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Common App 101: What to know before you start

If you're applying for college, you've heard of The Common App. This one-stop shop is used for admissions by more than 900 public, private, state and Ivy League schools. The application opens Sunday, August 1.

Here's your last-minute primer on what you need to know.

The Common App goes down for maintenance at 5 p.m. July 28 and won't reopen until August 1. Don’t worry, any information you've already entered will not disappear when the system goes down.

Gather your information in advance.

Filling out the application takes time and if you're not prepared, it can take longer. In addition to your high school transcripts, test scores, academic honors and activities, you'll need to have lots of other information handy.

  • You'll need to know some basic demographic information about your family. This info includes: Occupation for both Mom and Dad (make sure you know their job titles), the highest level of education for Mom and Dad (and the year their degrees were earned) and the number of institutions attended by both Mom and Dad (as well as all the names).

  • You'll also need to know about your siblings. You'll need to provide information on which college they attended, graduation date (or expected graduation date) and degrees (or expected degrees).

  • You'll need to know a couple of numbers as well. Including your Social Security Number (especially if you're planning to apply for need-based financial aid) and a North Carolina Residency Number to show that you're eligible for in-state tuition.

  • If one or both of your parents served in the military, pay attention to the schools' application fee policies. Some schools will waive application fees for children of military members (including active, separated or retired). If your parents are separated or retired, you'll need access to their DD 214 (discharge paperwork for active-duty members) or DD 256 (for Guard or Reserve members) to submit with your fee waiver request

Pick the right email.

Make sure to list an email that you actively use and check — a lot of information is heading your way after you apply. And if there's missing information that will delay or harm your application review, you'll want to know about it.

In fact, you should get into the habit of checking your email daily during your senior year.

So what email address should you use? First and foremost, you'll want to make sure the email address is appropriate. "" is not the best option when applying to a college. You could use your high school email address, but this might not be ideal if it has multiple spam filters or doesn't allow outside emails to be received. Additionally, some high schools disable student emails after graduation.

Lots of students choose to create a separate email account that's just for college applications so those important emails don't get lost amongst store promotions, social media notifications and other less-important messages.

Spend some time on the essay portion

If you followed our advice back in June, you've already been thinking about your essay.

But if not, don't worry. Here's the lowdown:

The Common App has seven essay prompts to choose from:

  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. 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.

Many colleges include school-specific short answer questions or essay prompts. Find specific requirements for each school here.

Register on your preferred schools' sites

Make sure you've registered on the site for every school you intend to apply to. Some schools give benefits for using a specific app type (such as a fee waiver), so check your email for school-specific offers.

Not all schools accept the Common App

Some use the Coalition App or their own school or system-specific app. But even if a school accepts one of several options, you still only need to submit one application.

Choose your colleges carefully

You can add up to 20 colleges to the "My Colleges" tab but once you've submitted, you won't be able to remove those schools from your list.

Stay organized.

Each college has unique requirements for deadlines, application fees, personal essays, recommendations and more. You can find out more info in the Requirements Grid. You can keep them straight by creating a spreadsheet and adding calendar reminders to your phone.

Learn more

Check out the Common App's First-time Applicant Guide here for more information.

Call a pro. Stressed about college applications? We can help. Call 980-677-0311 or email

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