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by Kay Kurashige, former admissions officer at Brown University

While we have come a long way from the days of submitting typewritten applications to individual colleges via snail mail, currently there is still no “one-size-fits-all” application that is used for all colleges in the United States. Students will frequently need to use several different application platforms in order to apply to all of the universities on their list. While there are many similarities between the applications, each has its own unique qualities and requirements. As a result, applying to colleges can unfortunately be a time consuming (and frequently confusing) process. That’s why we are here to help!

Most application platforms will require students to provide colleges with their biographic, academic, and extracurricular details, and to write essays. However, they will differ in key ways: the amount of space allotted for activity descriptions; essay topics and maximum length of essays; and even the basics of user interface. In order to help you make sense of the madness, here is an overview of four of the most commonly used college applications (please note that this post focuses on students applying for freshman admission):

The Common Application:

The juggernaut of the application platforms, the Common App is used by approximately 900 colleges and universities. It is used not only by many colleges in the US, but many outside of the US as well. Schools that use the Common App include public universities such as the University of Arizona, small liberal arts colleges such as Amherst College, art schools such as California College of the Arts, HBCUs such as Howard University, and all members of the Ivy League. The Common App requires students to write an essay of up to 650 words, based on a topic chosen from a list of seven prompts. Review the 2020-21 Common App essay prompts.

The Coalition Application:

Founded in 2015, the Coalition App is a relatively new platform that partners with about 150 colleges and universities. With a focus on access and affordability, the Coalition requires member schools to demonstrate support for low-income students. The platform is unique in offering a virtual “locker” where students can store application materials as early as ninth grade. Coalition App schools consist of public universities such as University of Washington (which uses only the Coalition App), small liberal arts colleges such as Kenyon College, and some Ivy League schools such as Columbia University. The Coalition requires students to choose from five essay prompts. Review the Coalition Application essay prompts. There is no word limit (although the recommendation is 500-550) so students frequently use the same essay for the Common App and the Coalition App. Note, though, that essay requirements can vary by institution. University of Washington, for instance, asks students to respond to a specific essay prompt and caps the word count at 500.

The University of California Application:

The University of California (UC) app is used by all schools in the UC system, which includes the Berkeley, Los Angeles, and San Diego campuses. (Note that the California State University system, which includes Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, uses its own application platform.) One unique aspect of the UC app is its requirement that students self-report classes and grades on the application itself rather than submit official transcripts, which aren’t required until after the student is admitted. The UC app asks students to write four essays of up to 350 words each, in response to what they call “Personal Insight Questions” (PIQ). Students choose from a list of eight Personal Insight Questions. I encourage anyone interested in UC schools to explore their admissions website in depth, as it is a treasure trove of useful information!

ApplyTexas:

As the name suggests, ApplyTexas is an application used by a number of institutions in Texas, including all public universities as well as many private schools (such as Trinity University), HBCUs (such as Texas Southern University), Hispanic serving universities (such as Texas State University), and community colleges (such as Collin College). Note that most ApplyTexas schools give students the option to use another application platform in lieu of ApplyTexas (for example, UT Austin accepts both ApplyTexas and Coalition). ApplyTexas offers three essay prompts, but each school specifies which prompt they want students to choose (sometimes they will allow students to choose from any of the three). If you are planning to use ApplyTexas and one or more additional application platforms, it’s a good idea to start with the ApplyTexas essay because the topics are more restrictive than those offered on the Common or Coalition. Review the 2020-21 ApplyTexas essay questions.

So there you have it! While all of this may seem daunting, if you steadily work on your applications and plan wisely, everything can be completed with a minimal amount of stress. For guidance on writing your college essays, access our special video series: Developing Your College Essay.

Written by Kay Kurashige
Kay Kurashige is a member of College Coach’s team of college admissions experts. Prior to joining College Coach, Kay worked as an admissions officer at Brown University and Columbia University, as well as a college counselor at high schools in the US and Brussels. Visit our website to learn more about Kay Kurashige.