Guide to US Applications • Undergraduate

How to Fill out the Common App Form: Easy Step-by-Step Guide

POSTED ON 08/25/2023 BY The Red Pen

Person creating a Common App account

If you have your heart set on pursuing your undergraduate studies in the US, it’s worth your time to understand the Common Application (Common App) form. Easing the tedious process of filling out multiple forms for different colleges, Common App is a single online college application form that more than 900 colleges evaluate. 

The first step in using the Common App platform is to create an account. Since the Common Application form rolls over, you can start entering your details even in grade 11 and complete it later. While creating your online account is free, every college charges an application processing fee between $25 and $90. Each year, on August 1, member colleges go live with individual requirements, which include essays and questions specific to the college known as Common App essay prompts. You must add your shortlisted colleges to your Common App account to access these requirements.  

But despite its popularity, the Common App is confusing for first-time applicants. It comprises comprehensive sections, and your answers within each section will give admissions officers an insight into who you are, your achievements and how you spend your time.  Here’s a complete breakdown of the Common App form: 

1) The Profile Section of the Common App form 

Your profile includes personal information, which you should be able to complete off the top of your head. Answer each question truthfully and consult your parents or guardians if you’re unsure of the details. It is important to write your legal name, as it appears on your transcripts, standardised tests, and passport. If not, colleges might lose track of your paperwork. In this section, you’ll need to provide:

  • Name
  • Address
  • Contact Details
  • Where you were born
  • Languages you can speak, read and write
  • Citizenship

2) The Family Section of the Common App form 

The questions in the family section revolve around your parents and siblings–their education, occupation, birthdates, contact details, and colleges they graduated from or attended. While this information is used for demographic purposes, it offers deeper insight into who you are. 

3) The Education Section of the Common App form 

While this section requires academic details like your school’s name, enrollment, and graduation dates, it will also ask about your future plans. A drop-down list lets you select career fields that interest you. For example, if you wish to become an entrepreneur, select business owner/business executive.

4) The Academic Honours Section of the Common App form 

The Common App form also allows you to list your achievements. You must write about five awards you have received from grade 9 onwards on a school, state, national or international level. You may also mention participating in Olympiads and AMC or CEMS math competitions. Here are a few tips for this section:  

  • Give context for all the awards:  It reveals their prestige or exclusivity. For example: Academic Excellence in English (3 among 52 given this award).
  • Keep descriptions brief: Stick to the 150-character limit. Share only essential information, begin with a verb and omit articles. For example: Won Girls’ Online Chess Championship 2020 title. 
  • Be consistent with full stops: Either use them at the end of all your honours or avoid them altogether as they count as characters.

5) The Test Score Section of the Common App form 

In this space, you may add results of standardised tests like SAT or ACT and English proficiency tests. You can also include Advance Placement or Senior Secondary Leaving Exam scores if you took them. Refer to your reports to avoid wrong entries. You may also want to read our blog on SAT vs. ACT to understand the difference between the two tests and choose the one that suits you. 

6) The Activities Section of the Common App form 

Colleges in the US love students who are engaged in extracurricular activities and take initiatives beyond academics. This space allows you to demonstrate your involvement and resourcefulness. List everything you have consistently participated in outside the classroom between grades 9 and 12, including leadership activities, sports, community service, art projects and more. For each activity, you will need to provide the following information: 

  • Activity type
  • Position/leadership description and organisation name 
  • Details, honours won, and accomplishments
  • Participation grade levels
  • Timing of participation
  • Hours spent per week
  • Weeks spent per year
  • If you intend to participate in a similar activity in college

Here are a few tips for this section:  

  • List activities in order of importance and mention those you are most passionate about and have participated in consistently.
  • Start your sentences with a verb for brevity.
  • Limit organisation names to 100 characters and only use well-known acronyms. 
  • Briefly describe your roles and responsibilities.
  • Be consistent with full stops: Either use them at the end of all your activities or avoid them.

7) Additional Information Section of the Common App form 

You may use this space to share any information you haven’t included elsewhere within 650 words. You can do the following in this space: 

  • Elaborate on extracurricular activities.
  • Mention activities you didn’t have space for in the activities section.
  • Include an abstract of your extended essay (for IB students).
  • List participation and roles in multi-event activities Model United Nations (MUN) conferences, robotics competitions, sports leagues or performing arts chronologically. 
  • Elaborate on experiences that you couldn’t fit into the gap-year essay.
  •  Share circumstances that have impacted you or your grades.

Here are a few tips for this section:  

  • Avoid repetition: Your additional information mustn’t have identical details or words as the activities section. 
  • Format the text: Underline, italicise, use bullet points and format your points in a way that is easy to read. 
  • Be concise and coherent: You have a limit of 650 words, so use them well 

8) The Essay Section of the Common App form 

This section is the most thought-provoking part of the Common App form and will take time to complete. Allow your essays to reveal interests and aspects of life that your grade sheet cannot reflect. Depending on the colleges you shortlist, you must also write additional college-specific essays. These supplemental essay topics can range from ‘Why you would like to study in a particular college?’ to ‘What failures you have faced in your life?’ and more. Since 2020, the Common App has also included a 250-word COVID essay, allowing you to share any disruption the pandemic has caused in your academic, personal and extracurricular pursuits. You may also elaborate on activities you initiated to help people during the lockdown. Read our blog on how to write a winning Common App essay. 

Important Note:

If you’re applying via the Common App platform, you must submit letters of recommendation. Usually, up to three recommendations are requested: two from teachers who taught you in grades 11 and 12 and one from your school counsellor. The recommendation letters are valuable assets to your application, providing insight into your academic journey and character. They give admissions officers a teacher’s perspective on your performance and growth. The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) section, an important aspect of the letter of recommendation (LOR) format, must also be completed here. By waiving your FERPA rights, you agree not to see your recommendation letters. This signals colleges that the letters are unbiased; since the recommenders know the student will not see the letter, they can be truthful. Remember that adding and inviting recommenders through the Common App triggers an email to your teachers with instructions on submitting the letter of recommendation. Beyond this invitation, you are not involved in submitting the teacher recommendations.  

While many students opt for the Common App platform, you may also want to explore the University of California’s (UC) application platform or read our blog on the nuances of how to apply to undergraduate US universities. If you need further information on Common Application Form 2023 or any help with your undergraduate applications, please contact us.