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The 2020 Common App Guide is Here

Picture of Meredith Graham
By Meredith Graham on September, 9 2020 | 5 minute read

Download the latest Collegewise Guide to the Common App here.

Earlier this week, one of my sophomores asked me, “Wait, isn’t there some website you just fill out once then send to a bunch of colleges to apply?” I’m pretty sure my student was asking me about the Common App.

The Common App is a web-based college application portal, and these days it’s the main way that students apply to more than 900 different colleges and universities. While you can’t apply to every single college using the Common App, chances are good that at least one college you’re interested in is on the Common App. It’s very user-friendly and has a fantastic solutions center for any questions that come up while students are filling it out.

So how does this thing work?

I usually describe the Common App as a hub-and-spoke model, so imagine a wheel on a bike. The “hub” is the Common App itself, a common section that students fill out with details like your name, your birthday, your high school, your activities—basically, the things that are student-specific that don’t change from college to college. Then each “spoke” has Member Questions where one specific college gets to ask you their own questions like what major(s) you’re considering and when you hope to start college there. Since you are YOU no matter where you’re applying to college, the Common App lets you fill out your student-specific information once then sends it along with the college-specific Member Questions to each college you apply to. Easy-peasy!

The Member Questions sections vary a lot—some colleges only ask a couple of “yes/no” questions, while others ask enough essay questions, short-answer responses, and drop-down boxes to fill several screens. That means you might finish the applications at different times, so it’s good to know that you can submit your applications at different times. So if your Oregon State application is finished, you can submit it while you’re finishing the Member Questions for the University of Oregon, or you can send in your Howard University application while finalizing your application to George Washington.

Also, the Common App is a dynamic application, so as you answer questions on the application new ones might appear. That means it’s really, REALLY smart for you to work on the Common App and Member Questions for each school you want to apply to as soon as you know you’re interested. (Like, now, as soon as you’re done reading this.) Why? Some colleges have major-specific essays that appear once you fill in your major of interest. I call them “stealth essays” because they seem to appear out of nowhere. And the WORST feeling is when you think you’re ready to submit an application but discover a stealth essay and realize you’ve still got writing to do!

Got it! Is there an easy way to proofread my application?

There is a “Preview” button on each section of the application. If you click that button you’ll get a PDF version of the section you’re on, and you can either look it over on screen or print it out (if that’s more your thing).

Can I proofread the whole thing at once?

Absolutely! When you’re totally done and ready to submit your first application, click the “Review and Submit” button. Is that scary? Yup—but that’s how you get the full preview of your whole application. (Don’t worry—you’ll still have to click through another 3-5 screens after this to actually SUBMIT your application. Common App makes it really hard to accidentally submit them before you’re ready.) When you see the whole PDF of your application and look it over, either go back in and fix any mistakes you see or approve that PDF and move ahead with submitting.

This seems pretty awesome!

I think it is!

Is there anything else I need to know?

Well, think of this blog post like the quick-start flyer that comes with a new gadget. There’s plenty more to the Common App, but this hits a few of the key details that surprise families each year. If you want to know all the ins and outs, make sure you use the Common App’s help and solutions center, talk with your school counselor, and download our Common App Guide (which includes a ton of advice about how to handle all things pandemic-related in your applications). Happy applying!

Download the latest Collegewise Guide to the Common App here.


About Us: With more than twenty years of experience, Collegewise counselors and tutors are at the forefront of the ever-evolving admissions landscape. Our work has always centered on you: the student. And just like we’ve always done, we look for ways for you to be your best self - whether it’s in the classroom, in your applications or in the right-fit college environment. Our range of tools include counselingtest prepacademic tutoring, and essay management, all with the support of our proprietary platform, leading to a 4x higher than average admissions rates. 


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