When senior year rolls around, you have a lot on your plate! The Common Application is a helpful resource to save you time in the college application process. But what is the Common App and how does it work? 

What is the Common App?

The Common Application (Common App) is a single college application that students can use to apply to a large number of public and private colleges and universities. Each year, more than a million students use the Common App. 

The Common App is an easy option to compile all of your personal information, transcript, essays, recommendation letters, and more to submit to colleges, especially compared to filling out individual applications for each college or university. 

Common App Colleges

Over 900 colleges and universities in the United States and around the world accept the Common App. 

Even highly- selective colleges accept the Common App, including all eight Ivy League colleges. To find potential colleges or to see if the university you’re interested in accepts the Common App, visit the Common App’s website to easily search or filter. 

Common App College Search

However, students do have to pay a fee for each application that they submit to different colleges. But with the help of the Common App, you can save a lot of time in the process! 

Sections of the Common App


Your profile section contains all of your personal information. You’ll include your contact information, demographics, language, and citizenship in this section. It’s also where you would include information about a Common App Fee Waiver. (Note: The Common App will contact your high school counselor to verify your need for a waiver).


This section asks for information about your family, who you live with, and their educational backgrounds.


Answer questions about the school(s) you attended, your grades, and courses you’ve taken. You can also include information about honors programs or community-based programs you were part of. You’ll also upload your high school transcript at the end of the application.

Common App Profile


You can self-report your test scores in this section of the Common App. You can also tell colleges about future tests you plan to take. It’s important to note that this is in addition to sending official score reports from either the ACT or SAT. You can select your colleges of interest when you register for the test or can send the test scores for an additional fee after you’ve taken the test.


This is the perfect place to talk about what you’ve been doing the last few years of high school! You’ll include the activities, sports, and organizations you participated in, the roles you had, and if you hope to participate in similar activities in college. If you’re still early in the college admissions process, it might be helpful to keep track of the activities you’ve done. It will make things easier to compile when it’s time to apply.


This is where you can include your personal statement. The App includes a number of topics to choose from. You’ll also see which colleges on your list require an essay. More on that below!

Courses & Grades

If you are applying to colleges that require a full list of your courses, you’ll add them in this section. You’ll want to have a copy of your transcript on hand for this part! Luckily, many colleges don’t require you to fill out this section. Here are the ones that do. 

Common App Essays

Instead of writing essays for each application, the Common App allows you to really focus on and refine your essays to be used across multiple college applications. Some colleges will also either require or allow you to submit an additional essay. Writing a personal statement that truly reflects who you are is an important part of the college admissions process. 



Common App Essay Prompts

These are the essay prompts for the Common App in 2021.

  • 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.
  • 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?
  • Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
  • 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 that is 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.
  • Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
  • 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?
  • 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.

Common App Essay Length

The word limit for a Common App essay is 650 words. However, that doesn’t mean your essay needs to be 650 words. The minimum word count is 250. Make sure you answer the prompt fully, explain your answer in detail—but focus more on what you’re saying than on the length. Trust us, your essay will thank you for it later! 

Recommendation Letters

Some colleges require recommendation letters from teachers, counselors, or other significant adults in your life. These recommendation letters are found under each college in My Colleges because the specific requests might vary based on the college. 

You’ll need to invite your recommenders to fill out the form on your behalf. But don’t just invite them via the Common App! Make sure you ask them early in the process (and with a lot of gratitude!) to write recommendation letters for you. Your teachers and counselors have a lot on their plates. 

Common App Deadline

When’s it all due? The deadline for the Common App varies based on the colleges you are applying to. In the My Colleges section, you can track the deadlines for each college application and make sure you have everything ready to submit before the deadline! 

How many colleges should I apply to?

So, armed with the Common App, how many colleges should you apply to? It’s best to apply to between seven and fourteen colleges to create some competition for your skills! If you only apply to one or two, you miss out on the chance to negotiate for more merit aid or to find the college that’s the perfect fit for you.

As you make your college list in the Common App, include schools from each of these categories:

  • Two universities
  • Two state colleges
  • Two private colleges
  • One community college

That’s where the Common App can be a huge help. It can save you time and make it easier to apply to multiple colleges, which is the smart choice to find your best fit school and to negotiate scholarships!

Find the Perfect College at the Right Cost

College admissions can be complex, but you don’t have to do it alone. John Baylor and OnToCollege are here to help.