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Common Application: Panacea or Pandora?


An article from the Chronicle of Higher Education by Eric Hoover examines the good, the bad, and the ugly of the Common Application. Originally begun by a small group of colleges to make it easier for students to apply to several colleges at once, the Common App now includes over 400 colleges, including all the Ivies and most selective colleges in the US.  Many not-so-selective colleges also have joined, as have a number of state universities,  including Colorado State University in Fort Collins.
Mr. Hoover makes a number of important points that help to illustrate that the Common App is, well, not all that Common.  Further, its penetration of the admissions market has become both a blessing and a curse.

  • Because the Common Application makes it easier to apply to more and more colleges, kids are applying to more and more colleges without regard to fit.  Students can easily apply to schools they know little about–and have little intention of attending.
  • More applications makes all admissions pools more competitive.  This is great for colleges that want to appear more competitive to move up in the various rankings.  But why should a kid who is dying to be admitted to a particular college be competing with kids who are not all that interested?  How does a college really know if the kid is interested?  (Answer:  they do this by taking into account “demonstrated interest,” but this phenomenon makes the admissions process more complicated for the college side,  not less).
  • More kids applying to more colleges creates more perceived competition, which feeds the cycle of stress and manic striving that now characterizes the college admissions process.  If kids had to sit down and write out each application by hand, they might be more judicious in their selections, and the stress levels might decrease.
  • The Common App has made it somewhat easier for kids from underrepresented minorities and first generation homes that can easily apply to the higher echelons of American higher education.  But it’s hard to say that the Common App is the cause of this increase, or simply a by-product of other forces that are enabling more kids to apply.

A “common” application does not mean a “standardized” application.  Many, many Common Application member institutions require supplements to their application.  These can be very simple ones to complete (indeed, many colleges stupidly require kids to answer questions already addressed in the main portions of the Common App).  Or they can be those quirky essays from the University of Chicago (“Find x”) or Wake Forest University (“What outrages you?”).  Managing all the supplements and other moving parts of the so-called Common Application is an organizational nightmare, especially if kids want to provide any customization of the Common Application for particular schools.
There is much to be said for a return to a more old-fashioned, paper-based system of college applications.  Many of us long for those good old days of typewriters, white-out, staplers, paper clips, and collating papers, when the just the feel of 25-pound bond would make a student feel grown up, and —  WHAT am I saying?  We love to complain about the Common Application, but there ain’t no going back to carbon paper, folks…!
No mechanized system is going to solve every problem.  The Common App solves some problems and causes some, too.  It’s the way of the world….
Mark Montgomery
Educational Consultant


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