Understanding the Common Application, the Coalition Application, and Other Options.

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Senior Year is nearly here, and you are feeling ready! You’ve spent time researching colleges, building a balanced list, and imagining brilliant essay ideas. It is time to move your college process from the theoretical to the actual. It is time...for APPLICATIONS. 

Once upon a time, every college used its own individual application (and your parents had to use typewriters to fill them out!). But for nearly four decades, colleges have been working hard to make the process more streamlined and easier for students and parents to navigate, including using two major application platforms. We’ll talk briefly about school-specific apps at the end. 

Reigning supreme is The Common Application, nicknamed the “Common App.” More than 800 colleges use the Common App, so it is extremely likely if you are applying to college that you will have at least one school on your list that uses the Common App. More recently, a new online application, designed by the The Coalition for College Access has been adopted by about 150 schools nationwide. Since you will need to make some choices, let’s explore the similarities and differences a bit, so you can make informed decisions as you begin your applications. 

The Common App is primarily just that – an application for college. You enter your information (which is often quite extensive) into a series of online forms, and the site saves and organizes the information for you. You’ll want to leave yourself plenty of time to complete the Common App, because entering all that information takes quite some time. You are asked to enter precise information about your family educational background, personal academic background, extracurricular activities, and demographics. Once those forms are complete, you do not need to re-enter the information for different colleges. You apply to multiple colleges with one common account. See what they did there? 

The Coalition App also provides an application platform for you to apply to multiple colleges, but a few extra things are going on with the Coalition App. The Coalition itself was designed to bring together colleges who have a commitment to, and a history of, offering extensive financial support and access to students from a variety of backgrounds. Many highly selective schools, like Yale and Harvard, are a part of the Coalition because of their full support of students with demonstrated financial need. But the Coalition App set out to be much more than just a college application platform. Instead of focusing solely on the application platform itself, the Coalition App is quite proud of the other features it offers – including a “locker” where you can keep essays drafts, notes, etc. The Coalition App provides a centralized place where you can organize much of your overall college process if you so choose. Perhaps most notably, you can use the locker and other functions to research and prepare your college list and applications, even if ultimately you choose not to use the Coalition App itself to submit your applications. 

In the latest version of the Common App released for the 2019-2020 application cycle, it seems that the Common App is mimicking the tools offered by the Coalition App, adding new features for students to use their platform for researching colleges, building a list, and navigating the application process and the college transition. 

The apps have some similarities you would expect: both require a good deal of typing lots of personal information. Both require essays, with similar sets of essay prompts, though the Common App gives you slightly more space (650 firm word limit) than the Coalition App (500-550 recommend word limit). So how do you choose? 

First, look to your college list.  If you are applying to the University of Maryland, College Park, as many local DMV students are, then you will be using the Coalition App, as that application is the only one accepted at UMD. If you know you are completing the Coalition App, it’s worth taking a look at the other schools on that list.  Perhaps you can focus your effort on that app. 

Otherwise, many schools accept either application. And of course, with a ratio of 800 schools (Common App) to 150 schools (Coalition App), there are many schools who expect you to use the Common App. When you have an equal choice, I recommend giving the Common App a try. Given the longer history of the application in general (founded in the 1970s), it tends to be a little less glitchy than the Coalition App. Plus it may save you some trouble if you can use it for all or most of the schools on your list. That said, colleges that offer both options have absolutely no preference and give no weight or consideration to which application you choose. So truly go with what feels best for you. 

Finally, some schools still prefer their own application rather than either of these more global ones. Often, I see students sigh with regret when they realize that a college they love – Georgetown University, the College of Charleston, and the entire University of California system all come to mind – requires a school-specific app. But have no fear! Usually when colleges opt for their own application, it is because they are not interested in the vast amount of information that the Common App or Coalition App require. Instead, they ask only what they want to know, and often the process feels a little easier and more direct. Plus your essay that you wrote for the Common App or Coalition App? It usually still works. 

Navigating these options does not need to be as tricky as they sound but you don’t want to wait until the last minute to make a plan. As your college list starts to come together, make sure you are keeping track of which applications are available to you. Get started on a Common App or a Coalition App. Start filling in forms and getting things in place. Then when it is time for you to click submit, you’ll feel fully empowered and on top of things. 


Originally published: August 26, 2019