In the US, there’s no centralised ‘portal’ for applying to all universities in one go, like UCAS in the UK. This guide will help you navigate the various routes to getting your application in.
There are a few different ways to apply to universities in the US: some universities accept applications directly through their own application systems. Most, however, accept application ‘portals’ - websites that let you fill out a single application, then automatically send it to multiple schools on your list.
The three main multi-university portals - the Common App, Coalition Application and University College Application - are designed to lessen your workload by allowing you to submit ‘common’ elements to each university. This will include information like:
- Biographical information about the applicant and their family
- Educational details
- Extracurricular activities
- Other relevant information
- A standard essay
The most famous portal is the Common Application, or Common App - but there are a few others too, so how do you decide which system to use? Let’s break down the different choices.
The Common Application
The Common Application or Common App is the most, well, common application you’re going to come across. If you’re stressed about picking which application to fill out, defaulting to the Common App is a really solid choice.
- Most popular choice for universities, with around 700 universities accepting it
- Provides helpful prompts for your essay
- Unifrog can help you fill it out
- Not at all flexible in terms of the information you can upload to support your application - you just have to follow the rules
- Some people find the essay prompts limiting
Universal College Application
The Universal College Application is similar in structure to the Common App, but you’re not very likely to come across it.
- Provides one very broad essay prompt, allowing for more freedom in what you write about
- Includes a college search feature
- Only accepted by 34 universities in the USA, so you’ll probably have to fill out another application as well if you choose to use it
The Coalition Application is the most unique of the options, and slightly less rare than the Universal College Application.
- Lets you upload a ‘locker’ of your work, so you can show off essays, images, videos, or an art portfolio
- Provides a ‘collaboration space’ where you can work on elements of your application with your teachers or counselors
- Allows you to register early so you can start gathering materials well before you apply
- Only accepted by around 150 universities
Sometimes, colleges will have their own personal application system. A common example is public university systems, such as the University of California (which includes UCLA and Berkeley). These vary a lot, but unfortunately can’t be avoided if you want to apply to one of these public universities.
- Use as few platforms as you can. Figure out which platform is used by the majority of universities you’re applying to (probably the Common App) and start with that one, only adding other platforms if the institution you’re interested in doesn’t accept anything else.
- Play to your strengths. If you happen to be applying to a group of universities that all use multiple platforms, consider which will show off your strengths best. For example, if you’re a talented artist, maybe the Coalition Application’s ‘locker’ feature will let you put your best foot forward by allowing you to show universities your art. If you’re a really creative personal essayist, maybe you’ll be able to show off your skills using the Universal College Application’s more open-ended essay format.
- Read carefully. Don’t just assume you can re-use materials across different application platforms, even though they mostly want the same types of information. Read the different requirements as closely as you can, and be ready to make small changes in order to match what each platform is asking for.
Check out our guide to what happens after you’re accepted to a US university to find out what to do if you get a place.