Why Highly Selective Colleges Should Kiss the Common App Goodbye

Stand up for yourselves -- say NO to a common application, and design one that is specific to your college. And while you're at it, let students send it via post if they so choose.
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I'm a card-carrying member of the college admissions "old guard," having spent from 1992-1997 evaluating applications for Dartmouth College as an Assistant Director of Admissions. We were troglodytes who used actual "paper" files in actual hard copy folders (remember those?) that arrived at our office via (gasp) the United States Post Office (sometimes even UPS or Fed Ex). Teacher letters were sent via U.S. mail along with school materials like transcripts.

Our systems office received and opened every piece of mail, and filed them in the students' files which were sorted by name and social security number and birthdate. Once complete, each file made its way upstairs to a file drawer where we would pull files, first by region and then randomly until each file was read by at least two admissions officers (in between reads, they went back to systems where new information was added).

We had the liberty to read files at work or at home, so I would scoop up my daily allotment of 25-30 files and read in my pajamas, sipping tea and reclining in my favorite chair. The system worked well -- we rarely lost anything and if something were missing, a student could call us and because everything was logged into the computer, it was easy to check. The best part was that we could ask the questions WE wanted to hear about since it was OUR application.

Dartmouth College has never been a run of the mill Ivy, and there were things we cared about that we could ask in our application so we didn't simply get run of the mill applicants who were just "tossing in" a Common Application even though they might not be interested in attending. In other words, we customized our application and read essays we wanted to read.

The Common App has sanitized the admissions process to the point that top colleges are forced to rely more on grades, scores and metrics than on actual substance. Why? Every college is different and looks for different qualities in their applicants but are forced to use one generic application.

Until this year, the Common App at least allowed a "topic of your choice" question to permit the applicant a modicum of creativity. Not so the new Common App (CA4) which has been a disaster since inception. Its official launch was slated for August 1st, but with new questions, new data entry, new format and a new interface, we had early indications that these changes were too ambitious to meet that schedule.

Sure enough, we had a chance to test drive the new Common App with 50+ students this August at our Application Boot Camp program in Boston where we help students prepare their applications and develop a personalized application strategy. Every single student had technical issues from the get-go. Sign-ins were not recognized, text was cut off, print preview didn't work, material wasn't saved, NO uploads were allowed (as had been the case in years past), pop ups didn't work -- an unmitigated disaster.

When our students got back to school, things went from bad to worse. Outside recommender forms failed, the FAQ section had thousands of questions already with thousands more to follow, more glitches were discovered every day, payments were refused, high schools were locked out of the system (talk about conflict of interest -- the company Hobsons, which has a partnership with the Common App, also owns Naviance, the preferred software used by many high schools to upload transcripts and school materials -- hmmmm) and depending on which browser you used, some parts worked, some didn't.

With a week left before deadlines, the Common App with its support staff of eight people (yes, you read that right -- they have no phone support and this skeleton staff is responsible for millions of users in the regular round) is scrambling to fix the glitches that are plaguing the early round of applications due November 1st. In just the early round, apps are up 19 percent to 229,185 as of Oct. 18, filed by 97,281 students.

Other issues? This year's Common App got rid of UPLOADS so for the first time, students can no longer upload an activity list/resume or, for that matter, ANY document. Basically the Common App has one 650-word (maximum) essay and no other writing. No uploads, no extra info. Plain vanilla. What if you are applying to an engineering school, a business school and a liberal arts school? Too bad -- you have to write ONE essay for all three and hope that somewhere, a supplemental question might let you address WHY you are picking that particular program. Because there are no uploads, students can't even include a short WHY paragraph (why they are applying and why they are a good fit).

Initially, the Common Application appealed to colleges because it promised make admission more "equitable" for low-income students because they would need only ONE application for multiple schools. And colleges, liberal-minded as they are, couldn't say no to making the process "fair" for low-income students. The problem is that the Common Application was, well, common and didn't give enough information for selective schools, so the majority of selective schools simply added cumbersome "supplements."

Now, a student applying, say, to Williams has to do the Common App essays plus the supplements for Williams and similar supplements for every other school he is applying to. How is that saving any time from simply doing a separate Williams application? Not to mention that high schools are required to submit transcripts and teacher recommendations electronically -- does the Common App really think that large, urban high schools in low-income areas (who are chronically understaffed to start with) are equipped with sleek modernized computers, home computers for every student, high-speed internet, a tech staff and the manpower to upload hundreds of items through the internet? Let's face it -- most low-income families rely more on the U.S. Postal Service than high-speed data connections and fancy computers.

Selective colleges should revert to their OWN applications available via PDF on their web sites that can be submitted either in hard copy or through their web site. They should think about what essays they want to read, what questions they want to ask and what additional information they want. All our students have specific application strategies that might include 5-15 colleges, but NONE are interested in simply filling out a generic application and sending it to 40 colleges.

The Common App had its chance, but this year it's blown it big time; in the process, it's exposed many of the problems and inequities of the admissions process. It's time for colleges to draw a line in the sand. Stand up for yourselves -- say NO to a common application, and design one that is specific to your college. And while you're at it, let students send it via post if they so choose.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post stated that Hobsons owns the Common App. Hobsons has a partnership with the Common App.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post stated that Naviance is the software needed by high schools upload application materials for the Common App. The post has been updated to reflect that Naviance is commonly used but not required to upload materials for the Common App.

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