7 Steps to Submitting the Common App

tl;dr: The Common App opens on August 1 of your senior year, there are many ways to prepare for the application process! Once you've created an account, fill out the logistical parts (Profile, Family, Education, Testing) and then the tough part: activities and writing. Invite recommenders and make sure to waive your FERPA rights. When you are ready to submit, don't wait till the last minute. Finally, make sure you have a personal tracker and remember to celebrate after you submit!


This page discusses the logistics (with some tips!) of the Common Application.

While you cannot make a Common Application account until August 1 of your senior year, there are ways to prepare before that time!

❗️ What to do Before Senior Year

  • List your activities with grades participated, positions, descriptions, awards/achievements
  • Estimate hours per week
  • Log volunteer hours
  • Work a part-time job, intern, research, etc.
  • Include major family responsibilities
  • Keep a running list of your awards and attend any events to earn awards
  • Create a running document called "master resume" where you have all your activities and awards. Then, when it comes to making applications and resumes, you can easily pick and choose!
  • Journal or write down meaningful memories that can be used for interviews, essays, and more.
  • Take standardized and any AP/IB tests,
  • Build strong relationships with teachers and ask for letters of rec when your school normally does so.

1️⃣ Create an Account

On August 1 of your senior year, you should create a Common App account. At this time, you don't have to have any chosen colleges and essays yet. You can start by filling out the easier sections.

Once you sign in, there are 5 tabs:


  • Lists all the colleges you added and want to apply for, including their requirements and deadlines

My Colleges

  • Similar to your dashboard, this tab shows all your added colleges and allows you to add more.

Common App

  • Your main application that is sent to all colleges, including the essay, demographic information, and more. Keep in mind it can be changed after each sent and paid application.

College Search

  • Search for colleges based on certain criteria in the filter section, or search by text. You can find information on each college after, such as the number of essays needed, the application fee, and the application deadline. It is more recommended to do research on colleges through webinars, blogs, and more.

Financial Aid Resources

  • Talks about scholarships, FAFSA/CSS, and ways to afford college. Once you add colleges to "My Colleges", the Common App will have hyperlinks to each college's financial aid page under this section. We also have more information in the College Program and Handbook!

2️⃣ Start your Common App

This is the "easier" part, so feel free to get started before having your essays and chosen colleges ready! Though it is easier, it requires more legal information, so you may need a family member's help.

🙋 Profile

  • The Profile section is about you and your background; remember to have your full legal name so that paperwork can be connected together. Make sure to be honest in the entire college admissions process.

👨‍👩‍👦 Family

  • The Family section is about your family members and their career as well as education; it also shows if you are a first-generation student, legacy student, twin applicant, etc.

🎓 Education

  • The Education section is about your high school (or secondary school) experience - including dual enrollment. Here, you will have to put your grades, GPA, senior courses, future plans, and more.
  • You should put the GPA on your transcript. If you have both, the Common App recommends you to put your weighted GPA.
  • This section is also the section with Honors. You have 5 slots, but you can often "bucket"; for instance, putting multiple College Board awards together. Additionally, these Honors don't have to be all national awards! It can be smaller awards, such as school awards (honor roll, spirit awards, club awards, etc.), hackathon awards, and more. It's totally fine if you don't fill it all up, too.
  • Your "future plans" are just what you intend to do right now. These "plans" and your selected "majors" are not binding.
  • "Community Organizations" such as Questbridge, Posse, Matriculate, ScholarMatch, and more should be listed here. You can look through the dropdown to see if your organization is listed.

🍎 Testing

  • The Testing section is about your test scores, including AP, SAT, ACT, SAT Subject, IB, and more. You also should enter in tests you expect to take. If you will get your score back before the results come out, make sure you send your score to the admission office so they can add that to your file.
  • If your colleges allow self-reporting scores, all you have to do is submit your scores here, and you don't have to pay extra! Here is a list of colleges that allow self-report.
  • If not, you will have to send scores through College Board (or the corresponding organization). There will be a cost - make sure you also submit at least 2 weeks before the deadline so you don't have to pay extra fees.
  • Check each college's website regarding their testing policies. For example, international applicants will have to send TOEFL or similar scores.

At this point, we've finished all the sections that are more logistical and don't require too much thinking. The next few—activities & writing—require more thinking and revising.

🛑 Activities

  • The Activities section is tougher, and you will be changing this often. Check out the first toggle list "Before senior year" at the top of this page to find tips for the activities section. To sum it up, you should start by creating a spreadsheet or document with a non-restricted description of all your activities, then pick the best 10 and narrow it down!
  • To fill out the hours, try timing yourself for one week or give a rough estimate. Make sure to not overestimate to the point that all your hours of activities plus sleep, school, and meals overpower the number of hours in a week.
  • You should put the activities you believe are most important to you at the top. When an admission officer reads down the list, they should be able to tell that you have a certain interest and passion.
  • At the bottom of the ‣ are many general tips for filling out the activities section. While it is geared toward the UC App, many of the tips are applicable for the Common App, so feel free to check it out!

✍️ Writing

  • Here, you have the big ✨Personal Statement ✨! There are also disciplinary history and additional information sections for you to add.
  • This essay is the scary part — a section where you get to be vulnerable and show your personality, aside from all the hard facts (activities, test scores, GPA, etc.) and the uncontrollable sections (letter of rec, family/education, etc.). Find more information in the next section.
  • For the additional information section, add anything "additional" but necessary! It is not required, and don't add any information the admissions officer can already find in your application. Also, don't add a second personal statement in this essay. It should be more of extra circumstances that you want the admissions officer to know, such as extended activity information (that's significant), family circumstances, situations that hindered your academic performance, identity, employment, changes in personal life, etc.

3️⃣ Drafting and Writing the Essay

Below are the prompts for the 2021-22 application year. These essays are not the classic 5-paragraph essays students write in English/social studies classes, but rather are more reflective and creative. Think deeply and brainstorm first: what are some of your most memorable moments? What are some of your personal possessions that hold deep meaning?

These memories might just be a short 5-minute conversation or a story from years back. All in all, you should show growth and be vulnerable in this essay.

  1. Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
  2. The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
  3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
  4. NEW! Reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you?
  5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
  6. Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?
  7. Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you've already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.

4️⃣ Inviting Recommenders

Adding Recommenders

  • Start by adding at least one college. Under each college in "My Colleges", there is a "Recommenders and FERPA" subtab. Click on that, then press "Invite Recommender" for all the teachers and counselors you are adding to your Common App. Add their email, name, and subject taught/relationship to you.

Assigning & Managing Recommenders

  • You should add ALL recommenders now! For each college, you can assign different teachers by going to the "-Choose a recommender -" dropdown and selecting the ones you want for that certain college. On the top, you also have the "Manage Recommenders" tab, where you can see which teachers you've invited if they've submitted and if the college has downloaded the letter (not downloaded until you've submitted and paid the fee to apply).
  • It is recommended to not have over 4 recommenders, including your counselor. That is 1 counselor, 2 teachers, and 1 other (teacher, employer, etc.).

Waiving Rights

  • Make sure to waive your FERPA Rights! These rights allow you to read your recommenders' letters. However, college and recommenders know if you do or don't waive your rights. If you don't waive them, your teachers may not be honest and colleges will know that. By waiving, you allow the letters to be honest and you provide confidentiality.

Other Recommenders

  • Arts teachers, employers, research mentors, clergy members, club advisors, and other sorts of recommenders may be able to provide a very different perspective of you that's helpful to your application. If this is the case for you, feel free to add that person!

To find more information--including templates to write info sheets and email requests--read through Recommendation Letters.

5️⃣ Personalize

Once you've figured out which colleges to apply to, add them all to your My Colleges tab. You can only have 20; remember that costs are high in application fees! If you have fee waivers, it may be easier to apply to more colleges. But also keep into consideration your time because you want to have the highest quality in your essays (quality > quantity).

TIP: Under the "Dashboard", press on "Application Requirements" to get a grid of deadlines, test policies (domestic & international), required supplements, fees, required recommendations, portfolio guidelines for each of your colleges!

The first thing to consider is your main Common Application. For example, some will change their activities for certain schools and certain programs. Some will change their essays, revise after early applications, and more.

Additionally, most colleges have "Application" and "Writing Supplement" sections, which are two different sections. What this means is that you can first submit your application, then your writing supplement. It's up to you! For the application section, there is a "Questions" sub-tab, where you would select more specific questions such as a certain program (BS/MD, dual majors, etc.), major, and other college-specific programs. Short answers may often be in this section as well.

Regarding writing supplements, the first thing you should do (which you can do prior to starting the Common App) is to copy and paste all of the questions for each college and its word count into a document or spreadsheet. You should definitely choose something that saves automatically (like Google Docs)!

  • Group similar essay prompts and plan out a general schedule.
  • Essays will not be done after one draft. Let it sit for a few days, then come back to it with fresh eyes to revise! You can do revisions on the week of writing a new essay too.
  • Remember to give yourself breaks when you need them. You got this!

If you're seeking a community during this college app season, make sure to check out Fiveable's Discord Server.

6️⃣ Submit

Once you're satisfied with your essays and application, you're ready to submit. Do not submit on the day of the deadline, because often the servers crash then! The point of being "ready" is subjective, but for all my perfectionists, remember that there will be a point in time where the essay must be let go.

For some colleges, you'll have to submit your Common App first, which includes everything under the "Common App" tab, such as your Common App essay and extracurriculars! This also includes your letters of rec. Remember, you can change and revise these items for each college you submit your application to. At this time, you would pay the application fee.

Next, you will submit your essays under the "Writing Supplement". For both sections, remember to click on the PDF that prompt you to open and read the essay to make sure it's what you've written and that the formatting is correct! Most times, foreign languages will not be formatted correctly, and you may have to switch to phonetic tones if so. After you're satisfied with that, you can go ahead and submit.

For some colleges, these two sections will just be one section. You'd pay and submit both your Common App and Supplements together.

Once you've finished submitting, play with the "Celebrate 🎉" button! There will be fun confetti coming down, and it's a celebration you deserve.

A few days after you've paid and submitted the Common App (first section), you'll get a link to your portal in your email (the one you entered into the Common App). Each college has its own portal - it's how the Common App is sent to the admissions officers and where you make changes and find your decision. Make sure to activate it, set a password, and check if all the required items that apply to you have green checks. You'll probably find a financial aid tab too, and if you're applying for financial aid, you'll want to check that checklist as well. Financial aid deadlines, however, are often later than the Common App deadline. This is why it's incredibly important to have your personal College Application tracker--whether you use Notion, Google Sheets, paper, etc.--with deadlines and requirements.

If in the first few days there are no checks in your portal and you know you've submitted it (by checking the Common App webpage), do not fret! It takes a while for both the portal to come and the essays to send through.

7️⃣ Making Changes

After you've submitted, give yourself a pat on the back and a break! Nevertheless, if you have any changes to your application, such as a change in family circumstances or a new, notable award, you can add it to your application. Most colleges have a button on their portal where you can add new information. There are sometimes word limits and entry limits, so be cautious! You want to be succinct because this is extra information. Make sure it's worthy of being told, such as something you'd put on your application, but the new circumstance/event happened after you had turned in your application.

For colleges that don't have a button to add new info, the next step is to write your new information on a document (less than a page) or just on an email, and send this message to your regional admissions counselor. You would search "[college] + regional admissions officer" to find your specific admissions officer. Regions can range from a country to a certain county, depending on the popularity of applicants' locations.

However, not all colleges list regional admissions officers! At that point, you should email your letter to the general admissions email. They will then forward it to the right person internally or add it to your application file by themselves.

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