When Common Isn’t Ordinary

Crabby gloats, but not in a bad way…

Crabby notes that several months ago he wrote that the Common Application was becoming too common and wondered how institutions as disparate as the University of Michigan and any small liberal arts college could really finding anything “common” enough to comfortably share an application. With the recent rollout of the new all-online Common Application and subsequent debacle, we now know the answer is, “They can’t.”

Crabby believes that the numerous glitches and more serious problems with CA4 stem more from the fact that over 500 institutions have climbed on the CA bandwagon than from programming or systems errors. As colleges and universities signed on to the Common Application while insisting on their own additional bells and whistles, it was no longer truly a “common” application. In trying to accommodate all the variations, the CA defeated itself.

The virtue of the Common Application as originally constituted was to enable students to apply to several similar liberal arts schools at the same time. The schools really were similar enough to combine their applications, and things hummed along quite nicely. Then more schools wanted in and were added, with certain modifications to meet their needs.

As a result, the Common Application, designed to simplify the applicant’s life, became more complex, with supplements multiplying like gnats on a summer lake. It wasn’t enough to do the “common” part of the Common Application, one had to search for the little additions colleges insisted on, most of which amounted to no more than the question, “Why do you love us?”

The complexity crept up on everyone as the Common Application accreted to itself more and more colleges, as if growth were an end in itself. Hubris? Was it better to tout having over 500 colleges and universities subscribed to CA than to maintain its “commonality?” Clearly. And so the Common Application kept growing like kudzu…

But every system has a breaking point. Crabby believes the Common Application has reached its. Unless the organization is willing to enforce a truly “common” approach to the college application, its current impulse to encompass more and more institutions is bound to fail, causing it to collapse in on itself and frustrate the dreams, however temporarily, of millions of aspiring collegians.

The current problems of the Common Application (inability to pay online, mis-performing web pages, bad formatting of essays, and so on) can be blamed on computer error or human inattention or whatever, but the real issue is overreach. Crabby isn’t one to say he told you so, but there it is.

Nevertheless, he is willing to share some thoughts that might help remedy the situation for the future, if not the present:

1. The CA should whittle itself back to the number of colleges/universities that can truly say they have enough in common to accept exactly what the CA presents without additional bells and whistles. These days that might be 100.

2. Related to #1, it could come up with a series of “Custom Common Applications” that oxymoronically could be appropriate for different classes of institutions in its sphere: small liberal arts colleges, large universities, regional colleges, etc. If it can be done for jeans and sneakers, why not colleges?

3. Which makes Crabby wonder why, given current technology, applicants shouldn’t be able to put their own applications together, picking and choosing from a menu of individual elements until they get something that matches the requirements of the institutions they wish to apply to. One from Column A, one from Column B, etc. With the emphasis on individualization, perhaps the idea of a “Common” application is really too 20th century these days.

4. Alternatively and indeed retrospectively, institutions could return to having their own applications and insisting that applicants use them. (Assuming the numbers in #1 return to just a large handful.) That way applicants will really have to be serious about their applications and colleges could be less paranoid about “ghost” applicants. Colleges could also tailor their applications to their hearts’ content without worrying about overloading a system (except possibly their own).

5. Instead of every institution’s trying to be “national” or raising their rankings by attracting (usually futilely) the “best” students, colleges should return to serving their best markets and focus on their bread and butter students. Serve them the best instead of always trying to be something else. Crabby admires schools that know who they serve best and do it. If he’s not mistaken, despite all the advertising and marketing over the past 25 years, most students still end up within 250 miles of their hometowns. So what has all the marketing effort really gotten you aside from admission headaches, a drained budget, and the rise of merit aid instead of increased aid for those who need it most? Readopting this outlook, coupled with a return to unique applications, would tamp down the craziness.

6. Finally, colleges need to stop competing for prestige by seeing how many students they can reject. Not cool. That’s one of the reasons so many colleges have joined the Common Application, even when they don’t really need it. Crabby doesn’t think it profits the U of Chicago anything, for example, to be able to say it now accepts much less than the 44% of applicants it once did. Those kids were highly self-selected and totally in U of C’s ballpark. They didn’t really need the Common Application; they had their own phenomenal one, the “Uncommon Application,” with the infamous set of essay questions developed by the incoming freshman themselves. Now instead of being the main attraction, it’s part of the CA supplement. Sure, U of C, you’ve increased your application numbers, but at what price?  Return to being original instead of an admission sheep. That goes for the rest of you, too.

Crabby knows life’s tough in the admission world, but continually chasing something that’s just out of your reach makes things tougher for everyone. Common Application folks, trim the fat. Admission folks, admit that you’re better off in the long run cultivating your own gardens than trying to steal the tomatoes from your neighbors’. We’ll all be happier.

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About Will Dix

I am currently writing a book about college admission. I'm interested in the intersection of the college process and American culture. I attended Amherst College in the 1970s, taught high school English and theater at The Hill School in the '80s, returned to Amherst in the '90s as an admission dean, and began the '00s as a college counselor at the University of Chicago Laboratory School. I then joined Chicago Scholars as Program Director. Currently, I blog about college admission for Forbes.com. I also help community organizations serving low income students understand the college admission process so more students can consider gaining access to higher education. I have a few private college counseling clients that I take by referral only. The views expressed in this blog are mine alone.
This entry was posted in admission practices, college, college admission, college applications, college counseling, college marketing, Common Application, high school, liberal arts colleges. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to When Common Isn’t Ordinary

  1. As a college consultant, I think you have offered some great suggestions. After this year’s experience with the Common Application, I think we would all agree it is time for some changes.
    I especially like the idea of # 3 and I think a lot of college applicants would too.

    http://www.collegedirection.org

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  2. JennyB says:

    I’m also a college consultant, and I think #4 is so obvious, it’s painful. The ‘Common’ App has done nothing but be a tool to raise a college’s rankings. Crabby, you said it: Finally, colleges need to stop competing for prestige by seeing how many students they can reject.

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