The Common Application is Flawed

Student biting pencil

We’ve received many emails and comments from worried transfer applicants who are having trouble with the Common Application. We’ve dug through the Common App to expose some of the issues that you’ll come across as you complete the application.

Discrepancies between the PDF and Online Applications

We would expect that the Common App would be exactly the same whether you’re looking at the PDF version or the online form, but the two are NOT the same. The most confusing part is the instructions for the Personal Essay (“why transfer” essay) in the Writing section. The online form says this:

Please provide a statement (250 words minimum) that addresses your reasons for transferring and the objectives you hope to achieve.

However, the PDF version of the application says this:

Please provide a statement of 250 – 500 words that addresses your reasons for transferring and the objectives you hope to achieve, and attach it to your application before submission.

Why doesn’t the online form tell you that there is a 500-word limit for the “why transfer” essay? Technically, the number of words you use can’t be limited because you get to upload your essay, and no one is going to count the number of words in your essay. However, we recommend that you stick close to the 500-word limit. If you need to go over, write no more than about 600 words. Otherwise, for an admissions officer that has to read hundreds of application essays, your essay will seem too long.

“Your Response May Be Cut Off”

We found three parts of the online form that you need to check extra carefully before submitting your application online:

  1. Honors (in the Academics section)
  2. Extracurricular Activities and Work Experience (in the Activities section)
  3. Short Answer: Please briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences in the space below (1000 character maximum). (in the Writing section)

Each of these three parts come with a warning message that says:


When you click on this message, you get this explanation:

Some text may be cut off when your application is printed.

Not all answers that ‘fit’ on the online application will ‘fit’ on the PDF of the Common App. While the answers you provide on the online application are at or below the character limit for a given field, it is possible that those answers may be cut off when the PDF of your Common App is generated. There is often very limited space on the PDF of the Common App. In these cases every attempt has been made to fit the maximum amount of text but still preserve the readability of the information.

It is critical that you preview your Common App and check for truncated information. If you preview the Common App and find some of your text is missing, you should attempt to shorten your response to fit within the available space. If necessary, you can add more information in the Additional Information section of the Common App. Colleges that use the Common App are aware that there is limited space on the PDF.

This is a silly glitch that doesn’t seem difficult to fix, yet it hasn’t been fixed, though the Common App people are very aware of this problem. The best you can do is to carefully preview your application to make sure that nothing is cut off.  Click on “Preview” in the upper-right-hand corner of the screen:

When previewing your application, pay special attention to the three parts we’ve indicated above.

Concluding Thoughts:

Applying to transfer is already hard enough, so you shouldn’t have to deal with glitches in the online application. We hope the Common App people will fix these problems soon. Until then, let us know if you see anything else in the Common App that should be fixed!

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