For years, the Common Application (CA) was the only widely available application for use at multiple colleges. It was created in 1975, with 15 colleges in its first year. It still dominates the college application world, and today is used by more than 800 colleges and universities.
However, back in 2007, the Universal College Application (UCA) was created, and now serves 18 colleges and universities. So what exactly are the differences between the CA and the UCA? Why do colleges use one, both, or neither? And which one should you use? We will explore these questions in this post and help you decide how to apply.
CA vs UCA: A Centralized College Application
Both the CA and UCA allow you to create a centralized college application—with your demographic information, extracurricular activities, and grades—and then send that application off to various colleges. This saves time since you don't have to fill out a separate application for every single college you apply to.
The CA and UCA mostly serve private colleges, though there are exceptions. The reason for this is that most public universities have their own online admissions systems.
Many colleges on the CA and UCA have what they call "supplements"—extra questions that their admissions offices use to evaluate candidates. The supplements can include anything from short questions ("describe yourself in five words") to additional essays.
If colleges accept both applications, they don’t have a preference for one or the other. In other words, it won’t matter to them which one you use. While it’s far more likely you’ll use the CA simply because it serves so many more colleges, there are still some advantages to the UCA.
So how do you decide which application system to use?
Benefits of the Universal College Application
First, let's take a look at the biggest pros of using the UCA:
- The Universal College App's interface is faster than the Common App's, and includes an auto-save feature, which can prevent you from losing progress and having to go back and fill something out again.
- Since the Universal App is newer and doesn’t serve as many applicants or colleges, you can expect to get technical assistance faster if you need it. Whether you run into a technical problem or have a question, you can expect a faster response from the UCA.
- You can edit your essay after you push the submit button with the UCA. Obviously, this won’t matter if you edit your essay in March, as the admissions officers will have seen it by then, but if you catch a small mistake a few days after submission, you’ll have the chance to change it.
- You can link to online content you’ve produced, such as a student newspaper or film project.
- Some schools are on the UCA but not the CA. These are the University of Charleston (WV) and Landmark College (all other UCA schools are also on the CA). Note that both Landmark College and the University of Charleston will be available on the CA starting this application cycle (2019-20).
Drawbacks to the Universal College Application
Now that we've seen the pros of the UCA, let's go over the biggest cons:
- The main downside to the Universal College App is that not very many schools use it in comparison to the CA. True—it does serve some big-name schools like Cornell, Harvard, Johns Hopkins, and Princeton. But the rest of the Ivy League, Stanford, MIT, and numerous other colleges aren’t on the UCA. For a complete list of schools, go to the UCA website.
- In most cases, if a college uses the Universal App, it’s also on the Common App, but not vice versa (except for the two exceptions we noted above). So for the majority of students, the Common App is likely to be the more convenient option since it will give them the most flexibility when applying to college.
- It’s possible that if you decide to use the UCA but then decide after submitting some applications that you want to apply to a school that only uses the CA, you’ll end up having to fill out the CA anyway. If you start with the CA, it’s much less likely you’ll have to fill out a second application since so few schools are UCA-only.
Benefits of the Common Application
We've looked at the pros and cons of the UCA, but what about the CA? Here are the three biggest advantages:
- The biggest draw of the Common App is that it represents more than 800 schools! Because of this fact alone, many students use the CA even if they would prefer the UCA's interface and flexibility. Check out the Common App website to see the full list of schools it serves.
- Since the CA has been around for a long time, most high school teachers and guidance counselors are familiar with the CA and know how to fill out its various sections (including letters of recommendation and the counselor recommendation sections).
- With the Common App account rollover feature, you can actually start your application early and roll the information you've filled out over to the next year's application when it opens on August 1.
Drawbacks to the Common Application
Just like the UCA, the Common App isn't perfect! Here are its biggest cons:
- The CA has a slower interface than UCA.
- The Common App launched a new version in 2014. Some students have found this format a bit confusing. For example, academic honors and extracurriculars are now filled out in subsections that are somewhat hard to find (the honors list is in the "Education" section, and the activities subsection is under "Activities"). These used to be more straightforward lists.
- It’s harder to retain certain formatting in essays since the "upload"feature is gone with the most recent edition. If you’re picky about how your essay is formatted, this could be a source of annoyance.
- The Common App receives thousands upon thousands of applications. For example, in 2017-18, more than 1 million applicants used the CA. However, their staff isn’t that big, so if you have a technical problem, it might take some time to work it out. Definitely aim to submit your applications before their deadlines in case you run into any technical troubles. (And don’t be that student pressing the submit button at the last possible minute!)
- Unlike the Universal College App, you can’t make edits to the essay after submission. So don’t push "submit" until you are positive your essay is perfect!
Colleges That Don’t Accept Either the UCA or CA
While the CA and UCA have become huge names in college admissions, there are still plenty of schools that don’t accept either application system. If you are applying to these schools, you might not even have to choose between the UCA and CA.
Here are some notable schools that don’t use either the Universal College App or Common App:
- Georgetown University
- Rutgers University
- University of California system (including UC Berkeley and UCLA)
- University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
- University of Texas system (including UT Austin)
- Texas A&M
This is just a starter list. As a general rule, public universities tend to have their own systems. And some colleges on the CA and UCA also offer their own online application systems.
To check whether a school is on the UCA or CA, simply go to the list of UCA schools and CA schools, and see if the school is on the list (use a ctrl + F to search quickly on the UCA or just use the search function for the CA).
If you’re mostly applying to schools that don’t use the UCA or CA, for the few colleges you apply to that do use those applications, you might have a bit more flexibility.
For example, say you’re a California resident applying mostly to public in-state schools, but you’re also applying to Harvard, Princeton, and Johns Hopkins as your reach schools. Since all three of those schools are on both the UCA and CA, you would be able to choose between the two applications based on your preferences.
However, if your reach schools were Stanford and Yale, you would have to use the Common App, since neither of those schools uses the Universal College App.
Bottom Line: Universal College Application vs Common App
Given these pros and cons, which application system is the best choice for you—the Universal College Application or the Common Application?
Definitely Use the Common Application If …
- You are applying to schools that don’t accept the Universal College App and/or schools that are Common App only. This will likely be the case for the majority of students.
- Most or all of the schools you’re applying to require at least one letter of recommendation and essay. Since these features are required on the CA, it will simplify your application process to have them as required, rather than optional, components.
Definitely Use the Universal College Application If …
- You’re only applying to schools that accept the Universal College App (or some schools that take the UCA and some schools that don’t accept either the UCA or the CA) and you prefer the UCA’s interface.
For any school that you are interested in applying to, look it up on both the CA website and UCA website and note if it’s on the CA, the UCA, both, or neither. Once you narrow down your college application list, you can decide which application system will make it easier to apply to all the schools you’re interested in.
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Halle Edwards graduated from Stanford University with honors. In high school, she earned 99th percentile ACT scores as well as 99th percentile scores on SAT subject tests. She also took nine AP classes, earning a perfect score of 5 on seven AP tests. As a graduate of a large public high school who tackled the college admission process largely on her own, she is passionate about helping high school students from different backgrounds get the knowledge they need to be successful in the college admissions process.