Common App vs. Coalition App: Do Colleges Prefer One Over the Other?
November 4, 2020
by Bryan Wendell
Photo by Emily Paine, Communications
Applying to multiple colleges used to be a tedious, time-consuming task. Each school had its own application form and its own slightly different set of required fields. Applying to 12 colleges meant entering basic details like your name, address and high school information a dozen times, taking up hours that could've been spent perfecting your essay — or doing literally anything else.
Thankfully, those days are long gone. With the Coalition App and Common App — the two primary college application aggregators — you enter the basics once and share that information with every school on your list. This makes applying to multiple colleges faster and easier.
But what are the differences between the Common App and the Coalition App? Do colleges that accept both, such as Bucknell, prefer one over the other?
Let's take a closer look.
What Is the Common App?
The Common App was founded in 1975 and serves more than 900 member colleges worldwide. It's the older and larger of the two application aggregators.
The Common App allows students to apply to up to 20 colleges at a time. While individual schools may charge an application fee, there's no charge to students to use the Common App. (We should also point out that many schools, including Bucknell, allow students to apply for an application fee waiver if they are concerned about the cost.)
Common App Basics
You'll start by creating a Common App profile that includes basic questions every college will need to know, like your full name, family information, test scores (if any of the schools on your list require them), home address, date of birth, applicant type (first-year or transfer), academic interest, high school and more.
After that, you'll answer questions specific to that college. For example, at Bucknell, we ask you:
Which of our three colleges you're applying to (Arts & Sciences, Engineering or the Freeman College of Management)
Your first-choice major (you can choose undecided if you’re not sure)
Why you chose that major or listed your status as undecided (250 words maximum)
Common App Personal Essay
There's also a Common App personal essay that colleges can choose to require. Even if a college doesn't require it, you're still able to include it if you'd like. (Note: Bucknell does require the Common App personal essay.)
For the 2020-2021 Common App essay, you'll write — in 250 to 650 words — your response to one of the following prompts:
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.
The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
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.
Discuss an accomplishment, event or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
Describe a topic, idea or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?
Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you've already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.
All schools that use the Common App share these prompts, meaning you won't have to write a new essay for each school.
Common App COVID-19 and Natural Disasters
For the 2020 application season, the Common App is also giving applicants the opportunity to write about how COVID-19 or a natural disaster affected their "health and well-being, safety, family circumstances, future plans and education, including access to reliable technology and quiet study spaces."
You can choose to answer the question or not. If you do, you'll have 250 words to write about the unprecedented challenges you faced and how you overcame them.
Other Common App Features
The Common App isn't just for students with a finalized list of top schools. The site also offers a "College Search" tool that allows you to filter options by location, application requirements and whether the school is test-optional.
For students looking for help navigating the often-complicated world of financial aid, the Common App site includes a suite of resources to help families plan for college costs, find scholarships and apply for financial aid.
What Is the Coalition App?
Founded in 2015 by a group of college administrators, the Coalition for College strives to improve the application experience for all high schoolers, especially those from historically underrepresented groups.
The 150-plus schools that accept the Coalition App, including Bucknell, have committed to:
Support graduates so they leave with little debt compared to their peers
Provide responsible financial aid packages
Help students prepare for college, apply and secure financial aid
The Coalition App (like the Common App) is completely free for students, though most schools require their own application fee. However, the Coalition App makes it easy for qualifying students to have their fees waived. Fee waivers are built right into the platform.
Eligible applicants include students who qualified for the Federal Free and Reduced Lunch Program; received a College Board, ACT and/or NACAC fee waiver; or are eligible for a Pell Grant.
Coalition App Basics
Like the Common App, the Coalition App process starts when you provide information about yourself, your family, your high school, test scores (if the schools on your list require them), activities, honors and more. Answer those questions once, and they'll automatically populate in every application you submit.
After that, you can enter up to three academic interests — which tells colleges about the majors that interest you most.
Coalition App Personal Essay
There's also a Coalition App personal essay. Even if a college doesn't require it, you're still able to include it if you'd like. (Note: Bucknell does require the Coalition App personal essay.)
You can choose from five prompts, and the Coalition App recommends you write an essay that's 500 to 650 words long. The 2020-2021 prompts are:
Tell a story from your life, describing an experience that either demonstrates your character or helped to shape it.
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.
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?
What is the hardest part of being a student now? What's the best part? What advice would you give a sibling or friend (assuming they would listen to you)?
Submit an essay on a topic of your choice.
All schools that use the Coalition App share these prompts, meaning you won't have to write a new essay for each school.
Other Coalition App Features
The Coalition App has a Locker feature that makes it easy to organize all your application files. You get to decide what colleges see in your locker and when.
While the Locker is the place for official documents like transcripts, academic recommendations and counselor recommendations, it also supports multimedia uploads. That means you can upload a photo, video or audio file that might enhance your application — if the schools on your list accept such supplemental material.
Better yet, the Locker has unlimited space, so you can begin adding files as early as ninth grade without worrying about running out of room by your senior year.
The Coalition App also makes it easy to add other people to your account (and control what they can see), so you can invite your parents, teachers or others to help you with your application.
And don't miss out on the features available for free to anyone who creates a MyCoalition account, including college planning tools and a Collaboration Space to work with your mentors.
What Are the Differences Between the Common App and Coalition App?
Extracurricular activities: The Common App lets you list up to 10 extracurricular activities, while the Coalition App only has room for eight. On the other hand, the Coalition App gives you a higher character count to write a more detailed description of each activity on your list.
Number of schools: The Common App allows you to apply to a maximum of 20 schools. The Coalition App has no such limits.
Multimedia uploads: Through its Locker feature, the Coalition App allows students to upload videos, audio files, spreadsheets and other documents. This could be a nice way to stand out by showcasing your creative work. The Common App allows you to link to files hosted elsewhere (like YouTube or Vimeo) but not upload directly.
Support: Neither the Common App nor the Coalition for College offers phone support. Both sites allow students to submit a request for help and commit to responding within 24 hours, but the Common App promises to respond 24/7/365, while the Coalition App responds on weekdays only.
Do Colleges Prefer the Common App Over the Coalition App (or Vice Versa)?
No. Colleges that offer both the Common App and the Coalition App don't have a preference either way. At Bucknell and other schools that accept both, admissions officers want students to use whichever application suits them best.
The same is true for schools that offer both their own proprietary application system and the Common App and/or Coalition App. Your application will be treated the same regardless of which application system you choose.
So why would a school offer more than one way to apply? There are several possible reasons:
To allow students to choose the application that best fits their needs
To ensure that a technological issue doesn't affect a student's application process (both the Common App and Coalition App are reliable, but glitches and downtime are always possible)
To set that school apart from other schools that don't offer multiple applications
You might read advice online suggesting that you choose the Common App because it's older and better known among admissions counselors. The argument here is that counselors are trained to read the Common App and can find things on it more quickly, causing them to see your application more favorably.
While that might be true at some schools, it's not the case at Bucknell. Our admissions officers take a patient approach to each application so they can get to know everything about you.
How to Choose Which One to Use
If you have a final list of schools and are ready to apply, create a spreadsheet with three columns like the one below.
If you find yourself with just one column full of yeses, then you've got your choice. You'll save yourself time by using the platform accepted by every school on your list.
If there's not a consensus pick, then you're going to end up using both the Coalition App and Common App anyway.
As to which one to choose when a school accepts both, that's up to you. Create a free account on both platforms and spend some time exploring the sites. Do you prefer the format or navigation of one application site over the other? Does one of the application essay prompts speak to you more than another?
Once you've decided, congratulations! You've cleared another hurdle in the application process. Both platforms make it easy to get started and return to your progress again and again.