R.J. of East Rockaway, NY writes:

What's the difference between the Common Application and the Universal College Application? Is it better to use the college's own application, when offered? I'm growing more confused and frustrated by the minute. Where do I start?

The College Whisperer responds:

It is always best to start at the beginning, which, lucky for you, is right here at College Connection's blog. ;-)

Simply put, both the Common Application (Common App, to it's friends and admirers) and the Universal College Application are centralized, online applications used by colleges and universities in lieu of their own applications. The idea is to simplify the process so that students essentially have to complete a single application (and many supplements) for any number of colleges, rather than to complete applications piecemeal. In short, these repositories of applicationdom present the portals through which most college-bound students shall pass before they can enter those ivy-covered gates.

The difference? Merely a matter of which colleges accept which application.

The Common App is the more universal (pun intended) portal, accepted (to date) by more than 400 institutions. The Universal Application, accepted by significantly fewer. [74 colleges, as of this writing.] Clearly, the folks at Common App got a head start in this game, and have done a better job recruiting colleges for their program.

Some universities, such as Duke, Johns Hopkins, and the University of Tampa, among others, accept both. [Aha! Hedging their bets, playing both ends against the middle.] Many colleges, as you suggest, also maintain their own applications, hanging on to those old vestiges of self-identity till the bitter end. LOL

Which to choose? Go for the one that lists the most colleges you intend to apply to. Why make more work for yourself, unless you have to, as where one college accepts the Common App, another the Universal App, and a third only its own form? No one said life would be easy, or, for that matter, inexpensive!

Which application do college admissions officers favor? The one that makes their lives easier, just like the rest of us! Go with the Common App, if your colleges of choice accept it, if for no other reason than keeping everything in one place. Your sanity, as well as college admission, is at stake here! ;-)

Do apply online, whenever and wherever possible. Nothing causes more frustration at a college admissions office than having to integrate a hand-written application, sent by snail mail, into the online matrix which you will soon become. And the odds of something getting lost somewhere along the line increase exponentially when offline measures are invoked.

Of course, as common as both the Common App and the Universal Application are, many schools will still require the submission of supplemental applications, typically available on and submitted through the Common/Universal App sites. Some schools, just to keep you on your toes, ask for the submission of supplemental material directly to the college, via the school's website, or, though more rarely, these days, by mail. Be mindful of such supplements (and other documentation required by the colleges), as your application will not be deemed complete until all submissions are received.

And don't forget those recommendation letters, transcripts, mid-year grade reports, SAT/ACT scores, etc., all of which must be transmitted to the colleges you have applied to, by means as specified by the particular school. Picky, picky.

The Common App goes "live" on August 1, meaning you can actually begin filing on that date. [Yes, it's true. The early bird often catches the worm. Keep in mind, though, that it is the second mouse that usually gets the cheese!] You may preview the Common App (but not the supps) by clicking HERE.

The Universal College Application does not specify a going "live" date, stating only that the main application as appears on the website should be used by students to apply for terms starting with fall 2010. Presumably, you could start working on the Universal Application today. Be advised, however, that most colleges do not start accepting applications for the fall of 2011 until August, at the earliest. No hard and fast rules here. Check with the respective admissions offices, or your college planning counselor, for details and deadlines.

By the way, as with almost everything else you do in or for college, as in life, both the Common App and the Universal College Application require registration. Common App registration will be available online when the site re-launches on August 1. Universal College Application registration is ongoing.

Still confused? That's why they make Guidance Counselors, college admission officers, and college planning and admission counselors. When in doubt, ask. And before you apply yourself, get the help you need to do it right. Do not hit the "submit" button until you are absolutely sure that the t's are crossed, the i's dotted, the essays personalized, reflective, impassioned and spell-checked, and your application is not only complete, but portrays a true, accurate, and decisive snapshot of the student you want that college admissions officer to say yes to!

The views and opinions expressed in this blog are solely those of The College Whisperer.

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