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What is the Common App?

interstride logo by Interstride
September 13, 2023

Built for aspiring college students, the Common Application is an online service for students to apply for undergraduate study at colleges and universities in the US. In most cases, students can prepare one single application, and submit it to multiple schools, saving you both time and energy. More than 1,000 colleges and universities utilize the Common App to accept college applications, from over 1 million applicants per year. The Common App “opens” on August 1st each year. Application deadlines may vary school by school, especially for students applying “early decision” or “early action.” 

Using the Common App vs. applying directly

When applying to colleges and universities in the US, most international students will either apply directly to the school, or utilize the Common App, depending on the school’s requirements. Applying directly means you will submit a unique application per school. Through the Common App, international students can send one application to multiple participating schools.

Note that the school has the final say on how they will accept applications, either directly or through the Common App. Some schools accept applications both ways, whereas others prefer one over the other. The University of Texas, for example, accepts applications through the Common App and through ApplyTexas, their personal application portal.

The biggest benefit to utilizing the Common App is that it is one single portal, and can be easier to use than multiple, school-specific, application portals. The Common App is free to use, however each school in most cases will require an application fee. In 2020, over 51,000 international applicants utilized the Common App to apply to schools in the US.

What’s included in the Common App?

There are several required parts to the Common App. Keep in mind, international students will typically need to meet additional requirements, and provide further documentation, such as proof of finances and translated documents. While requirements may differ between schools, you should still prepare to submit the following on the Common App:

  • Personal information: Your personal information, such as name, date of birth, address, language, citizenship status, etc. The Common App will also request personal information about your parents or guardians, and their educational backgrounds.
  • Academic history: Copies of your high school transcript, and any records of academic honors or achievements.
  • Common App essay: The portal provides a list of 6-7 essay prompts, from which you will choose and write an essay as part of your application. You can start working on your essay at any point, so reviewing these prompts ahead of time could be worthwhile. Common App prompts may differ slightly each year, but generally they don’t change too much.
  • Supplemental questions: In addition to the Common App essay, some schools may ask you to complete supplemental essays or questions, such as “why this school?” or “what will you bring to this campus?” As an international student, it is possible you might see more of these school specific prompts. Supplemental questions will only be part of your application if the school requires them, and will be in your “My Colleges” section of the Common App.
  • Letters of recommendation: Letters of recommendation should be completed and submitted by counselors, advisors, coaches, and/or teachers that know you best and can speak to your overall achievements.
  • Standardized tests: Depending on the school, standardized test scores may be required or optional. Make sure to check the policy of the school(s) on your list.
  • English proficiency tests: English proficiency tests are often required as an international student applicant. Some schools may require that you meet a certain score, so it’s important to review the guidelines ahead of time.
  • Extracurriculars: Activities you participated in outside of academics, such as sports, clubs, volunteering, etc.
  • Application fees: Although using the Common App is free, each individual college or university will typically require an application fee. The application fee may differ for domestic and international students, depending on the school’s policies.
Interstride Tip: As an international student, you may be eligible for an application fee waiver for the Common App. Note that each school will have different policies regarding international applicants, and it’s not always a guarantee you will receive the waiver. 

Tips for navigating the Common App

  • Start early: It’s never too early to start crafting a strong application. Prepare ahead of time and start gathering or requesting documentation you know you will need, such as transcripts and letters of recommendation. You can also start thinking about your Common App essay, as the prompts are generally the same each year.
  • Plan strategically: Research schools you want to apply to, and review their requirements ahead of time. For international students, certain requirements may take time to obtain so plan ahead.
  • Understand deadlines: Each college and university may have different application deadlines. Additionally, if you are planning to apply early decision or early action, those deadlines are even earlier and will vary. Ensure you have the correct deadlines for your schools of interests on your list.
  • Seek guidance: If you need help with the application process, reach out to the university’s admissions officers or your school counselors and academic advisors.
  • Proofread: Ask your counselor, teachers, or peers to review your application and essays. Spelling and grammar errors will lower the quality of your application and may deter admissions officers.
Interstride Tip: While the Common App will ask you to indicate your intent to apply for financial aid, any financial aid processes will be separate from the Common App. These might include the International Student Financial Aid Application (ISFAA) and the College Scholarship Service (CSS) Profile. You will still need financial documentation for both the Common App and these financial aid applications, so it’s a good idea to gather all financial documents you think you might need ahead of time.

Popular participating schools

Many popular colleges and universities utilize the Common App. Schools such as:

  • Amherst College
  • Bowdoin College
  • Duke University
  • Harvard University
  • Johns Hopkins University
  • New York University
  • Princeton University
  • Smith College
  • Stanford University
  • Swarthmore College
  • University of Chicago
  • Vassar College
  • Wellesley College
  • Williams College
  • Yale University

You can find the full list of 1,000+ colleges and universities using the Common App here.