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How to complete the Common Application

The Common Application or the Common App is a single point of contact for submission process to US universities

  • Peter Davos, Founder and Managing Director of Carian College Advisors, a Dubai-based educational consultancy.Image Credit:
  • Girl filling out an applicationImage Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto
Gulf News

If you are planning on applying to American universities this fall, chances are that you will do so by completing the Common Application - or the Common App for short. The Common App is used by almost 500 colleges and universities in the United States and allows applicants to streamline their application submission process through a single online account and point of contact. Students enter their biographical, academic, and extracurricular information on the Common App’s website and then choose which universities they submit their applications to. They are required to answer questions about their extracurricular activities, summer experiences, supplementary coursework, standardised test scores, grades, and complete a 500-word personal statement.

Keep in mind individual college deadlines

“The Common App is used by almost 500 colleges and universities in the United States and allows applicants to streamline their application submission process through a single online account and point of contact.”Tweet this

While the Common App empowers students to apply to a wide range of colleges very easily, students should still be informed of individual college deadlines and requirements, which vary greatly.

Universities that accept students strictly based on grades and standardised test scores are not allowed to join the Common App. Universities that do use the Common App emphasise the importance of extracurricular activities, in addition to academics. Applicants that have limited or no extracurricular activities - participation in sports, volunteering, performing arts, internships, or other endeavors outside of the classroom - will have vast swathes of their Common App fields left empty, which will impact their applications negatively.

Students are also asked to “please briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences in the space below (1,000 character maximum).” This is, of course, impossible to do if no record of participation in such activities exists. Students must detail how many hours per week and weeks per year they spend on each activity.

While participation in one-day volunteer event is admirable, it will not impact admissions decisions. Ideally, students should keep track of their involvement in extracurricular activities - positions held, hours spent per week, etc - from the moment they enter high school. Students that have not kept an active log, should create one over the summer to help them complete this part of the Common App.

The personal statement will be the subject of a subsequent article, so I will not go into too much detail about it in this space. Students have 500 words to answer one of five question choices, which include “Discuss some issue of personal, local, national, or international concern and its importance to you” and “Indicate a person who has had a significant influence on you, and describe that influence.” The previously available option of creating and answering your own question has been eliminated from this year’s Common App. Keep in mind that it’s important to answer both parts of the question, which is the most common mistake students make. The personal statement should be personal - make sure to write about your own unique perspectives and experiences - and offer considerable insight to admissions officers about what has motivated, shaped, and influenced you.

Letter of recommendation via the common app

Students may or may not be required to submit letters of recommendation via the Common App, which is determined by the individual institutions to which the student is applying. UCLA, for example, does not require recommendations of its applicants, but many other universities do. The Common App will automatically inform you what materials are necessary, once you populate your schools list.

The case of the individual supplements

Odds are that most of the schools you are applying to will require you to complete individual supplements. Colleges require supplements for two reasons: to dissuade applicants who do not have a genuine interest in enrolling in a university from applying and to learn more about the candidate. An academically qualified student that cannot answer the most typical supplement question, “Why do you want to study specifically at this university?” will face tremendous difficulty in convincing Admissions Officers of his intent to enroll if accepted.

Furthermore, some supplements are very difficult and require only the most motivated students to complete them. The University of Chicago is notorious for its supplement questions, which in the past have included “How are apples and oranges supposed to be compared? Possible answers involve, but are not limited to, statistics, chemistry, physics, linguistics, and philosophy” and “Dog and Cat. Coffee and Tea. Great Gatsby and Catcher in the Rye. Everyone knows there are two types of people in the world. What are they?” The most selective institutions will have the most demanding supplements.

Honesty is the best policy

All students must certify that the information they enter in the Common App is accurate and true. Lying on the Common App is not only unethical and morally reprehensible, it could result in an admission letter being rescinded by the university that issued it. Worse, if you are found to misrepresent information on our Common App even after you have enrolled, you are in danger of being forced to withdraw. Universities take these ethical matters extremely seriously. In 2010, student Adam Wheeler was found to have falsified his transcripts, recommendations, and other application materials in seeking admission to Harvard. Not only was he dismissed from the university, he was convicted of larceny and identity fraud. If you are thinking about lying on the Common App, don’t; it’s just not worth it.

Multiple schools and the Common Application

As long as the college you’re applying to utilises the Common App, there is no need to submit this information more than once. The Common App simplifies the process of applying to multiple schools - which every applicant should do - considerably. Some critics argue that the Common App encourages applicants to apply to too many schools; since much of the repetition has been eliminated and students can now submit a single application to almost 500 schools, they argue, they are more tempted to apply to school they may not have a genuine interest in. While universities are happy to collect the $50-$90 application fees per student that must accompany their applications, they also want students they accept to ultimately enroll in their institutions, boosting yield. Supplements help dissuade applicants from applying to too many schools and the Common App is now used by all eight members of the Ivy League and other highly selective institutions.

(Peter Davos is the Founder and Managing Director of Carian College Advisors, a Dubai-based educational consultancy focused on helping students secure admission to American universities. He holds degrees from Johns Hopkins, Oxford, and Harvard Universities, as well as a post-graduate Certificate in

College Counselling from UCLA. More information can be found at


Fact Box


The number of colleges and universities in the US that used the Common Application

Top tips for the Common App: keep these in mind when you apply

1) The Common App website is

2) The Common App goes “live” for this upcoming application cycle on August 1, 2013.

3) Follow instructions carefully. For example, you are asked to list your activities in order of importance, so make sure you do so.

4) Start early. Some information - such as personal and school information - is easy to input.

5) Remember to save your progress often, every fifteen minutes or so.

6) 488 universities in the US and Europe now accept the Common App.

7) Respect word and space limitations; they are there for a reason.

8) Ask your counsellor to help you compute your GPA if you are not enrolled in an American curriculum high school.

9) Abbreviate well. There is not a lot of space in the Activities section.

10) Understand the difference between Early Action and Early Decision.

11) Definitely check the box for merit-based scholarships.

12) Don’t stress too much about choosing a major - it is not a binding decision and you will have two years to formally declare your major regardless.

13) Copy and paste - do not compose - your personal statement from Microsoft Word into the space provided.

14) Don’t forget to complete the signature page and submit the application payment.