How to Fill Out the Common App: A Step-by-Step Guide

Renee Layberry
May 4, 2021

The Common Application is a free online application that serves as a one-stop process for prospective students to apply to more than 900 colleges and universities worldwide.   It was designed as a way to promote equity and access for all students in the college admission process. All these institutions listed on the platform have agreed to accept the Common Application as part of their admission application package.   [maxbutton id="2" url="" text="Start the Common App" ]  

How the Common App works

The Common Application provides a simpler way for students to apply to multiple colleges without the need to submit individual paperwork to each one. Students fill out the one application and apply to as many of the participating colleges as they want. It gives students a better chance of finding the right college to further their education.  

How to fill out the Common Application

The Common Application is easy to fill out, and by simply following the step-by-step process, you can apply to more colleges than you could possibly do individually.  

Step One: Create your account

Before you can begin filling out the application, you will first need to create an account. You can create your account at any time. So, even if you’re not quite ready to fill it out, you can still create your account and familiarize yourself with the application.    For your account, you will need to provide personal information, such as your name, date of birth, address, phone number, and email address. You will need to save your username and password after you have created your account.  

Step Two: Pick your schools

Even though you can apply to more than 900 schools with your application, on average students apply to between six and ten.   Make sure the colleges you want are on the platform. You can do this easily with the “College Search” function. You can search for the school you want by the name, the region, state, the distance from your home, or even the application deadline.  

Step Three: Determine the school’s requirements

Once you have filled your “My Colleges” tab with your desired school options, you can look at the “Requirements Grid” to see what the specific requirements are for applying for each school you have selected. This grid is updated each year, so you will always have the most up-to-date information when applying.    The “Requirements Tracker” is a worksheet that helps you keep track of each part of the application process and provides a place where you can put information about fees, deadlines, testing, and recommendations.   Photo by Hagar Lotte Geyer

Step Four: Gather your application information

Before you begin your application, it is best to gather up all of the information you will need to make the application process run more smoothly.   In general, you will need:
  • Your high school course list
  • Your grades
  • Entrance exam scores (SATs and/or ACTs)
  • A list of extracurricular activities
  • Your parent or legal guardian’s information

Step Five: Begin filling out your application

Once you have all of your documents, you can begin filling out the application. Simply work your way through each question, using your gathered information to complete the form.   You will be required to complete the following sections before finalizing your application:
  • Profile
  • Family
  • Education
  • Testing
  • Activities
  • Writing
  • Courses and Grades
  • Essay

Which Common App essay should you pick?

Not all colleges require an essay as part of their application package. However, you always have the option of including one. And if you include it, an essay can help you to stand out among other applicants.   The application will give you several essay prompts to choose from. Some of the previous years’ prompts were:
  • Discuss a time you faced an obstacle and how you learned from the experience.
  • Reflect on a time when your belief or idea was challenged and how you responded.
  • Talk about a problem that needed solving and the steps you took to find a solution.
  • Discuss an event or accomplishment that led to personal growth or helped you to better understand others.
  • Describe a topic, concept, or idea that captivated you and what you did to learn more.
  • Discuss your background, identity, or talent that is meaningful to you.
  You also may have the option to choose a prompt of your own, which can be a great option if you have an already written piece of which you’re particularly proud.   

How to choose a prompt

While some of the prompts are more popular than others, always choose one that you connect with. Make sure it allows you to share a part of yourself so that the reader will learn something about you.   Focus on your interests, values, passion, and priority. Once done, make sure to thoroughly check it for spelling and grammar errors.   Photo by Ketut Subiyanto

When is the Common App due?

The due date for the Common App will be determined by whether or not you are applying for an early decision or regular decision. To be considered for early decision, your application must be submitted by November 1. Otherwise, it will need to be completed and submitted by January 1.  

When will the Common App be available for 2021?

For those looking to enter into school in the fall semester of 2021, the Common Application will be available for completion on August 1, 2020.  

Tips for completing the Common App

Now that you know how to complete the Common App, here are some tips to help make the process go more smoothly:
  • Save your login information. With so much on your plate while preparing for college, such as securing loans and filing for FAFSA, it’s easy to lose information. Keep your user name and password in a safe place so you can avoid the hassle of having to reset it.
  • Set aside plenty of time. Although the application process is relatively easy, it can be time-consuming. You want to be able to have time to thoughtfully craft your answers. Rushing through can lead to errors that can result in a poor impression on the college.
  • Make a to-do list. Nothing is worse than starting your application and then having to stop everything to search for some missing information. Create a checklist detailing each item you will need to complete your application, such as getting your parent’s income information and obtaining your high school transcripts.
  • Always include an essay. Even if the essay is optional for one of the schools you're are applying to, include it. The essay portion of your application is where you can show off who you are and convince those evaluating the applicants why you would be a good fit for their school.
  • Write your essay first and save it. Write your essay and save it before beginning the application process. Once completed, you can easily enter it into the text box on the online application. The text box does not autosave, and if you experience glitches with your internet or a timeout in your session, you could lose all of it and have to start again.
  • Take breaks. Since the application process can be mentally taxing, sometimes taking a break is necessary. Don’t just trudge through your essay to get it done, for example. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, or just not in the right mindset to continue with the application, save where you are and come back to it when you are more mentally prepared.
  • Ask for help. If you find yourself stuck or struggling, don’t be afraid to ask for help from those who know you most. Ask your parents, a teacher, or your school counselor to review your essay and provide you with feedback on ways you can improve it. Remember, this is the first impression these schools will have of you, so it is worth it to give it your best effort.
  • Review and edit your application. When you have been working on the application for a long time, you are likely to miss any errors you have made. Once you are done, look at it with a pair of fresh eyes and correct any errors or anything that does not flow well. When it comes to the essay, read it out loud. By doing this you will be able to hear anything that doesn’t quite fit and identify areas that need some work.
  • Tell the truth. You always want to answer the questions on the application honestly. Don’t try to add activities or awards unless you were actually involved in them or received them. The information on your application may be checked, and if found to be untruthful, it can ruin your acceptance chances.
  The Common Application is a great way to apply to multiple colleges and track your applications in one place. Follow the steps and tips above to make the application process run more smoothly and provide you with the best chances of success in finding a college that is ideal for you and your future goals.  

2021 College application outlook

The college application process might look a little different this year, due to the coronavirus forcing many college campuses to remain closed, only able to hold online classes. It's important to remain up to speed on what requirements are needed to apply to each school. For example, many schools are making SAT scores optional for the 2021 academic year and beyond.   But one thing still remains the same, and that's paying your tuition on time.  That’s why we're helping by selecting the best student loans based on your school.   Here they are in order of our top picks:
  1. Sallie Mae
  2. Discover
  3. Earnest
  4. College Ave