Your Guide to the 2021 Common Application

common app 2020

If you’re applying to college this fall, you’ll probably encounter the 2021 Common Application, also known as the Common App. Nearly 900 schools accept the Common App, and for some, it is the only college application they accept. 

So today we’re sharing a low-key, 6-week schedule for getting most of the 2021 Common App done over the summer before your senior year. We’ll cover the different parts of the Common Application, the information that you can gather yourself, and the information you will need from others.

What is the Common App?

The Common Application is a college application tool used by nearly 900 colleges to gather all of the personal, family, academic, and supplementary information a school uses to evaluate and admit applicants. It allows students to apply to multiple schools from one portal, without filling out the same information over and over again.

The 2021 Common App opens on August 1 this year (and every year), but you can create an account and begin working on your application at any time.

Week 1: Set up a Login and Fill out Profile and Family Sections

First, set up a login for your 2021 Common App. Once you are logged in, begin filling out the Profile and Family sections. You want to give yourself a week to fill this out.  

common app profile

Why do you need a week? Well, you have to enter a lot of information, and you might need a parent or guardian to help you find some of it. For example, you will have to include the job title, employer, employment status, and educational background for your parents or guardians. If you give yourself a week, then you are recognizing that it’s pretty tricky to fill all this out in one sitting, but you could definitely start, ask for some help, then finish by the end of the week.  

This is key: a realistic schedule allows you to stay on track and staying on track keeps you from falling so far behind that you feel overwhelmed. I think we can all relate to that feeling! 

A realistic schedule allows you to stay on track and staying on track keeps you from falling so far behind that you feel overwhelmed. I think we can all relate to that feeling! 

And just as you will benefit from setting due dates for yourself, politely give other people deadlines, too. Try something like, Can you please get this information to me by the end of the week? or …by a specific date?

Week 2: Fill out Education, Testing, and Activities Sections

Next, you will fill out the Education, Testing, and Activities sections of the Common App. These sections should be easier for you to fill out independently, but you will need a copy of your high school transcript. It does not have to be an official copy; just something that lists all your classes and the grades you earned. 

The Activities section includes in-school and out-of-school extracurricular activities you’ve participated in. Prioritize activities in which you had more of a leadership role or had a significant, consistent presence. 

Family activities and responsibilities also count as extracurricular activities. If you regularly take care of younger siblings or drive your grandma to church every week, write that down!  

common app activities

Again, giving yourself a week to complete this section is more about setting aside time to do this task than it is about the task being difficult.

The Best Activities for College Applications

Week 3 and 4: Choose Colleges to Apply to

Now comes the fun part! The next section you’ll work on is the College Search and My Colleges section of the Common App. How much time you spend on this section will be determined by how far along you are with your list. Maybe you know exactly what schools you want to apply to – so you’re just filling out the list. If this is the case, just type the college’s name into the College Search tool and then add it to your My Colleges list. 

common app colleges list

If you’re still deciding where to apply, the Common App has a search engine to research different schools – you put in certain characteristics and it will help you find schools that meet those requirements. But there are better systems available for creating a list of schools to apply to, like the College Board’s Big Futures tool or College Vine’s search engine, or our College Search Spreadsheet

common app college search

You want an accurate list of colleges on your Common App because you need to review their additional requirements. Some colleges will have additional information that you must complete beyond what you have entered on the Common App, like additional questionnaires, short personal statements or short-form essays, as well as additional long-form essays. 

Given that different people are in different places in their journey to create a list of schools, some people will need 1 week and others will need 2 weeks to complete this section. Keep in mind that creating a list of colleges and universities is not a full-time job. This task can definitely overlap with the next section.  

Week 4: Plan for Requesting Recommenders

The next section is Recommenders and FERPA. You can find this section when you click on a college in the My Colleges section. Schools have different recommendation requirements, so check what they are for each of your colleges.

common app recommenders

Now, clearly you must rely on others to complete this section, but you are the one who gets it started. First, you must decide who you are going to ask to write your recommendations. Then you must put some effort into how you are going to ask them. Whether you plan to ask the teacher, counselor, coach, or mentor in person or in an email, you need a good plan: What are you asking them to write? How much time do they have to write the rec? Have you given yourself enough time if the teacher says no to find another option? Be sure the deadlines that you give others have some extra time built in for any unforeseen circumstances.  

Secondly, be proactive about sharing additional information. After someone has agreed to write a letter of recommendation for you, ask them if they would like any additional information about you, your interests and activities, or your accomplishments and awards. The Common App provides downloadable sheets called “brag sheets” that you and/or your parents can fill out to give those writing your letters of recommendation a little more information about you.

Finally, be clear about next steps. Your school might have a system to help you keep track of these additional materials, or the burden may fall on you to ensure things are on track. If your school uses the Common App system, then the burden falls on you to ensure things are on track and received in a timely manner. It is best to know what is and is not your responsibility throughout this process. 

Week 5 and 6: Complete the Writing Section

Finally, you’ll work on the most important section – and arguably the section that takes the most time – the Writing section.  Some schools do not require the Common App personal essay, but many do; this is why it is important to know the requirements of each of the schools to which you are applying. 

If you do need to write the Common App personal essay, set aside two weeks to write and rewrite your essays. Use the summer to flush out your ideas, then come fall you can make use of resources and readers you maybe did not have access to over the summer.     

Your colleges may have additional writing requirements. If so, you’ll want to get started on these over the summer, too. To check for additional writing requirements, click on the college in the “My Colleges” section and see if it has a “Writing Supplement” section. 

common app writing supplements

Alright senior, you have about 6 weeks of work ahead of you! You want to go into your senior year ready to finish strong; make the most of your summer and get started on your Common App.

Get a better score. Get into a better school.

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