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.

(For information on the 2021-2022 application cycle and the COVID-19 pandemic, see below.)

You’ll want to keep current on deadlines and requirements and to pace yourself so that you can manage both classwork and apps this fall.

Speaking of timing … way back when, every college used its own individual application in paper form … and students stood in late-night lines at the post office to get them postmarked minutes before the deadlines.

But over the last four decades, colleges have streamlined the process to make it easier for students and parents to navigate. Colleges and universities, in the U.S. and in many other countries, use two major application platforms: The Common Application and The Coalition for Access. We’ll talk briefly about school-specific apps at the end of this blog. 

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Reigning supreme is The Common Application, nicknamed the “Common App.” Over 900 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 Coalition for College Access (nicknamed the “Coalition App,” as you might expect) 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 is not a quick process. You are asked to enter precise information about your family’s educational background, your personal academic history, extracurricular activities, demographics, and more.

When you are filling out your app, remember that your details will create a larger picture of you. You will have an opportunity to print and review your app, so check your final copy to make sure that you have represented yourself to the fullest. 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.

When you have completed your Common Application, you can access and complete supplemental questions and essays through the Common App – just add the colleges on your list by clicking on the College Search tab. Now move to your Dashboard to access each individual college portal. Click on each college to access school specific-questions and supplemental essays, if required.

The Coalition for College Access 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 set out to do more than just launch a college application website. Instead of focusing solely on the platform, the Coalition is offers other features, including a “locker” where you can keep essays drafts, notes, and similar information. Indeed, 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.

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 and word limits.

Many schools accept either application. With over 900 schools using the Common App schools and approximately 150 Coalition App schools, there are many schools who expect you to use the Common App. (Only one college uses only the Coalition App: University of Washington, Seattle). When you have an equal choice, I recommend giving the Common App a try, because 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. 

When you have an equal choice, I recommend giving the Common App a try, because 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 and MIT, and all schools in the University of California and University of Texas Systems, for example  – 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? You usually can still find a way to work it into your application for these other schools.

Navigating these options does not need to be as tricky as it sounds, but you don’t want to wait until the last minute to make your 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.  

2021-2022 Application Cycle

Given the COVID-19 pandemic, both of the platforms have continued to include an optional essay. In the latest versions of the Common App and Coalition App released for the 2021-2022 application cycle, there is the opportunity for students to share the challenges that they may have experienced this year.

The Common App asks:

Community disruptions such as COVID-19 and natural disasters can have deep and long-lasting impacts. If you need it, this space is yours to describe those impacts. Colleges care about the effects on your health and well-being, safety, family circumstances, future plans, and education, including access to reliable technology and quiet study spaces.

  • Do you wish to share anything on this topic? Y/N
  • Please use this space to describe how these events have impacted you.

The question will be optional and will appear in the Additional Information section of the application.The response length will be limited to 250 words.

The Coalition App offers a list of boxes to check, along with the opportunity to describe the pandemic’s impact on your and your family:

Originally published: August 26, 2019

Maureen Delaney

Educational Counselor

As a Counselor in Educational Planning, Maureen Delaney considers the strengths and interests of students and helps them to achieve their academic and personal goals. As the former Director of College Guidance at independent schools in both the Washington DC area and Manhattan, Maureen uses her deep experience to establish authentic connections both to students planning for college and those ad...

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