One Application Works for 255 Colleges: How to Avoid the Most Common Mistakes on the Common Application

By Sam Rosensohn

Once students decide on the colleges they’re going to apply to, they should pray that all of their picks accept the Common Application.

For more than 25 years the Common Application has been an enormous time-saver for students, guidance counselors, and colleges.

Currently 255 colleges – Amherst, Dartmouth, Harvard, Princeton and UConn to name a handful – welcome, and in some cases only take the Common Application.

“It’s the only application we use,” Richard Shaw, Dean of Undergraduate Admissions at Yale, said the other afternoon. “We’ve just gone from four different applications to the Common Application, primarily because the challenge of four different forums was substantial.”

If a college offers both its own application as well as the Common Application, complete the Common Application. “We look at either application the same,” said Paul Thiboutot, Dean of Admissions at Carleton College, which Newsweek crowned the “Most Fun-Loving” school in 2004.

“The acceptance rate and the enrollment rate is about the same on both applications,” said Thiboutot, who notes that there are about 1.9 Frisbees on campus per student.

For the past 30 years, Carleton, one of the finest schools in the nation, has given students the opportunity to complete either the Common Application or its own application. However, about 30 percent of Carleton’s applicants use the Common Application. Students are still reticent about using the Common Application.

Students, listen to Charlotte Lazor, Wesleyan University’s guru of the Common Application. She says it’s win-win for everyone.

“It saves us time keying in data and gets the folder open quicker,” Lazor said. Information from the electronic application is loaded quickly into the school’s database, and each application is printed out and placed in the applicant’s folder.

At Wesleyan this year, approximately 2,500 students submitted their applications electronically, while just fewer than 4,500 sent their applications through the mail. Come’on students – save yourselves some time this fall.

So knowing full well that I was going to push the Common Application, I thought to call Judy Whitman, manager of the Common Application Office, in Reston, Virginia. I wanted to know the 10 most common mistakes students make on the application.

Whitman reached out to the group that created and maintains the electronic version for the Common Application Consortium. We got to talking and Whitman added one more big mistake that students often make.  So here are the 11 most common mistakes that students make on the Common Application Online:

1)    Students Don’t Read the Instructions. “It’s the single most important thing that keeps them from doing this flawlessly. Anytime you don’t read the instructions something’s probably going to come back to haunt you,” Whitman said, who recommends that students print the directions out and read them before they start typing.

2)    Waiting Until the Last Minute. “Literally, they’re doing this the day before it’s due at 11 at night,” Whitman said. “If there’s an early decision deadline on Dec. 1, they’re on the computer Nov. 30. They may run into a snag that has nothing to do with us – their Internet access might be down. While it’s instantaneously submitted, they shouldn’t wait for the last minute to do it.”

3)    Not Entering a Valid E-mail Address. “Later on they wonder why they haven’t heard from the college or got a confirmation message.”

4)    Not Checking Each Individual College’s Requirements and Deadlines. “There again,” Whitman said, “we have a profile for each college, which gives all the deadlines, fees, and supplementary information.  It’s all there, yet they’ll submit late and wonder why they can’t select a college from the list.”

5)    In the MY COLLEGES section, students are not accurately selecting and saving the colleges they want to apply to. They often select the right school, but forget to save.

6)    Students Forget to Save Their Data and Log Out.

7)    Not Thoroughly Reviewing Application for Errors and Truncated Text. “We have print preview, instructions all over the place, and even though you can type forever in  the HTML input screen, this doesn’t mean it’s all going to fit into the PDF output,” said Whitman, who encourages students to look at the print preview before sending. “What they see on the print preview is exactly what  will be transmitted to colleges.”

8)    Not Using the Checklist to Ensure They Have Completed All the Requirements for their Selected Colleges. “There is another tab in there which will tell them which colleges accept credit cards, which colleges only accept hard copy.”

9)    Not Verifying They Have Completed the Submission Process Before Logging Out. “There are a series of screens they go through which ensure that the data is saved in our system on our server. They close down before doing that and the application is not complete and not submitted into our system,” Whitman said.

10)  Not Following Up With Fees and Supplemental Documents.

11)  Not Sending Hardcopy to Member Colleges That Don’t Accept the Electronic Version of The Common Application.

Now that you know the common pitfalls visit the Common Application’s website at and see how many of your picks are there.

Sam Rosensohn is the founder of College Planning Partnerships, which offers prep classes for the SAT and helps students to prepare for college and write college essays. He can be reached in Clinton at 860-664-9857 or at