The Common Application for private colleges

Question: My son was told that he needs to fill out the Common Application for the private schools on his list. What exactly is this, and how can I help him?

Answer: The Common Application is the best thing to ever happen to students. Students need to complete only one full application, which requires demographic, testing and school information, as well as information about activities and senior year classes. A student then has five long essay prompts to choose from, along with a short essay elaborating on an activity of your choice. This information is disseminated to every school on your college list, instead of having to fill out each individual application.

Each school usually has a supplemental component that is school-specific and generally asks why the student is interested in that particular school. There may be additional short answer questions as simple as how you heard about a specific school. The University of Chicago asks applicants to “tell the story of a street, path, road — real or imagined or metaphorical.”

After the supplemental information is added for each individual school and application fees are paid to each school on your list, a student can choose to click the submit button — sending all the applications en masse or individually.

I ask that students come prepared before they begin their application by having their social security number, résumé and phone numbers of their school counselor available before beginning.

On the application, students must specify where and when their parents went to college.

The most common mistake that I find when students complete the Common Application is misspelled words. You can imagine the horror when one of my clients realized that she had misspelled calculus throughout her sent application. I ask my students to have a parent, friend or counselor proofread each line of their application, checking for spelling or grammar mistakes, as well as careless errors. I have known students who accidently had their mouse slip and selected Afghanistan, which comes right after the United States when clicking on one’s country of origin.

Another pitfall I want your son or daughter to avoid is writing a generic essay to answer why he or she wants to attend college X. Often, I have to remind my students that if the answer to college X could just have easily been used for the other schools on your list, then you did not write an essay that will convince the admissions office that school X is the school of your dreams. While I can appreciate the temptation to cut and paste the answers from one application to the next, your student can only do this if the prompts are truly asking the same question and are not school-specific.

Another common mistake that I see students make on their applications is assuming that their future SAT or ACT scores will be automatically sent to the colleges on their list if they designated those schools on the registration site for an earlier test date.

It is imperative that students give the school forms printed from the Common Application Web site to their counselor or teachers. For the first time this year, teachers and counselors will have the option of submitting their information electronically. Since every school has its own individual procedures in place, I ask students to check with their school counselor and read their school Web site, as explicit directions are often spelled out on each high school’s counseling page.

It is not necessary to complete the Common Application in its entirety at one time; however, you must click the “save” button on each page before you move on to the next one. When you feel certain that your application is complete, you will want to click the “print preview” button so that your application will print in the manner that you envision. Once you push the submit button, there is no going back.

The final word of caution is not to wait until the final hour before throngs of students also have to submit their essays, as college deadlines tend to fall on the same days every year. The Common Application site has been known to become jammed at those times.

Leave a few days to go back and look at your application with a fresh pair of eyes. My only objection to submitting applications online is that I used to believe that kissing one’s application before depositing it in the mailbox probably did some good. If you want to kiss your computer screen, the choice is yours.

Joan Franklin is the owner of The College Source, an Independent College Consulting Practice ( She is also a certified school counselor in the Issaquah School District. She lives and practices on Mercer Island and can be reached at (206) 232-5626 or

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