Rising seniors who will be applying to competitive colleges this fall are almost sure to soon face the question, “Which is better, the Common App or the Coalition App?”

This budding rivalry isn’t quite yet on par with Coke vs. Pepsi, Ford vs. Chevy, or Nike vs. Reebok. Rather, the case of the Common App vs. the Coalition App better resembles one of those start-up business tales that we all love, where a feisty newcomer tries to dethrone the industry goliath. You know—the storyline where a bunch a geniuses toil away in a garage, pursuing an innovation that will bring some mighty corporate giant to its knees. Except in this version, the feisty upstart (the Coalition App) happens to have the backing of just about every college and university in the country that boasts a total endowment ending in “billion.”

The brewing battle between the Common App and the Coalition App is evidenced by the sheer volume of questions that we at College Transitions have been fielding on the subject as of late. In the interest of providing some clarity, let’s start by taking a quick look at what each application is all about and then we’ll delve into the differences through a Q & A, addressing the most frequent questions that we receive from clients on the subject.

The Common App in a nutshell

In 1975, a small grouping of private colleges, possessing both overlapping admissions requirements and applicant pools, forged an agreement to develop a common application form that could be Xeroxed and submitted to all schools within the cohort. By the mid-1990s, the movement began to spread to more and more institutions and soon the Common Application migrated online, started to include public schools, and switched from being volunteer-run to an incorporated non-profit. Growth has continued throughout the 21st century, as the number of participating schools has more than doubled in the past decade leading to its present number of member schools—702 institutions. Out of these, roughly one-third will only accept the Common App.

The original intention of the Common App remains its intention still today. It is a tool that helps to streamline the process of applying to multiple schools, allowing students to enter their demographics, educational history, test score data, activities, and essay just one time, saving applicants valuable time and headaches.

The Coalition App in a nutshell

Current high schoolers who, in the preliminary phases of their college search process, encounter The Coalition for Access, Affordability, and Success are often a tad confused by the clunky name that sounds like either A) the world’s lamest team of superheroes, or B) a defunct Soviet ministry. In actuality, “The Coalition” is a collection of colleges and universities that all meet a series of criteria demonstrating that they graduate a high percentage of their students within six years and have a strong track record of meeting applicants’ financial needs.

In order to promote increased access, the Coalition App is designed to engage students in the college process earlier in their high school careers. It also aims to make the application more holistic and organic than the Common App. Students are given a digital “locker” in which they can enclose writing samples, multimedia artifacts that represent their unique passions or talents, and are encouraged to connect with mentors of all varieties (counselors, community members, admissions counselors) to seek out advice as early as in 9th grade.

The Coalition’s numbers rise each month, and the total number of schools presently totals 116.

Does one give an admissions advantage?

There is no admissions edge either way. Coalition schools have already stated that no one will be punished for using the Common App.

Is there a price difference?

Nope—both are “free” platforms—but of course you still have to pay the individual fees to each college or university to which you apply.

Do any schools require the Coalition App?

Yes, but it’s a short list. In the 2017-18 admissions cycle, only the University of Maryland, University of Florida, and University of Washington will require students to apply through the Coalition App. At this time, it is optional at all other schools within The Coalition.

Are the essay prompts different?

Yes. You can check out The Coalition Essay Prompts by clicking here, although it is important to note that not every Coalition school requires an essay. At some colleges, writing samples included in your digital locker can be substituted (the whole “more organic” thing). The Common App essays have undergone some changes from previous years which we recommend reviewing in our previous post on the subject.

One additional difference are the length requirements. The Common App software will not allow you to enter anything over the 650 word limit. The Coalition App does not have an official cap, but they recommend between 300-400 words and not to exceed 550.

How do most applicants apply to Coalition schools?

The 2016-17 admissions cycle was the debut of the Coalition App and it failed to make a major splash. Usage data is sparse but we know that at Yale, a paltry 1% of the applicant pool, just 317 total students, selected the Coalition App over the more traditional Common App. At Emory University, fewer than 1,000 of the 23,694 total applications were submitted via the Coalition Application.

Which is more convenient?

We personally find the interface of the Common App easier to use at this time. Having been online for almost two decades, they’ve successfully worked out many of the kinks and continue to make improvements each year. The Coalition App, on the other hand is new, and, as is to be expected, had its fair share of technical difficulties in year one.

Who does the Coalition App make sense for?

If your list is comprised exclusively of schools that accept the Coalition App and you feel that its unique offerings (i.e. the storage locker, writing sample, etc.) work to your benefit, then by all means—give the Coalition App a try. This scenario would only be likely for a high-caliber student applying to many elite colleges, since that is who makes up the majority of The Coalition.

On the other hand, if you plan on applying to ten schools and only two or three are Coalition members, then filling out both applications isn’t likely going to be a great use of your precious time.

College Transitions’ Bottom Line:

For rising seniors who are gearing up for the 2017-18 admissions cycle, we do not, barring unique circumstances, recommend using the Coalition App at this time. We do advise that students currently entering 9th or 10th grade who have their eyes on elite colleges at least begin archiving the best examples of their academic work as additional Coalition schools may mandate use of their application in the coming years.

Andrew Belasco

A licensed counselor and published researcher, Andrew’s experience in the field of college admissions and transition spans more than one decade. He has previously served as a high school counselor, consultant and author for Kaplan Test Prep, and advisor to U.S. Congress, reporting on issues related to college admissions and financial aid.