges will require.

Before you can use this section, you must sign the FERPA agreement. Remember, if you don’t waive your rights, your counselors and teachers may not submit your letters. If your school uses Naviance, you cannot assign teacher or counselor recommenders. You will need to connect Naviance to your Common Application.

You are able to invite teachers and counselors as recommenders via the Common Application or NavianceCheck in with whomever you invited to ensure they received the request from Common App.  Note that it takes the counselors and teachers at least 2-3 days per application and Brag Sheets are required before the recommenders can begin.  Do NOT wait until the last minute!!  You must invite and assign. If you don’t assign, the recommendation won’t receive the request.

For the first time, the Common Application is allowing non-teachers to submit recommendations—they call these people Other Recommenders. If you can add this option, it will appear within the specific college’s assigned recommenders.

Early Decision. For early decision applicants, you must invite and then assign a parent. They must complete a simple form before you submit your application.

Tip 8: Member Questions and Writing Supplements

The large majority of schools do not require any additional writing. Some do. These schools now have two choices for where to locate their essays Member Questions and/or Writing Supplement. These include anywhere from a short activity statement to a series of long essays. (Counselors, note the short activity statement is now optional and has different word limits determined by each college.) Students, you can paste responses into textbooks or upload them in some occurrences.

With the pasting in, the Common Application does not always tell you word limits in many cases, so you will have to experiment.

You will also see different essay prompts based on your major or programs or scholarship choices. The right side of the page will give you information on certain college programs that you can click on and get more information.


Tip 9: Preview and Submission  

Once you are ready to submit, you should make sure everything looks right by using the Preview function. You can only do a Preview right before you submit. You can save the PDF and even print it out. You can go back and make changes. There are several steps to submit. You cannot submit a Writing Supplement until you have paid and submitted the Common Application.

You need to submit college by college. You will need to submit each piece in order. Payment, Common Application, and Writing Supplements. You must pay first (by Credit Card or Fee Waiver) and then submit.  You will have to pay college by college. There is no master payment system. Speak with your counselors about fee waivers in advance and remember that you can get fee waivers from the NACAC website.

You are not finished until you have received emails confirming each submission process–Payment, Common App submitted, and Writing Supplement Submitted.