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  • Writer's pictureDr. Thom

Getting Started With Your Common Application

This week I had a student client ask me what it was like for me to apply to college. I was thrown a bit because in all of the years I have been asking students how it was going with their applications, this was the first time one of them asked me about my own process.

“First,” I said, “you had to request the application.”

“You did what?” my student interjected. ‘Like, they had to send it to you? Like how people used to buy things from a book?”

“Yeah, it was called the Sears catalog, it was stunning, we would dog ear pages with the toys in it but you always had to thumb your way past the clothing and office supplies sections . . . nevermind,” as I refocused.

“Yes, you filled out the forms, because that’s what they really were, no essays, or letters of recommendations, just, simple forms. You mailed them back in and waited two weeks and got admitted.”

I let his one word response hang in the air like I was admiring a lone bottle rocket.

“Wow,” he said.

Using this method I applied to, and was admitted to (I’d like to point out) three institutions: the University of Kentucky, Berry College, and the University of Tennessee (where I would go on to enroll).

Things are a little different now.

A big reason for this change is the growth of the Common Application. For over 40 years, the Common Application has been centralizing the submission of college applications and is now the de facto way to apply to college for over one million students worldwide. August 1st represents the beginning of application season as it coincides with the opening of the Common Application.

So if you’re like me and grew up in the land of paper-based form-filling college applications, here’s a FAQ on getting started with the Common App for your high school senior.

Q: What’s the absolute first step?

A: Have your student go to and create an account. If you are a parent, you DO NOT create this account for them. When you were teaching your student to drive, did you also turn on their windshield wipers when it started to rain? Sounds ridiculous right? This is the same thing. If your kid somehow figured out Fortnite or ever made a TikTok video, they can definitely do this.

Q: What email address should I use?

A: Whichever one you check more than once a month - ideally multiple times a week. My sons treat their email like they treat the cleanliness of their bedrooms. They generally ignore it and it requires Bridget or me to ask them, “Have you looked at it recently?!” for anything to get done.

Seriously though, pick the email address you feel most comfortable navigating - especially in regard to spam filter checking. You will get a lot of emails updating you on this process from the colleges to which you are applying. I don’t want to miss anything because it was sitting in your junk mail folder.

Q: When I was setting up my account they asked me this question “Common App may share my contact information with colleges that I am considering applying to so they may communicate with me prior to the submission of my application.” How should I respond?

A: If you opt in on this, the colleges you are considering (i.e., when you add colleges to your profile - more on this in a minute) will be provided your name and email address and can send you emails about their college and their application process. These can be helpful, but also a little spammy at the same time. Your call.

Q: After I set up my account, what is the first thing I should do?

A: First step includes adding all of the colleges you are considering on the “College Search” tab. All you need to do is type in the name of the college and click the + button. You can add up to 20 colleges if you dare.

These schools will then forevermore show up on your Common App Dashboard, which will prompt you on what you need to do next for each college.

Q: How does the Common Application work?

A: The Common Application features a main central application with six sections to complete. The information you supply here goes to all colleges you apply to:

  1. Profile: name, date of birth, address, etc

  2. Family: all about your parent(s) and sibling(s) names, dates of birth, address(es) etc.

  3. Education: Where you went to high school and who are the contact people who should be contacted about you (namely your college guidance officer).

  4. Testing: ACT, SAT, AP tests, IB scores and so on, if you are providing them.

  5. Activities: space for up to 10 extracurricular activities with descriptions. Feel free to read our guide on filling out the activities section.

  6. Writing: Where you will find the personal statement and other essays you may need to write. We have a bunch of info about this section on our Stress Free Blog.

The Common App then has a supplemental application for each college to ask their unique questions, which may include additional essays. Once the central Common App is complete, you officially apply to a college by submitting the supplement.

The best advice we have to our students is to simply get started. The college application process is not open ended. There are dates and deadlines that are adhered to rigorously by colleges and in many ways, this process operates in an “act or be acted upon” fashion.

It’s after August 1st, so let’s get started.

Not working with us yet? Feeling stressed by the college search process? Let's chat.

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