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Common App vs. Coalition App: Which One Is Best for Your College Journey?

02/05/202421 minute read
Common App vs. Coalition App: Which One Is Best for Your College Journey?

This post will answer whatever questions you have about the Common App and Coalition App and guide you on deciding which to use. From key similarities to pivotal differences, along with a run down of what to consider when choosing between the two, this blog will home in on important features of these two high-profile application platforms and sum up their respective pros and cons so you can decide which one is best for your college journey.


Navigating the college application process can be daunting, but choosing the right platform can make all the difference. In this blog post, we'll compare the Common App and the Coalition App. These application platforms are the two dominant players in the college admissions landscape. But when you're faced with two platforms with so much in common (no pun intended), it can leave you wondering which one to choose, or why it even matters…

A bit like red apples and green apples, the Common App and Coalition app could be said to fall from similar trees, but they also have prominent differences — differences you can align with your own goals and circumstances in order to decide which application platform is best for you.

Whether you're looking to maximize your reach with the widely accepted Common App or benefit from the supportive features of the Coalition App, this guide is designed to help you make an informed decision.

Common AppCoalition App
You can access the Common App at commonapp.org and the platform also offers a mobile appTo use the Coalition App, you'll use the SCOIR college search platform: visit the coalitionforcollegeaccess.org website to find a link to create an account on the SCOIR platform and gain access to the Coalition Application. No mobile app offered.
Used by 900+ colleges and universities and a platform familiar to most college counselors; allows users to apply to up to 20 schools within its networkUsed by 150+ schools with membership in the Coalition for College Access, connecting students to universities and colleges with targeted financial and academic support programming; Apply to as many of the member schools as you want
Typically considered the go-to platform for students seeking a common application form familiar to most guidance counselors and accepted at the most schoolsTypically recommended first and foremost for students who will benefit from a more supportive application process and who want to target schools already identified for offering exceptional support for under-resourced, under-served, and/or first-generation students.

The Value of a Common Application

Did you know that the average college-bound high school student will apply to six colleges, on average? And, depending on personal circumstances and college interests, many students will apply to more than six, with some students sending out upwards of 10, 15, or more applications!

National statistics also show that the number of young people applying to college in the US is on the rise, along with the number of colleges they’re applying to. That said, don't be fooled by current trends or the notion that more is better... When deciding how many colleges to apply to, it's important to consider your target schools, college goals, and your personal circumstances.

That said, most students want to improve their chances by applying to a number of schools — such as reach, target, and safety schools. But, considering the time it takes to fill out just one college application, I probably don’t need to explain why having a common application is going to save you tons of time and energy!

By allowing you to fill out just one application and use it again and again, for all the schools you’re applying to, both the Common App and Coalition App exist, in large measure, to simplify and streamline your college application efforts.

But while the Common App was clearly designed for efficiency and uniformity, the Coalition App was created to provide greater opportunities for first-generation students and students from lower-income households.

Keeping this distinction in mind, you'll quickly make sense of many of the key similarities and differences between both platforms.

Common vs. Coalition: Key Similarities

A streamlined application process

Both the Common App and the Coalition App work the same way, serving as a common application form that allows you to fill out one application and then submit it to multiple schools, streamlining the admissions process.

But before you make plans to apply to dozens of schools, keep in mind the Common App caps your applications at twenty maximum. The Coalition App has no limit, but is also less widely accepted.

Widely, but not universally, accepted

While the idea of doing one application to use for all of the schools you’re applying to sounds great, the problem is that some schools only want to use their own application form, not a common one. Therefore, neither the Common App nor the Coalition app is accepted by all colleges and universities.

About 900+ institutions accept the Common App, and 150+ accept the Coalition app. This means that students first have to verify which of their prospective schools do indeed accept the Common App, the Coalition App, both, or neither.

Free to use, but application fees still apply

Both the Common App and Coalition App are free to use, but that doesn’t mean you can apply for free when you use them, because you’ll still have to pay any application fees required by the prospective school.

In short, using either the Common App or Coalition App won’t cost you more and can save you time, but neither will save you money. That said, both platforms do allow you to take advantage of application fee waivers if you qualify.

“Among the 889 ranked colleges who participated in U.S. News' annual survey, the average application fee was nearly $45. The 64 schools with the highest application fees – all at least $75 – charged an average of about $78”

- U.S. News and World Report

A streamlined essay submission process

Both the Common App and the Coalition App give you a chance to share a single application essay with multiple schools. The Common App offers seven essay prompts to choose from, but you'll only choose one and write one essay, with specific prompts periodically updated for subsequent admissions cycles. Whichever prompt you choose, you’ll have a word limit of 650 words.

The Coalition Application essay prompts are very similar, but may specify different length limits or requirements, depending on what the college set as its preference.

Efficient but not all inclusive

While both the Common App and Coalition App can significantly streamline your application process, individual schools may still ask you to submit numerous documents in addition to the uniform application document.

For example, many schools require applicants using the Common App or Coalition App to tackle one or more 'supplemental essays' guided by school-specific essay prompts.

Likewise, guidelines for letters of recommendation can differ from one university to another, and you’ll need to provide academic transcripts too in most cases.

The good news is that both platforms have features that enable you and your high school counselors and administrators to upload letters, transcripts, and other supporting documents.

Made for flexibility and convenience

Schools can choose to accept only their own application form, but many give students the option to use either a school-specific application, and/or the Common App, and/or the Coalition App.

Some schools accept either the Common or Coalition App; others accept both. Whatever the case, consider all of the schools you'll be applying to when deciding which platform to use or not use, since the job of applying will be more streamlined the more times you can use the same application.

All that said, flexibility is a great benefit. For example, it's fine to use one platform for some applications and the other platform for other applications, if wish to or need to for some reason.

Likewise, as long as you're using an application form approved by your prospective school, selecting one option over another should not have any favorable or unfavorable impact on how admissions officers evaluate you or your application!

Important Differences

A pivotal difference between the Common App and the Coalition App is that the Common App is designed for the widest possible use, while the core purpose of the Coalition App is to connect underrepresented students with a coalition of schools offering financial and academic support to underrepresented students.

These distinct purposes will help you make sense of other key differences between the Common App and Coalition App.

KEY DIFFERENCES BETWEEN THE COMMON APP & COALTION APP
Common AppCoalition App
Participating Colleges and UniversitiesThe Common App has been around for decades. This means the Common App is more familiar to many college counselors and also more widely accepted. Some 900+ institutions accept the Common App. That's a lot more than the Coalition App, but it also leaves a good number of schools out of the loop.In use for less than a decade, and with a more focused, supportive mission compared to the Common App, the Coalition App is not as well known nor as widely accepted. Fewer than 200 institutions all together are Coalition members, but from Harvard to Stanford, and from Yale to Duke, Tufts, and Caltech... The list of member schools, though short, is impressive for the many elite private and public institutions you'll find there!
Software ToolsAllow users to rollover data from one year to the next, providing added time saving and efficiency for students who want to get their application process started early and enjoy a seamless transition from one year to the next. Platform settings allow you to get frequent reminders for submission deadlines or other milestones across your various applications.Provides a digital ‘Locker’ where you can upload and access application documents as you collect them or complete them, and also share them with counselors or others, for more input and support. The Locker also accommodates a wide range of multimedia files — including audio files — a bonus for art majors, music students, and other creatives.
College Search FunctionsThe Common App provides navigation to school profiles and search bars and filters you can use to search the 900+ colleges and universities in the Common App database and network.The Coalition Apps offers integration with SCOIR, a one-stop college search and planning platform, providing exceptional college search support albeit for a more limited number of schools compared to the Common App network.
Activities ListsUp to 10 activities can be listed with very limited space for details and elaborationA maximum of 8 activities can be included, but with a bit more space for more detailed descriptions
User InterfaceThe Common App offers efficient and rapid navigation thanks to control panel functions that make it fast and easy to access and review different sections and subsections of your application document.The Coalition App has a more supportive interface but less control and efficiency for the end user when it comes to navigating (quickly) to different sections, something you might struggle with a bit when it comes time for the final rounds of editing and revision, for example.
Educator NetworksMore established and more widely used than the Coalition App, the Common App is typically more familiar and therefore preferred by many college counselors and admissions advisors.The Coalition App automatically connects you to schools with financial and academic programming for "lower-income, under-resourced, and/or first-generation students." The Coalition App is made to provide students greater support from a larger network of adults, offering convenient ways to 'add' users to an account — not just your high school counselor, but parents, other counselors or mentors in your life, teachers who want to support your college journey, and so on... This is another way the Coalition App is designed to provide exceptional application support for students less confident about how to navigate the application process.

Deciding Which App to Use

You now know a lot about the essential similarities and differences offered by these two prominent college application platforms. Next, let’s zero in on a few pivotal pros and cons to consider as you choose which App best suits your own circumstances.

Common App

Advantages:

  • Broad Reach: The Common App is accepted by over 900 institutions worldwide, including a diverse range of schools, from highly selective universities to smaller liberal arts colleges.
  • User-Friendly Interface: An intuitive design simplifies the application process, making it easier for students to navigate their application components.
  • Extensive Resources: With a wealth of application guides, a virtual counselor, and even a mobile app, the Common App provides a comprehensive toolkit to assist students throughout their application journey.

Disadvantages:

  • Generic Approach: Given its wide usage, the Common App can sometimes feel less personalized, which might be a drawback for students seeking to highlight unique aspects of their background or experiences.
  • Overwhelming Options: The sheer volume of member colleges combined with the limited college search resources can daunt students. This means students without access to other college search resources and admissions advising may want to keep in mind that the Common App has only very broad and generic search tools and resources.

Coalition App

Advantages:

  • Focus on Accessibility: Founded with a commitment to access, affordability, and success, the Coalition App is particularly friendly to students requiring financial aid, emphasizing support for lower-income households.
  • Planning Tools: Beyond the application, the platform offers a set of free planning tools encouraging students to begin the college preparation process as early as their freshman year in high school.
  • Portfolio Feature: Students can use the digital Locker to build a portfolio over time, a unique aspect that allows for a more comprehensive presentation of a student's achievements and experiences.
  • More Detailed Activity Descriptions: For students with less traditional activities, or whose activity roster emphasizes depth of involvement over quantity, having a bit more space to describe activities could be a noteworthy advantage.

Disadvantages:

  • Limited Scope: It’s accepted by over 150 colleges, significantly fewer than the Common App, which could limit options for students looking at a broader range of schools.
  • Newer Platform: Being newer, the platform's features and interface are less familiar to many counselors, potentially steepening the learning curve.

Making Your Decision

When determining which platform to use, consider not only the technical differences but also how each aligns with your individual application strategy:

  • Individual College Preferences: Research to see if your schools of interest accept both applications or have a preference. Some colleges might be exclusive to one platform.
  • Ease of Use: While both platforms aim to ease the application process, your individual level of comfort with their interfaces can influence your experience. Exploring each platform directly could give you a better sense of which one you prefer.
  • Support and Resources: Evaluate what kind of support and resources you foresee needing. We've seen that the Common App and Coalition App have some fundamentally different design purposes and orientations, so it makes sense to consider each option in light of your own preferences and needs.
  • Application Philosophy: Reflect on your values and educational philosophy. If access and affordability are priorities, the Coalition App’s emphasis on these values is something you'll want to consider specifically when making your decision.

Expert Insights

We wouldn’t want to end without providing some more nuanced insights from Jeremy Parks, the US Admissions Strategist assisting with this blog post.

Don’t assume using the Common App or Coalition App will be enough

While both the Common App and Coalition App have significant reach and popularity, some very selective and popular institutions don’t accept either. Here are some high-profile universities in this category:

  • MIT
  • Georgetown
  • All ten University of California Campuses

For these schools, says Jeremy, in addition to having to use a completely different application portal, you may find significant components in your common application form don’t fit either, in terms of content or format — so it’s good to plan ahead, leaving time to fill out additional applications for schools like these, if needed.

Understand the role academic components play in your application

While the Common App and Coalition App both support holistic evaluation, academic components often matter more than others. Jeremy told us that even in a holistic admissions framework, grades and course rigor typically reign supreme in the evaluation process, especially at the more selective schools:

Academics are the first and foremost factor for being competitive at any top college here in the United States, so if you don't have the grades you'll be fighting more of an uphill battle. When thinking about what ‘academics’ comprises, it's both rigor and the actual course grade.

If you’re logging into either the Common App or Coalition App platform to get a head start a year or more in advance of sending out applications, consider enrolling in courses with a level of challenge that’s right for you and that will demonstrate a sequence of increasing rigor from one school year to the next.

Be smart about what you include or omit from your list of extracurriculars

The Common App offers you a chance to include 10 extracurriculars on your activities list, but only about 150 characters for describing the activity and your role. You can only list 8 extracurriculars on the Coalition App, but get a bit more room for your descriptions. In addition to keeping these factors in mind, Jeremy recommends (whichever App you use) curating your final activities selections for optimal breadth and coherence.

Aligning activities for breadth

One crucial strategy is to think about breadth not just in terms of varied activities — like sports vs. clubs — but in terms of how specific activities spotlight different skills, traits, and aptitudes. As you select which high school extracurriculars to include, try to select ones from your high school career that spotlight traits like these:

  • An innovation mindset, with descriptions that foreground independent thinking and initiative-taking
  • Leadership, with descriptions that enumerate specific leadership skills and quantitative outcomes resulting from your actions or decisions
  • Public service, with descriptions highlighting compassion or altruism
  • Creativity, with descriptions that spotlight introspection, imagination, or originality
  • Employment experiences, with descriptions highlighting maturity, dependability, soft skills, and/or a positive work ethic
  • Determination and commitment, with descriptions that foreground perseverance or an ability to overcome obstacles or challenges

Aligning activities for coherence

Selecting and spotlighting extracurriculars that deepen key strengths that figure elsewhere in your application makes for a more coherent profile, says Jeremy:

When I read your [activities] list it's one of my first insights into whether or not you kind of match what your major says on paper. So if you say you want to be a mechanical engineer and I go into your extracurricular list and see it's just sports teams and a Quiz Bowl Tournament that’s not going to have a whole lot of insight on an engineer. If I see that you've gone to an engineering camp or you’re on a robotics team… that's a tinkerer, that's an engineer!

Jeremy also advises students not to limit their activities to traditional extracurriculars such as football, band, or debate teams. Anything constructive you did outside of your classes that’s part of your story and your personal growth are worth mentioning (unless you run out of room of course).

“When it comes to deciding which activities to consider, do not spare yourself anything. If you think it's an extracurricular, it probably is, and we admissions officers want to know about it so that we can tell the best that we can about who you are... If you don't tell us we can't read between the lines… We can only advocate for your admissions based on what you choose to share.”

- Jeremy Parks, US Admissions Strategist, Crimson Education

These expert tips are a reminder that picking which App to use is important, but it’s just a first step. Whichever platform you end up choosing, be it the Common App or Coalition App, insights like these will help you complete your application like a pro.

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Final Thoughts

Both the Common App and the Coalition App have a principal benefit for college-bound students — helping to streamline the application process.

That said, the Common App is clearly designed to be as universal a platform as possible, making it popular and widely used and understood.

The Coalition App, by contrast, is accepted at far fewer schools, making it a second choice for the majority of college applicants. But students seeking a more supportive pathway to college or connections to schools with more academic and financial support may find the Coalition App a more compelling option.

Remember, an application platform is merely a tool. Your own unique interests, qualifications, and goals are the most important touchpoints guiding your college journey, including your selection process and how you craft your individual application, regardless of the application platform you choose.

If you want leading insights that will sharpen your college journey, Crimson Education offers unparalleled expertise and a superior track record.

Whether you have questions about us, or about your own college planning, a friendly and skilled advisor is just a call away. Book a free consultation today and discover why students and families around the world partner with Crimson counselors and mentors for outstanding results!

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Remember, you don't have to navigate this journey alone. Crimson provides a comprehensive suite of services, from academic mentoring and test prep to essay assistance, extracurricular guidance, and career mentoring, ensuring a holistic approach to your college preparation journey.