Friday, June 14College Admissions News

Understanding the Common App: A Step-by-Step Guide for Students and Parents

As the back-to-school season kicks off, students and parents of college-bound students are gearing up for one of the most crucial aspects of the college planning process: the application itself. One of the most popular (and common) application tools is the Common App. Developed to simplify the application process for students, the Common App has become widely used by more than 1,000 colleges and universities across the United States and around the world. 

The Common App allows both first-time students and transfer students to apply to multiple colleges at once, eliminating having to repeat some of the most tedious parts of the application. However, navigating this platform can be daunting, especially for first-time parents. Fear not! In this comprehensive guide, we’ll walk you through the Common App step-by-step, empowering parents to support your student effectively on their journey to higher education.

Give yourself plenty of time to complete your applications. It shouldn’t be crammed into one sitting. Start early so you have plenty of time to be thoughtful in your responses. 

Step 1: Create an Account

The first step is for the student to visit the Common App website ( and create an account. Tip: students should use a personal email address, not their high school email address. 

Step 2: Add Colleges

Using the “College Search” feature, they can easily find and add institutions to their list. 

Step 3: Common App Components

In the “Profile” section under the “Common App” tab, your student will provide their personal details, contact information, and demographic data. Remind them to be accurate and consistent throughout the application.

The “Family” section asks about your household. Only the boxes with the red asterisk are required. 

The “Education” section requires information about your student’s high school, planned courses for senior year, and academic achievements. If required, students will see an additional section for “Courses & Grades” where they’ll individually enter every class taken and grade earned in high school. Students will need a current high school transcript to help with this process. 

The “Testing” section allows students to enter scores for tests they’ve previously taken and also list upcoming test dates. Students can still choose within each individual application to apply with or without test scores, if the college is test-optional. Unsure if testing is required? Visit the Dashboard tab and click on “Application Requirements.”

The “Activities” section is an opportunity for your student to showcase their involvement outside the classroom. Advise them to highlight their most meaningful activities and provide brief descriptions of each. 

Step 4: Tackle the Essay Prompts

The “Writing” section is where your student will respond to the essay prompts required by the Common Application. Encourage them to start early, allowing ample time for revisions. Remind them to let their authentic voice shine through and share personal stories that demonstrate their character and values.

The “Additional Information” section under “Writing” is an opportunity for students to write about something not included in other parts of their application that they feel is important for the admissions office to know. Your counselor can help you determine if you need to include anything here. 

Step 5: Request Recommendations

To see what each college requires at a glance, revisit your “Dashboard” and click on the “Application Requirements” button. The end of the grid will tell you which colleges require (and how many) teacher evaluation, other evaluations, and counselor recommendation. 

To add recommenders or collaborators, go to the “My Colleges” tab. You’ll need to individually add teachers and other recommenders within each college. Start by choosing one of your colleges and click on “Recommenders and FERPA.” You will first need to complete the “FERPA Release Authorization” before you can add recommenders. 

Next you can add your counselor (only need to add once), teacher(s) (add for each college as needed), other recommenders, and advisor(s) if needed. 

Step 6: Additional Application Components

Within each college tab you’ll have “Questions” specific to that college and their application. Once you select your “Preferred start term” you’ll choose your “Preferred admission plan”. Refer to the “College Information” section for admission deadlines. 

Some colleges may have a required Writing Supplement embedded into the Common App. This will need to be completed before submitting your application. 

Step 7: Review and Submit

Before hitting the submit button, thoroughly review the entire application for accuracy and completeness. Double-check that all essay prompts are adequately addressed and that there are no errors in the form. You do not have to wait until you’ve completed every application nor do you need to wait until your counselor or recommenders have completed their portion. When you complete an application on your end, you may submit it.

Step 8: Pay Application Fees

Be mindful of application fees. The application grid from the dashboard can give you a quick overview of the total cost of your applications. If needed, discuss potential fee waivers or alternative financial options with your student’s school counselor.

Step 9: Monitor Application Status

After submission, your student can track the status of their application through the dashboard. Keep an eye on deadlines and make sure supplementary materials, like test scores and transcripts, are sent to colleges on time.

What Happens Next?

The Common App dashboard gives a nice overview of requirements but students should also have their own way of keeping track of deadlines and next steps as they may be submitting applications that are not on the Common App. Most colleges will send students an email once they’ve received the application to create an account through the college. It may take several business days for all application components to be recognized in the college portal, don’t panic! Pay attention in your portal to any additional requirements such as other essays, scholarship deadlines, etc. 


The Common App can seem overwhelming at first, but with this step-by-step guide, you and your college-bound student can confidently navigate the process together. Parents – encourage your student to take the reins while offering guidance and support when needed. Remember, the college application journey is not just about reaching the destination but also about the growth and self-discovery that comes along the way. Embrace this exciting time and celebrate each milestone achieved. With determination and preparation, your student will be well on their way to making their college dreams a reality