For years, the Common Application (CA) was the only widely available application for use at multiple colleges. It was created in 1975, with 15 colleges in its first year. It still dominates the college application world, and today is used by over 500 colleges and universities.
However, back in 2007, the Universal Common Application (UCA) was created, and now serves 34 colleges and universities.
So what exactly are the differences between the CA and the UCA? Why do colleges use one, both, or neither? And which one should you use? We will explore these questions in this post and help you decide how to apply.
A Centralized College Application
The CA and UCA both allow you to create a centralized college application—with your demographic information, extracurricular activities, and grades—and then send the application off to various colleges.
This saves time, since you don't have to fill out a separate application for every single college you apply to.
The CA and the UCA both mostly serve private colleges, though there are exceptions. This is because most public universities have their own online admissions systems.
Many colleges on the CA and UCA have what they call “supplements” – extra questions that their admissions offices use to evaluate candidates. The supplements can include anything from short questions (“describe yourself in five words”) to additional essays.
If colleges accept both applications, they don’t have a preference for one or the other. In other words, it won’t matter to them which one you use. It’s far more likely you’ll use the CA simply because it serves so many more colleges, but there are still some advantages to the UCA.
So how do you decide which application to use?
What Are the Benefits of the Universal College Application?
The Universal College App’s interface is faster, and it includes an auto-save feature. This can save you from losing progress and having to go back and fill something out again.
Since the Universal App is newer, and doesn’t serve as many applicants or colleges, you can expect to get technical assistance faster if you need it. Whether you run into a technical problem or have a question, you can expect a faster response from UCA.
You can edit your essay after you push the submit button with the UCA. Obviously, this won’t matter if you edit your essay in March, as the admissions officers will have seen it by then, but if you catch a small mistake a few days after submission, you’ll have a chance to change it.
You can link to online content you’ve produced, like a student newspaper or film project.
Note that the following schools are on the UCA but not on the CA (all other UCA schools are also on the CA): University of Charleston (WV), Fisher College, Landmark College, Milwaukee School of Engineering, Southern Vermont College, and University of Wyoming.
What Are the Drawbacks to the Universal College Application?
- The main downside to the Universal College App is that not very many schools use it in comparison to the CA. True—it does serve some big-name schools like the University of Chicago, Cornell, Harvard, Johns Hopkins, Princeton, Rice, and Vanderbilt. But the rest of the Ivy League, Stanford, MIT, and numerous other colleges aren’t on the UCA. To see the complete list, see the UCA's website.
- In most cases, if a college uses the Universal App, it’s also on Common App, but not vice versa, except for exceptions we noted above. So for the majority of students, the Common App is likely to be the more convenient option since it will give them the most flexibility when applying to college.
- It’s possible that if you decide to use the UCA, but then decide after submitting some applications that you want to apply to a school that only uses the CA, you’ll end up having to fill out the CA anyway. If you start with the CA, it’s much less likely you’ll have to fill out a second application since so few schools are UCA-only.
What Are the Benefits of the Common Application?
- The biggest draw of the Common App is that it represents almost 700 schools! Because of that fact alone, many students use the Common App even if they would prefer the Universal College App's interface and flexibility. Check out their website to see the full list.
Since the CA has been around for a long time, most high school teachers and guidance counselors are familiar with the CA and how to fill out their portions (including letters of recommendation and the counselor recommendation).
With the new Common App account rollover feature, you can actually start your application early and roll the information you've filled out over to the next year's application when it opens on August 1st.
What Are the Drawbacks to the Common Application?
- The CA has a slower interface than UCA.
- The Common App launched a new version in 2014. Some students have found the new format a bit confusing. For example, academic honors and extracurriculars are now filled out in grids that are somewhat hard to find (the honors grid is in the “Education” section, the activities grid in “Activities”). These used to be more straightforward lists.
- It’s harder to retain certain formatting in essays since the “upload” feature is gone with the new edition. If you’re picky about how your essay is formatted, this could be a source of annoyance.
- The Common App receives thousands upon thousands of applications. For example, in 2013-14,nearly 800,000 applicants used the CA. However, their staff isn’t that big, so if you have a technical problem, it might take some time to work it out. Definitely aim to submit your applications earlier than the deadlines in case you run into technical trouble. (And don’t be that student pressing the submit button at the last possible minute!)
- Unlike the Universal College App, you can’t make edits to the essay after submission. Don’t push “submit” until you are positive your essay is perfect!
- As we stated earlier, the Common App got rid of its open-ended, write-about-anything essay prompt a few years ago. While it has five prompts that allow you to write about a variety of topics, it’s possible a student might want to write about something that doesn’t fit well under those five prompts.
Colleges That Don’t Accept Either Application
While the CA and UCA have become huge names in college admissions, there are still plenty of schools that don’t accept either application. If you are applying to these schools, you might not even have to choose between the UCA and CA.
Here are some notable schools that don’t use either the Universal College App or the Common App:
- University of California system (including Berkeley, UCLA)
- University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
This is just a starter list. As a general rule, public universities tend to have their own systems. And some colleges on the CA and UCA also offer their own online application systems.
To check if a school is on the UCA or CA, simply go to the list of UCA schools and CA schools, and see if the school is on the list (use a “CTRL-F” search to find out quickly for the UCA or just use the search function for CA).
If you’re mostly applying to schools that don’t use the UCA or CA, for the few colleges you apply to that do use those applications, you might have a bit more flexibility.
For example, say you’re a California resident applying mostly to public in-state schools, but you’re also applying to Harvard, Princeton, and the University of Chicago as your reach schools. Since all three of those schools are on both the UCA and CA, you would be able to choose between the two applications based on your preferences.
However, if your reach schools were Stanford and Yale, you would have to use the Common App, since neither of those schools uses the Universal College App.
Bottom Line: Universal College Application vs. Common App
Given these pros and cons, which application is the best choice for you?
Definitely Use the Common Application If…
- You are applying to schools that don’t accept the Universal College App and/or schools that are Common App only. This will likely be the case for the majority of students.
- Most or all of the schools you’re applying to require at least one letter of recommendation and essay. Since these features are required on the CA, it will simplify your application process to have them as required, rather than optional, components.
Definitely Use the Universal College Application If…
You’re only applying to schools that accept the Universal College App (or some schools that take the UCA and schools that don’t accept either the UCA or the CA) and you prefer the UCA’s interface.
For any school that you are interested in applying to, look it up on both the CA website and UCA website and note if it’s on the CA, the UCA, both, or neither. Once you narrow down your college application list, decide which application will make it easiest to apply to all of the schools you’re interested in.
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I was just about to send out a "What the new application essay prompts are" email to students with whom I work. Right in the middle of writing it, it dawned on me that everyone should have access to this information, especially since it's not that easy to find. And so I decided to write a HuffPost blog.
I am well aware of how busy students are now with AP tests, finals and other end-of-year activities. In the middle of this hustle-bustle, however, I have heard from any number of juniors (and parents) wanting to know what students should be doing during the summer re: college admissions and application essays. Here is what I have to offer:
1. COLLEGE LIST
If you haven't already, pull together and then finalize your college list. HuffPost is full of blogs that tell you how to do this, including "Seven Steps to Putting Together a Great College List," and "5 Biggest Mistakes Applicants Make When Putting Together Their College Lists." You need to know where you're applying to college before you even start thinking about writing essays.
2. ACTIVITIES RESUME
Create an activities resume. There are so many ways in which you can use a resume, including submitting it to colleges through The Common App. A resume is an essential tool in making sure you fully answer the 5-item Honors space and 10-item Activities Grid on the Common App. Finally, a resume is perfect for evaluating your involvements and talents in order to focus on what's important and meaningful in college essays. For information about creating and using an activities resume, read "Activities Resumes: A Surprising First Step to Having a Successful College Application."
3. COLLEGE APPLICATIONS: THE COMMON APP, UNIVERSAL APPLICATION, UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA APPLICATION AND THE COALITION APP
The following notes the different applications colleges use for their respective admissions programs. Of course, many colleges have their own unique applications. Determine which applications the schools on your college list use.
A. COMMON APP
The Common Application now has more than 600 colleges signed up to use their application service.
After school is out, begin filling out the different spaces in The Common App. As you may have heard, The Common App has a new policy that allows students to sign up for a 2015-2016 Common App account AND begin working on it. What's new is that the account you create can be rolled over to the 2016-2017 Common App. This is HUGE! To learn more, go to The Common App's "Five Things to Know about Account Rollover."
Another thing to do is begin identifying the potential topics you want to consider for your Common App Personal Statement essay. You will be glad to know that the Personal Statement prompt options for 2016-2017 are the same for 2015-2016. Here they are:
THE COMMON APPLICATION ESSAY PROMPTS 2016-2017
In 650 words or less, please respond to one of these prompts:
PROMPT #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.
PROMPT #2: The lessons we take from failure can be fundamental to later success. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
PROMPT #3: Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?
PROMPT #4: Describe a problem you've solved or a problem you'd like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma-anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution
PROMPT #5: Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.
Colleges who make use of The Common App may also require other essays as Supplements to the above essays.
To know how to write over the top essays for college applications, read these HuffPost blogs: "7 Steps to Writing a Captivating, One-of-a-Kind College Application Essay," "Do's and Don'ts in Writing College Application Essays,"
B. THE UNIVERSAL APPLICATION
44 colleges make use of The Universal Application, including American University in Bulgaria, Bay Path, Beloit, Brandeis, Bryant, University of Charleston, University of Chicago, Christian Brothers University, Colgate, Cornell, Dean, Duke, Embry Riddle Aeronautical University, Emerson, Fish, Gardner-Webb, Harvard, Johns Hopkins, Johnson & Wales, Lake Erie, Landmark, Lawrence Tech, Lynn, Milwaukee School of Engineering, Monmouth, Nazareth College, Newberry College, Notre Dame of Maryland, Princeton, Randolph College, Rensselaer Polytechnic, Rice, Rochester Tech, University of Rochester, Roger Williams University, Savannah College of Art and Design, Southern Vermont College, University of Tamp, Utica, Vanderbilt, Wentworth Tech, Westminster, Wilson College and the University of Wyoming.
THE UNIVERSAL APPLICATION ESSAY PROMPTS
PROMPT #1: In 650 or fewer words, please write an essay that demonstrates your ability to develop and communicate your thoughts. Some ideas include: a person you admire; a life-changing experience; or your viewpoint on a particular current event.
PROMPT #2: In 100-150 words, tell us about one of your extracurricular, volunteer or employment activities.
Colleges who make use of The Universal App may also require other essays as Supplements to the above essays.
C. UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA APPLICATION
While The Common App essay prompts are the same, the UC questions are TOTALLY different. The directions are to answer four of the eight questions and limit your responses to 350 words each. Here they are:
THE NEW UC ESSAY PROMPTS
1. Describe an example of your leadership experience in which you have positively influenced others, helped resolve disputes, or contributed to group efforts over time.
2. Every person has a creative side, and it can be expressed in many ways: problem solving, original and innovative thinking, and artistically, to name a few. Describe how you express your creative side.
3. What would you say is your greatest talent or skill? How have you developed and demonstrated that talent over time?
4. Describe how you have taken advantage of a significant educational opportunity or worked to overcome an educational barrier you have faced.
5. Describe the most significant challenge you have faced and the steps you have taken to overcome this challenge. How has this challenge affected your academic achievement?
6. Describe your favorite academic subject and explain how it has influenced you.
7. What have you done to make your school or your community a better place?
8. What is the one thing that you think sets you apart from other candidates applying to the University of California?
D. THE COALITION FOR ACCESS
In case you haven't heard, 80 "elite" colleges and universities are coming together to offer an alternative to The Common Application starting 2016. Their goal is "to improve the college admission process for all students" and it's free!
The colleges include American, Amherst, Bates, Bowdoin, Brown, Bryn Mawr, Cal Tech, Carleton, Claremont McKenna, Clemson, Colby, Colgate, College of the Holy Cross, William & Mary, Colorado College, Columbia University, Connecticut College, Cornell, Dartmouth, Davidson, Duke, Emory, Florida State, Franklin and Marshall, Olin College of Engineering, Georgia Tech, Grinnell, Hamilton, Harvard, Haverford, Illinois State, Indiana University, James Madison, Johns Hopkins, Miami of Ohio, Michigan State, Middlebury, Mount Holyoke, North Carolina State, Northeastern, Northwestern, Oberlin, Ohio State, Penn State, Pomona, Princeton, Purdue, Ramapo, Reed, Rice, Rutgers, New Brunswick, Skidmore, Smith, St. Olaf, Stanford, SUNY, Geneseo, SUNY Binghamton, SUNY, Buffalo, Swarthmore, Texas A &M, College Station, College of New Jersey, Tufts, Union, University of Chicago, University of Connecticut, University of Florida, Gainesville, University of Georgia, Athens, University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana, University of Iowa, University of Maryland, Mary Washington, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, University of Missouri, Columbia, University of New Hampshire, Durham, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, Notre Dame, University of Pennsylvania, University of Pittsburgh, University of Rochester, University of South Carolina, Columbia, University of Vermont, Burlington, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, University of Washington, Seattle, Vanderbilt, Vassar, Virginia Polytechnic, Wake Forest, Washington University, St. Louis, Wellesley, Wesleyan, Williams and Yale.
The Coalition essay prompts directions say that applicants should choose one essay and recommend that the answer be no longer than 500-550 words.
THE COALITION ESSAY QUESTIONS
1. Tell a story from your life, describing an experience that either demonstrates your character or helped to shape it.
2. Describe a time when you made a meaningful contribution to others in which the greater good was your focus. Discuss the challenges and rewards of making your contribution.
3. Has there been a time when you've had a long-cherished or accepted belief challenged? How did you respond? How did the challenge affect your beliefs?
4. what is the hardest part of being a teenager now? What is the best part? What advice would you give a younger sibling or friend (assuming they would listen to you)?
5. Submit an essay on a topic of your choice.
It goes without saying that many colleges have their own unique applications, and do not make use of any of the above.
In writing this blog, MY GOAL FOR YOU IS TO COMPLETE ONE MAJOR COLLEGE APPLICATION, INCLUDING ITS ESSAYS, BEFORE SCHOOL STARTS IN THE FALL! You have no idea how useful this is.
Students who do this usually end up submitting much more complete, creative, powerful and better written applications because they have the time and energy to do the best job they can. That really pays off in their potential for admission.
Follow Marjorie Hansen Shaevitz on Twitter: www.twitter.com/admissposs