Common Application vs. Coalition Application

An Interview with College Coach Experts Elyse Krantz and Abigail Anderson

What is the Difference Between the Common Application and the Coalition Application?

Both are online application platforms. Both enable students to apply to college. But there are major differences between the Common Application and Coalition Application that all high school seniors should know. To help students decide which application might be the better fit for them, we’ve turned to Elyse Krantz and Abigail Anderson, two of our College Coach application experts, to share their insights.

To begin, do all colleges accept both the Common Application and Coalition Application? Are there some schools that exclusively use one application versus the other?

Elyse: The Common Application has been around since 1975, and its membership seems to grow with each passing year. As of September 2017, 747 colleges accept the Common App, and this includes schools in 49 states, plus Washington D.C., in addition to 18 foreign countries. While the majority of Common App members are private institutions, public universities represent approximately 25 percent of Common App schools and include many options popular with College Coach students, such as the University of Michigan, University of Virginia, University of Massachusetts Amherst, University of Wisconsin, and Georgia Tech. For many College Coach students, the Common Application is the only college application they’ll ever need.

Abigail: The Coalition Application is much newer; founded in response to increasing technological difficulties on the college-side with the Common Application and a desire to increase accessibility to college for students through free counseling, it wasn’t until fall of 2016 that students were able to submit their applications through this platform. 111 colleges accept the Coalition App, including schools across 24 states and Washington D.C. Coalition schools are primarily private, but close to 35 percent of schools using the platform are public institutions. Students applying to the University of Florida, University of Washington, and University of Maryland must use the Coalition Application, as these schools will not accept any other type of application this year. Other schools popular with college College Coach students that accept the Coalition App, but not the Common App, are Clemson, Elon, Penn State, University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign, and University of Pittsburgh.

Elyse: There are a number of colleges that accept both the Common and Coalition Apps, and if you’re trying to decide which version to use, consider this: most colleges accepting the Common App have done so for years, and the admissions officers who read these applications know the forms inside and out. They know the order in which the questions appear; which questions are optional for students to answer; and exactly where to find the responses they’re looking for. Their eyes are trained to read and decipher the Common App. The Coalition Application is the new kid on the block. The questions themselves may be similar to those found on the Common App, but the forms themselves look completely different. So while 90 colleges (including the University of Pennsylvania, Northeastern University, Duke, University of Chicago, and Stanford) accept both applications and officially say they are equally valued, wouldn’t you suspect that admissions officers personally prefer to evaluate applications that are easier to digest? Until the Coalition App gains more traction, I recommend that my students use the Common App whenever possible.

Abigail: While the Coalition platform allows more flexibility for its applicants (including much more interesting multimedia uploads, which we’ll get into later), I agree with Elyse’s recommendation that students try to stick with the Common App if it’s possible given their application list.

Essays are such a major component of any college application. How do the questions between the Common Application and Coalition Application compare?

Abigail: The first essay option for each platform is very similar:

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. (Common Application Essay Prompt #1)

Tell a story from your life, describing an experience that either demonstrates your character or helped to shape it. (Coalition Application Essay Prompt #1)

And while the remaining questions on both applications vary somewhat, they all lead students to a similar outcome: share a personal story that reveals to admissions officers who you are.

The biggest differences between the essays across both application platforms are word count limitations and upload capabilities. The Coalition Application strongly recommends that students stay within the maximum word count guideline of 500-550 words for their main personal statement. Interestingly, each school using the Coalition App can adjust the maximum word count for this piece according to their own preferences; one school might cut the word count at 500, while another could give you 650. Additionally, the Coalition allows students to upload their essay as PDFs as well as Word documents, which allows students to use photos, colors, fonts, and more to customize the look and feel of their main personal statement.

Elyse: Unlike the Coalition Application, the Common App does have strict word limits. The main essay must be between 250 and 650 words, and students are required to cut and paste their essay into a text box on the Writing page of the Common App. This means minimal formatting—just bold, italic, and underline font—is permitted. Students who are artistically-minded may benefit from the option to personalize their essay uploads via the Coalition App, but be wary of going too far out of the box. Some colleges may welcome creative multimedia documents, but others may strongly prefer to read straightforward, traditional essays. Consider your audience before creating especially unique essays!

What about extracurricular activities – does one application allow students to better showcase their out-of-class involvement?

Abigail: While the Coalition App has less space for activities overall, with space to report only eight activities, it allows for more depth of information to be reported about those activities. For example, the Coalition App asks students to give one sentence explaining their “primary function” in the activity and one sentence for “positions, honors, and awards.” Each sentence is optional, but has space for up to 255 characters. The Common App, on the other hand, only permits students to include a 150-character description of their activity (which may include specifics about honors and accomplishments). Additionally, the length of each activity name on the Coalition App can be longer than that allowed by the Common App (64 vs. 50 characters). Finally, students are not required to report how many hours per week they participated in an activity; this is an optional field for students.

Elyse: I agree that the Coalition Application gives students more flexibility to highlight their clubs and extracurriculars. The only real “win” for the Common App here is the additional room to list a total of 10 extracurricular activities (compared to the Coalition’s eight). Students shouldn’t feel pressured to complete all 10 lines of the Activities page, but for students with a significant number of extracurricular interests, the Common App may provide a slight advantage.

Are there any other differences between the Common Application and Coalition Application?

Elyse: There are a few other differences that may have a significant impact on students. The first is the total number of applications allowed by each platform. Whereas the Common App limits students to a total of 20 colleges (which really, should be more than enough for any student!), the Coalition imposes no such threshold. In reality, if a student feels compelled to apply to more than 20 schools (and all of those colleges accept the Coalition App), he can accomplish this using just the Coalition App.

Abigail: Second, the Common Application, being more established, has significantly more robust technical support. Elyse recently emailed a question to the Coalition about an application and a response came more than 24 hours later; she emailed the Common App with a similar app question and received a response within the hour. The Coalition App offers no phone or chat support, and their email support is only available Monday through Friday, 7am-5pm PST. On the other hand, the Common App has email support 24/7/365 and chat support starting October 2nd.

Additionally, some schools using the Coalition Application allow for multimedia uploads as part of the application process. In the Coalition’s “Locker” (a private storage and organization space), students can upload document, video, audio, images, spreadsheets, and presentations to be attached to their application (for those colleges that permit it) at a later date and at the student’s discretion. Applicants with talents and skills better represented through non-written media may find the Coalition App allows them to better showcase their abilities.

Elyse: Finally, there’s the technology itself to consider. I personally love the preview feature of the Common Application. It’s very easy for students to see sample pages of their applications before the entire app is complete. Whether you’re proofreading your essay or simply curious how your activities page will be formatted, the Common App’s preview function is an incredibly useful tool. In stark contrast, each page of the Coalition App is only visible after you’ve completed the page before it. If, for example, you want to scroll ahead to view the essay questions for a particular college, you won’t be able to access them until your entire profile is complete and all earlier questions of that college’s application have been answered. And currently, there is no ability to even preview the full application before submission! To ensure you have no errors or typos, you’ll need to click on each individual page of the profile and school-specific application to review your work. Overall, I find the technology behind the Common App to be far more intuitive and user-friendly that than the Coalition App.

Our Experts’ Conclusion

Overall, these applications are very similar—they’re designed to help students give admissions officers the information needed in the decision-making process, and that information doesn’t change dramatically from school to school or from platform to platform. An applicant is going to have to answer many of the exact same questions on the Coalition and Common Applications. So which application should you choose: the well-established Common App or the shiny new Coalition App? Ultimately, select the application that’s personally easiest for you. If all (or the majority) of your colleges accept the Common App, why not go with the tried-and-true application that generally guarantees a hassle-free experience? Yet if the idea of individualizing your application with music, videos, or other artistic works excites you, the Coalition App may be a great option for you.

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Written by College Coach
College Coach® is the nation’s leading provider of educational advising, offering expert guidance from the best college admissions consultants on the college admissions and finance process. Our goal is to help each student maximize his or her chances of success through services focused on their personal desires, goals, individual strengths, and accomplishments.