There are three application platforms, each used by dozens of schools: the Common Application, the Coalition Application, and the Universal College Application. Of these, the Common Application is most widely accepted. Each platform intends to make the application process easier for students, particularly those who are applying to multiple schools that use the same platform. None is better than the others, so if your school accepts applications from multiple platforms, choose whichever platform is accepted by more schools on your list. Some schools, particularly public universities, require that students use their own institutional applications. Check online for each of your prospective institutions to learn how to apply.


The Common Application

With over 600 colleges and universities accepting the Common Application, there is a good chance that at least a handful of the schools you’re applying to are on the list. The Common Application was developed to streamline the college admissions process by allowing students to submit the same application materials and personal essay to multiple schools. In addition to the standard Common Application, many schools ask you to answer school-specific questions and/or submit arts supplements (for visual or performing arts programs). Download the Requirements Grid to search for schools and their application requirements and deadlines.

How do I complete the Common Application?

  • Create an account. You must enter a valid email address and password, then some general information about yourself: your name, birthday, address, and phone number.
  • Add your schools. Once you have an account you can find and add your schools to a “My Colleges” list. Your chosen schools will appear in your list, complete with their deadlines, application fees, required standardized tests, the number of required teacher recommendations, and whether they’ve requested additional writing supplements or college-specific short answer questions.
  • Input your high school record, extracurriculars, and parental information. You need to have a couple things in front of you when you start your application: a copy of your high school transcript and the scores and dates from any standardized tests that you’ve taken (SAT, ACT, or SAT Subject Tests). You will also be required to list your extracurricular activities (both associated with and outside of school). Finally, you will need to input information about your parents, like their educational history and employer. Some schools may require additional information at this point.
  • Work on the writing section. The Common Application writing section includes a personal essay. This particular essay may not be required by all of the colleges on your list, but you can choose to submit it with your application materials regardless. The writing section also includes questions about your disciplinary history (with either your high school or the law) and gives you a chance to explain the circumstances behind any incidents. Supplemental information required by individual colleges will show up as part of their application requirements, and only be visible to them upon submission.
  • List recommenders. Most schools only require letters of recommendation from one or two teachers. Before you list your teachers and their email addresses in your application, talk to them in person. Mention enjoying their class and that you are hopeful they will write you a college recommendation. Only after they say yes should you put their information into your applications. You don’t want to surprise your teacher with extra work that they may not feel comfortable doing. Always ask at least two weeks in advance, and be sure to send a thank-you note after they’ve submitted their letter.
  • Take your time. The Common Application doesn’t have to be completed in one sitting, and it shouldn’t be. Writing a good personal essay takes time and editing. Start early and pay attention to each school’s specific deadline. Then, tackle one school at a time, and work your way down the list. You don’t have to submit your applications all at once, so focus on schools with earlier deadlines first.
  • Submit your application. When you are ready to submit your application, be aware that many schools require a fee. If you think you may be eligible for a fee waiver based on your family’s financial circumstances, click here to determine if your financial situation fits one of the fee waiver criteria. There will be a location within the Common Application to request a fee waiver if you are eligible.

What are the current personal essay questions for the Common Application?

The Common Application has released seven prompts for the 2017–2018 application cycle. You will be able to pick only one prompt and must construct your answer with between 250 and 650 words. The personal essay prompts are as follows:

  1. “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.”
  2. “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?”
  3. “Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?”
  4. “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.”
  5. “Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.”
  6. "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?"
  7. "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."

The Coalition Application

The Coalition Application is a new platform for submitting college applications released by the Coalition for Access, Affordability, and Success, a group of over 90 postsecondary institutions. Participating schools dedicate themselves to making college affordable. They are committed to either meeting the full amount of a student’s demonstrated financial need or maintaining low tuition rates so that students won’t need so much financial aid. The 2016-2017 application cycle will be the first iteration of the application, though not all coalition institutions will be making the switch right away. Some institutions may offer multiple application platforms. (For example, they will accept applications submitted using both the Common Application and the Coalition Application platform.)

Students can sign up for an account with the Coalition for Access, Affordability, and Success as early as their freshman years in high school. More than just an application platform, an account gives you access to a list of participating colleges and an online storage system (called a locker) where you can save videos, portfolios, essays, awards, etc. You can then share stored files with a mentor. Mentors can comment on the shared items and provide feedback and advice, all online. You may choose to share files from your locker with an institution as a part of your application. Files may include, but are not limited to, a portfolio of artwork, a video expressing your desire to attend a certain school, A+ classwork, or documentation of extracurricular achievement.

Students from low-income backgrounds who may not be able to afford multiple application fees can apply for a fee waiver through the Coalition instead of with each individual institution. Students may qualify for a fee waiver if they meet one of the following criteria as listed on the Coalition website:

  • They participate in the Free/Reduced Lunch program.
  • They participate in a TRIO Program.
  • They qualify for fee waivers from the College Board, the National Association for College Admission Counseling, or the ACT.

What are the current personal essay questions for the Coalition Application?

The Coalition Application has released five essay prompts for the 2016-2018 school years, though a Coalition essay may not be required by all schools (check your prospective institution’s application requirements). There is no set word count by the Coalition, though again, individual institutions may require that essays stay within certain limits. The prompts are as follows:

  1. “Tell a story from your life, describing an experience that either demonstrates your character or helped to shape it.”
  2. “Describe a time when you made a meaningful contribution to others in which the greater good was your focus. Discuss the challenges and rewards of making your contribution.”
  3. “Has there been a time when you’ve had a long-cherished or accepted belief challenged? How did you respond? How did the challenge affect your beliefs?”
  4. “What is the hardest part of being a teenager now? What’s the best part? What advice would you give to a younger sibling or friend (assuming they would listen to you)?”
  5. “Submit an essay on a topic of your choice.”

The Universal College Application

Over 30 institutions in the United States (and American University in Bulgaria) accept the Universal College Application. Like the Common and Coalition Applications, it allows you to build one application that you can send to all of your prospective colleges who use the platform. Any additional information required by a college must be filled out separately, as a supplement that is also available on the Universal College Application website.

Once you have created an account, you can complete your profile with basic personal information. Then, create a list of colleges to which you are applying, which will give you access to all the forms and supplements that are required by each institution. (You will only be able to view and add institutions that accept the Universal College Application.) Finally, you will be allowed to select a mentor to monitor your progress. Unlike on the Coalition Application, the person you choose cannot see or comment on anything that you have written or completed. Still, having someone at your school keeping an eye on your progress may be incentive to complete your applications ahead of time.

The Universal College Application offers both Arts and Athletics Supplements for students who want to showcase their talents. Students may submit a five- to 10-minute video of their music, theatre, dance, or digital media talents, or submit a link to a website showcasing their visual artwork or the video. Students are also encouraged to submit a résumé highlighting their artistic talents. Athletes may submit a supplement describing which sport they played; when they played; whether they were JV, Varsity, or team captain; and any other relevant information. Students who choose to submit an Arts Supplement must also submit a letter of recommendation from a teacher familiar with their work.

When it comes time to submit your application, you will be asked about fee waivers. Check with each institution to determine your eligibility.

What are the current personal essay questions for the Universal College Application?

The Universal College App only has two required prompts for first-year college applicants. The first, a personal statement, has a 650-word limit. The second must be kept between 100 and 150 words. The questions are as follows:

  1. “Please write an essay that demonstrates your ability to develop and communicate your thoughts. Some ideas include: a person you admire; a life-changing experience; or your viewpoint on a particular current event.”
  2. “Tell us about one of your extracurricular, volunteer, or employment activities.”

Students who are using the Universal College Application to apply to transfer from one college to another have a slightly different personal statement prompt: “Please write an essay that demonstrates your ability to develop and communicate your thoughts. Some ideas include: why you are transferring; what you have learned about yourself at your current institution; or a description of an experience at your current institution that has changed your viewpoint.” The second prompt remains the same.

Page last updated: 07/2017