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How to set up your Common Application account

In Application, Parent and Senior.

How to use the Common Application Website

The common application is so central to the process of applying to college that I thought it deserved its own dedicated post.

I admit I haven't been in high school for awhile - almost ten years. So by now, there may be some required class kids take that teaches them everything they need to know about the Common Application.

But this rundown is for anyone who missed class that day, or spent the lesson playing fortnite, or just didn't get the message.

To really grind home the message, I'm going to open up a Common Application account and show you how to go through the process, step-by-step.

Before we get going, though, a definitional note for the newbiest noob.

The Common Application is an online platform used by hundreds of schools across the country to receive and evaluate student applications. It's the centralized space where you upload your common essays (common app essay), your demographic information, and all the good stuff that goes out to every school you apply to. It's also the place where you pay for your applications and actually hit "send." So, all in all, it's your home base for the college application.

Now let's begin.

Step #1: Creating an Account with the Common Application

Ok, first things first, let's make an account.

Navigate to the Common Application website, here: https://www.commonapp.org/

Navigate to the top-right of the screen, where it says "create an account"

It's time to create your account. I'm signing in as an educational professional, but you'll be selecting "student" when asked which category you belong to.

Once you pick the right category, you'll be taken forward to the next page where you'll be asked to fill out a bunch of information about yourself, your family, and when you plan to apply to school.

Fill this out as best you can, accept the terms of use, and hit "Create your Account" at the bottom of the page.

Step #2: Venturing Into the Common App

Alright, our account is live! After you hit the "Create" button on the previous page, you should be taken directly into the main Common App dashboard.

Because I signed up as an educational professional, it's given me a "practice account." But you can't really tell. For all we care, my account looks the same as yours will when you create your student account.

This is how it looks when you finish your account and log in for the first time.

In the top-right of that screenshot you can see my login information. I have a sample ID from the Common App (my Common App ID, CAID).

If you click on the gear icon in the top right, you have the option to change your contact information - your email, password, and communication preferences.

(Note: A big part of the "deal" with the common application is that they communicate student information to schools.

That means that, if you create an account on their platform (which you kind of have to do), the common app will be sharing your information with its member schools by default.

After you create your Common Application account, you will notice that random schools start to hit you up through your email. If you're annoyed by this and want to stop hearing from these schools, you can simply change your communication preferences by using the gear.)

On the right-hand bar, you'll notice some FAQs and resources in the "need help" section.

The Common Application recently added a chat function. So if you're completely lost, you can communicate directly with a staff member at the organization.

Aside from those features, however, 95% of your life on the common app will live in the central dashboard in the middle of the page.

This is where you can view your schools, fill out the various sections of the common app, search for colleges and universities to apply to, and gain access to some financial aid resources.

Let's take a tour through each of these tabs. Instead of going in order, I'm going to go through them in the order that a student might use them.

For this, I'm going to assume that you have a school list in mind already. (Although if you don't feel free to check out the link below for some ideas about how to start.)

Step #3: Search for a school

Once you've created your account, head over to that central dashboard and click on the tab that says "College Search."

Once you do, you'll be presented with a search bar and, below that, an alphabeitical list of all the common app member schools.

Let's add a school to our list. Because I want to show a somewhat more complex case, the school I'm going to select is Columbia University.

There is also a button that says "more filters" below the search bar. If you don't know the actual name of your school but prefer to search for schools based on pre-defined criteria, you can use this button to narrow your list accordingly.

(Note: I don't actually think this "more filters" tab adds much value. You may be able to refine your search, but the common app provides almost no qualitative data about the schools in its list.

This is unlike, say, an organization like Niche.com, which can help you get a clearer sense of a school's strengths and weaknesses.

Where I DO see the value of this button is in narrowing your search down to schools that don't require tests, for example.

If you are a terrible test-taker and you are limiting your choices to test-optional schools, then maybe you can get some value from this function.)

When you punch in "Columbia" to the search field, it will bring up every school that matches the search criteria. Like so:

Go ahead and click on Columbia University. You don't need to hit the + button yet, but you can if you're sure you want to add it to your list.

Step #4: Exploring College Profiles

Once we've found a school, we can see everything that's required to apply to it. The Common Application school dashboard allows us to look at a few pieces of information at once. These include:

  • The contact information for the admissions department
  • The school's application deadline
  • Information about the fees required to apply to the school
  • The standardized test policy for the school
  • A list of other components that are required for admission, such as mid-year reports and teacher evaluations.
  • The writing requirements for the application, including optional college questions and required writing supplements.

Zoom in on this terribly zoomed out (but comprehensive) picture of the school summary dashboard to see everything the Common App presents.

Step #5: Adding and completing an application

For the sake of this example, let's hit the "Add to My Colleges" button at the bottom of the page.

Now, scroll up and click the "My Colleges" tab on the dashboard. You should see a list of colleges that you've added to your profile. For me, the only one there is Columbia.

Mine looks like this.

If you click on the school, you will be taken to a new page where you can complete all the required information for the school.

This page will have common elements across every school. It will also have unique elements for the essays and university question section.

The common areas focus on demographics. When you upload these once, you shouldn't have to do it again. They should be transferrable from school to school.

Here's a sample of what the demographic section for Columbia University looks like.

This section of the application is very easy to complete. As you progress through each sub-section, you will advance on to the next one automatically.

Tip: Try to fill out the demographic question sections well before it is actually time to submit the application. It will save you time and a headache when you're down to the wire and need all the time you have for your essays.

The writing sections are next. Here, depending on the school, there may be several prompts that applicants are required to complete as part of their application.

You will notice that each prompt box has guidelines on character and word lengths. You will not be able to write more than the box allows.

Recently the Common App added Google Drive connectivity. If you keep your files in Google Drive, you may prefer to upload them to the application directly. Just make sure that the final files are clean and presentable. These are the essays that the admissions council will see.

Columbia alone has six supplemental essays. That's an uncommonly high number. Still, you should make sure you know exactly how many supplementals your schools well in advance of your app deadlines. Not doing so can put you in a deadly crunch at the last minute.

Step #5: The Common App Section

So far we've gone into detail on how to complete the unique requirements for a given school.

Now let's jump back a second and focus on the general information that the common app aggregates and distributes to all of your schools.

Go back to the main tab and hit "Common App."

You'll come to yet another section of (oh, joy) personal information fields.

Contained in this section are a few bits of core demographic information as well as some more complex sections. The first of these is your "activities" section, otherwise known as the extracurricular section of the common app.

This isn't the time or place to talk about how to approach the extracurriculars section. I plan on writing a short guide to this section soon. When I do, I'll update this page with a link to the post.

The other section that's really important here is the "writing" section. This is where you will upload a copy of your common application essay. The essay is up to 650 words long and will be sent out to every school on your list.

But that concludes the biggest sections of completing the common application. It's really not so hard. You might need to do some digging to make sure the family data you have is accurate, but aside from that, it pretty much comes down to your essays.

Final Thoughts

Hopefully you aren't feeling more overwhelmed now than you were when you started reading. The Common App seems like a handful, but it's actually pretty straight-forward.

Here's a condensed version of what we just covered, which amounts to 95% of what you need to know about the Common App.

  1. Set up an account and search for schools in the dashboard tab.
  2. Click on schools to check out what each requires, or sort by special criteria to narrow your search.
  3. Complete each school profile separately (unique writing questions and more)
  4. Complete the common app general section (information provided to all schools)
  5. Hit send!

None of this is very hard. It's just a lot to learn in a relatively short span of time. You got this.

About Alex McNeil

Alex is the CEO of McNeil Admissions and the moderator of r/ApplyingToCollege. But most of all, he believes in helping every student access college resources.

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