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Work & School College Bound: how to narrow your search and begin applying

Oct. 25, 2018
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The last installment of this column was intended to get you asking big questions about yourself and what you want out of your college experience. In this installment, we’ll be discussing how to begin the application process itself. 

Ways to Apply

Each college or university uses an online platform on which prospective students will fill out their applications. This platform may vary from school to school, but because the Common Application tends to be the most popular format, we’ve decided to focus on it the most. However, we’ve still outlined other ways to apply, including the Coalition Application and direct-to-institution applications.

The Common Application

With over 800 schools registered as member institutions, the Common Application is one of the most popular ways to apply to college. 

After registering for an account on the website, you will find yourself at a screen with several options. Your Dashboard is where all in-progress and pending applications will appear. My Colleges serves as a tool for you to search for and add schools to your Dashboard. The Common App tab is your personal profile.

This profile will include areas to enter basic demographic information, extracurricular activities, testing data, and your personal essay. You may save and come back to this profile at your leisure; it doesn’t need to be completed in one sitting.

True to its name, this profile is a common application that will be sent to any school you wish to apply to that is a member institution of the website. 

That means that you don’t need to fill out separate applications for separate schools—you can simply fill out this profile and essay, and apply to multiple places.

After you’ve finished filling out this profile, congratulate yourself: you’ve done the hardest part! Now, you just need to search for schools you are interested in and add them to your Dashboard. The College Search tool allows you to refine your search with a variety of filters, including location, presence of an application fee, or essay requirements. When you’ve found a school you like, click to add it to your Dashboard. 

You will then be able to answer basic application questions for the school: your major, preferred decision plan (we’ll cover that later!), and whether you intend to pursue financial aid.


After answering these basic questions, you may find additional writing prompts (known as supplements). While there are a large variety of colleges that do not require supplements, it’s best to give yourself plenty of time to fill out applications in case a school you are interested in does require some.

Supplements vary from school to school, as they are intended to be institution-specific. The number of additional prompts will also fluctuate. However, most of these essays have relatively small word limits; you’ll usually be asked to provide answers between 100 and 400 words. 

Supplementary questions range from straightforward prompts about why you’d like to attend a certain institution to questions designed to stimulate your creativity, asking about a favorite book or movie. The tricky thing about these questions is that, like the rest of the application process, there will be no ‘right answers.’ So, don’t focus too much on trying to craft an answer that you think might be ‘what the admissions officers are looking for’—these essays are ways for admissions committees to get to know you! Beyond the scores and the grades, these questions will allow them to find out a bit about what makes you tick.

Because you’ll be working with limited space, try to answer the prompts in a succinct, concise manner. Keep your answers grounded and to the point. Remember, these questions are designed to provide a more holistic view of applicants and the things they value—admissions officers truly are just trying to get to know you better. Treating the supplements as a way to reveal stories that are important to you will streamline the process a bit. 

We recommend typing your answers on a separate word processor and then copying and pasting into the given space.

Completing and Paying

After you’ve completed these questions, you’re ready to wrap up your first application! On the left side of the screen, you’ll find an option to “Review and Submit Common App.” Clicking this will lead you to review a PDF copy of your profile, essays, and any supplementary questions. You’ll then confirm with a typed signature that everything has been filled out to your liking. Finally, you’ll be taken to a page where you can either pay your application fee or utilize a fee waiver code if you have been given one.

Congratulations! You just applied to school! It’s important to take time out of this sometimes-grueling process to have breaks, to relax and reward yourself. 

If you intend to apply to additional schools, you’ll simply repeat this process: add a school to your list, fill out its basic questions, and answer any supplements. 

Keep in mind, too: you may revise your Common App essay between applications! Although an application may not be edited after submission, you can still edit your Common App profile and essay. It will not change your already-submitted applications, but it will change for any future applications.

So, for example if I apply to X University and my essay contains a typo, I will not be able to edit this submitted application and change the typo. However, I will be able to edit it on my Common App profile tab, and this change will be applied for a future application to Y University.

Other Ways to Apply

There are several other options for students who’d like to try other application formats, or whose colleges of interest are not member institutions of the Common Application.

Sometimes, a college will be a member of both the Common App and the Coalition, or both the Common App and a direct-to-institution application. This means that you’ll have a variety of options in how you apply, and are free to select whichever you desire—there are no advantages to using a specific format.

The Coalition Application and the Universal College Application

The Coalition and the UCA are both popular options, with each offering a vast variety of schools from which to choose. Each include basic demographic sections in addition to areas for short essays and extracurricular activities. 

Direct-to-institution applications

These applications are college-specific—for example, Elon University’s application is the Elon Application; James Madison University’s application is the JMU Application. You can find these by going to a college’s website, clicking an ‘Apply’ tab, and following the instructions to create an account.

State system applications

Certain states offer a platform that will allow students to access multiple colleges within that state using a single application. Examples include California’s University of California application and Texas’ Apply Texas system. 


Types of Admission Plans

Regardless of the application platform you choose, you’ll typically be asked to specify your preferred admission plan. We’ve outlined them below. Keep in mind that not every school will offer all of these plans. For example, a school may offer only Regular Decision and Early Decision, but not Early Action.

Regular Decision. As its name would suggest, this is the ‘standard’ and most popular way to apply. Regular Decision is non-binding, meaning that you can apply to as many schools under this plan as you wish, and you are free to receive multiple admissions decisions and choose between them.

Rolling Admissions. Rolling admissions allow you to apply to a school within a given period of time, with no set deadline. Applications will be reviewed as they are received, and students will be notified according to the date they submitted their application. For example, I applied to the University of Pittsburgh—which practices rolling admission—in early September, and I received a decision by the end of the month.

Early Action. Early Action requires an early deadline by which your materials must be submitted. However, you’ll receive a decision at any point from mid-December to early February, a bit earlier than the Regular Decision notification dates of March to April. Early Action is also non-binding, so you are free to apply to multiple Early Action schools. 

Restrictive Early Action. This type of Early Action requires that you only apply to one school under an early plan. For instance, you could apply to Harvard under Restrictive Early Action, but you will not be able to apply to the University of Michigan under Early Action.

Despite its restrictions, though, REA still allows you to make a non-binding college decision. So, although you cannot apply to multiple schools early, you are still free to choose from all your college decisions when they arrive. Say you were accepted under a restrictive plan to Harvard, but also received admittances under Regular Decision to the Pennsylvania State University and the College of Charleston. You are free to choose between these acceptances and go wherever you wish.

Early Decision. Early Decision differs from all of the previously stated plans in that it is binding. You will submit your ED application early and receive a decision earlier, but you are making a commitment to attend the institution and accept its financial aid package if accepted. Upon acceptance, you will be required to rescind any other applications. This plan is for applicants who are extremely sure that the college they are applying to is their number-one choice. It also requires signatures from a parent and a college counselor. 


The next installment in this column, coming in November, will discuss how to find and apply for scholarships, federal financial aid, and institution-specific grants.