Understanding the Common Application

The following piece was written by Rachel Korn. Rachel has been featured in our Admissions Expert series and is a former University of Pennsylvania admissions officer, as well as the founder of her own admissions consulting firm.


Your parents applied to colleges on paper: writing individual applications to each school, filling out the same kinds of forms over and over again, and then finally sending them by postal mail. Today, close to 500 schools use the Common Application, the online application that students can fill out just once and then send to multiple universities.



One of the primary goals of the Common Application is to assist with access – schools want to help reduce environmental and emotional barriers that might prevent you from being able to apply. Therefore, they streamline the process for all, enabling the widest range of students to apply. A “basic,” easy application that can be sent to multiple schools at the click of a mouse encourages students with a smoother, faster process. It can feel a bit less intimidating.

As a result, one of the achievements of the Common Application is that diversity, in every measurable way, has increased – and that is a great thing. Moreover, application numbers have significantly risen for the schools, so they now have broader and larger applicant pools from which to select their incoming classes. Increasing the numbers and strength of these pools is a very top priority at every university.



On the other hand, that very rise in applications also makes it harder for the schools to predict if the students genuinely want to attend there. Admissions staffs want students who can potentially be recruited to attend. Therefore, schools may ask for additional supplemental essays to assess how much you have really researched them as well as to get to know you better. You see several versions of a “why us?” question in many supplemental essays, and it can be critical for you to answer it thoroughly in order to gain admission. 


The Common Application has also driven a more extensive use of waitlists. Schools waitlist more students these days since their old formulas of predicting how many admitted students would likely attend are no longer as accurate. Schools hold on to more students to make sure they can craft the classes they want with minimum offers of admission. You should also beware of the trap that you face of “over-applying” – don’t feel the need to apply to too many schools just because it is easy. A well-chosen, reasoned list of 5-8 schools should be plenty. You should have a strong passion for every application and complete each supplement with care.

The Common Application is a terrific tool that has enabled wider, easier access to schools – and in return, has helped the schools expand and enrich their applicant pools and student bodies. Overall, it is a strong win-win.


Visit Rachel’s Admissions Consulting site.

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Varsity Tutors.