The Common App vs. The Coalition Application: Key Similarities and Differences


The Common App vs. The Coalition Application: Key Similarities and Differences

Along with the corresponding increases in total application numbers and applications submitted per student, there comes an increase in application-oriented anxiety. The sheer coordination of competing logistics -- different essays, different testing requirements, different deadlines, different forms -- can feel dizzying. It’s no surprise that a huge supply of digital resources has emerged to help navigate these complexities.

The centralized application portals like the Common Application and the Coalition Application have impacted the overall admissions landscape for the better, expanding access and streamlining a notoriously intimidating process. Which brings me to a question that many students have: What is the difference between the Common App and the Coalition App? Why would you, a college applicant, choose to use one as opposed to the other? From a Former Admission Officer’s perspective, does one application methodology offer advantages to its users?

I hope that this blog provides some practical, helpful insight into the pros, cons, and differences between the two dominant application systems. I’ll begin by describing each system separately, accounting for their particular histories and mission statements. In conclusion, I’ll try to make sense of their contrasting features and purposes, and hopefully you’ll get a better idea of the Common App vs. the Coalition Application.

The Common Application


Mission Statement

The Common App was founded in 1975, over forty years ago, long before the promise of digital interconnectedness. As an educational non-profit, the Common App describes itself as “committed to the pursuit of access, equity, and integrity in the college admissions process,” boasting that over a million students use its free online application each year to apply to any number of its 800+ member institutions. Chances are, most schools on your college list are members of the Common App. Undoubtedly, the Common App is the oldest, largest, and most comprehensive application portal available.

The Different Sections

The Common App is divided into different sections so that admissions officers can learn more about you in an organized way. The different portions of the Common App are:

  • Profile
  • Family
  • Education
  • Testing
  • Activities
  • Writing
  • Additional Information

Activities List

Apart from requiring you to fill out basic information regarding your demographics, family, and educational background, the Common App provides the opportunity to list and rank a maximum of ten activities that you’ve been involved with in high school. For the title of the activity, you’re allowed 50 characters (not words); for the description of the activity, you’re allowed 150 characters. 150 characters will quickly disappear as you start writing! You need to be strategic and thoughtful when crafting each one of these descriptions, focusing on leadership, sustained involvement, and tangible achievements.

Personal Statement

You’ll also be asked to write a personal statement of no more than 650 words. The personal statement gives admissions officers a chance to get to know you better! This essay should be true to you and elaborate on a formative experience that you believe makes you unique. The Common App personal statement prompts for this year are:

  • 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.

Website Logistics

Beyond these fundamentals, the Common App also helps with two other logistical pieces. First, the website will facilitate the request and submission of recommendation letters from your high school teachers; this feature is integrated into the Common App itself. Second, the website is also a first-rate research tool, helping you find relevant, helpful, and accurate information about its member institutions, such as deadlines, requirements, and supplemental essay prompts. In my opinion, this is one of the most underutilized and underrated aspects of the Common App, and I highly recommend it to students and parents alike.

For a complete guide to filling out the Common Application check out this virtual walkthrough of the application:

The Coalition Application

Mission Statement

The Coalition App was founded in 2015 to “make college a reality for all high school students through its set of free, online college planning tools that help them learn about, prepare for, and apply to college.” The website does not make clear how many students rely upon its services, but the Coalition notes that it has partnered with 140 colleges and universities, including all eight Ivy League schools, Stanford, Johns Hopkins, University of Chicago, and many of the top liberal arts colleges. While the Coalition is gaining popularity, you may be able to go through the application process without having to use this platform.

Unlike the Common App, the Coalition’s ethical motivations shine through with relatively strict eligibility criteria for its member institutions. In particular, member institutions must demonstrate that they are committed to access (especially regarding “under-served and under-resourced populations”), affordability (especially regarding financial aid, meeting demonstrated financial need, and reducing debt loads), and success (especially regarding graduation rates for at-risk students). See specific details here.

The Different Sections

Both the Common App and the Coalition App are divided into different sections. A lot of information which is asked in separate sections of the Coalition App is asked within larger umbrella sections of the Common App. For example, the Coalition App has an entire section dedicated to Demographic Information, whereas those questions are included within the Profile section of the Common App.

Note that not all portions of the Coalition App are required. The required sections of the Coalition App are:

  • Personal Information
  • Contact Information
  • Demographic Information
  • Citizenship Information
  • Family Information
  • High School Information

The optional sections are:

  • 12th Grade Coursework
  • College Information
  • 9th-11th Grade Coursework
  • College Coursework
  • Subject Tests
  • Additional Tests
  • Honors and Distinctions
  • Academic Interests
  • Activities/Experiences

When comparing the Common App vs. Coalition Application, it’s important to note that the Common App does allow students to fill out honors, academic interests, and future plans. They are simply included within the education section instead of separately.

Activities List

The Coalition App requires the same basic information about your background and high school experiences. There are no major differences between the Common App vs. the Coalition Application to note in this regard. But there are changes to be aware of within the activities section. The Coalition App allows space to include only eight distinct activities, with 64 characters allotted for each title and 255 characters allotted for each description. If you wish to add distinct prizes and awards, you can add up to five honors. While there are fewer slots for your extracurriculars, you do gain more characters to elaborate on what you accomplished. Take advantage of these precious characters!

Personal Statement

The essay requirement is also similar, requiring that you complete a piece of writing between 500 and 550 words, though no formal maximum is instituted. Students are allowed to upload PDF files for select colleges, therefore not enforcing a strict word cutoff. That being said, colleges are also allowed to set their own limits. Based on the school’s limit and the general Coalition recommendation of 550 words, I’d recommend that you don’t cross the limit. Trimming 100 words from your 650-word Common App personal statement can be tough. But you might have to be brutal and cut off entire paragraphs, even if you are attached to every word!

Just like with the Common App, make sure your Coalition essay is true to you and conveys a story only you can tell. Be sure to proofread and edit as much as possible. The prompts for the Coalition App essay 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 teenager now? What’s the best part? What advice would you give a younger sibling or friend (assuming they would listen to you)?
  • Submit an essay on a topic of your choice.

The Locker

The research functions of the Coalition App are somewhat more limited than the Common App, as the Coalition has fewer member colleges to look-up. That being said, the Coalition does have extensive tools for connecting with your college counselor and other supervising adults through the website itself, and for keeping track of and sharing important files through its cloud-based drive, the “locker.”

Something many students don’t know is that you can start using the locker as early as ninth grade to keep track of your portfolios, certificates, essay drafts, etc. You can share the materials on the locker with your teachers and collaborate. This system is similar to other cloud-based storage spaces such as Google Drive.

The locker makes organization much easier, as you can attach information directly from the locker to Coalition applications. If you take advantage of this portal starting early in your high school career, you won’t have to look all around for your different materials from over the years or scan them separately. Although the maximum size per file is 50 MB, storage space is unlimited!

the common app vs. the coalition applicationthe common app vs. the coalition application

I’d like to assure you that -- from an admissions perspective -- there’s no real or relevant advantage to using one of these websites as opposed to another when thinking about the Common App vs. the Coalition Application. They are essentially identical, and their apparent differences are not demonstrably meaningful. Depending on what you’ve participated in throughout high school, I think there’s an argument to be made that the additional two activity slots on the Common App can be somewhat advantageous. This is particularly useful for students with significant and interesting extracurricular involvement. In the vast majority of circumstances, however, there’s no real strategic advantage to be gained.

There may be compelling practical reasons when deciding between the Common App vs. the Coalition Application. I would recommend that any college applicant simplify their process as much as possible. If you can avoid having to use both application portals, avoid it! The redundant data entry can be time consuming, and can feel especially burdensome (“why am I doing this again?”). Check out the lists of member institutions for the Common App and for the Coalition App, and see if one or the other more completely captures the list of schools you’re interested in.

Of course, there are a number of schools that accept the Coalition App but do not accept the Common App. These are:

School Name Location
Clemson University Clemson, SC
Elon University Elon, NC
James Madison University Harrisonburg, VA
Loyola Marymount University Los Angeles, CA
North Central College Naperville, IL
Rutgers University - Camden Camden, NJ
Rutgers University - New Brunswick New Brunswick, NJ
Rutgers University - Newark Newark, NJ
St. Mary's University San Antonio, TX
Texas A&M University College Station, TX
The University of New Mexico Albuquerque, NM
The University of Texas at Austin Austin, TX
University of Florida Gainesville, FL
University of Georgia Athens, GA
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Champaign, IL
University of Maryland - College Park College Park, MD
University of Montana Missoula, MT
University of Oklahoma Norman, OK
University of South Carolina Columbia, SC
University of South Florida Tampa, FL
University of Washington - Bothell Bothell, WA
University of Washington - Seattle Seattle, WA
Virginia Tech Blacksburg, VA

These are largely -- but not exclusively -- state institutions. If you want to apply to your Coalition-approved in-state university, and the other schools you plan on applying to are also available through Coalition, then roll ahead with this platform! Simplification is key.

While the Coalition App boasts the cloud-like storing drive the “locker,” you can use the locker even if you decide not to apply to college using the Coalition Application. Moreover, the Common App has significantly stronger research capacities.

On the whole, when comparing the Common App vs. the Coalition Application for most circumstances, I think the Common App is ultimately a more helpful and pertinent application system, and it is what I officially recommend. As the most widely used application platform, it’s an essential piece of the admissions process. If you don’t need the Coalition, I think you’re better off with a Common App-centric approach.

When deciding between the Common App vs. the Coalition Application, remember that both systems are at the core of the college application process. These platforms ultimately deliver all of your hard work to admissions offices! Don’t underestimate their importance. Start getting familiar with the systems that you’ll need today.

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