The Too-Common Application (and One Idea for Improvement)

Crabby knows you can’t please everyone, but…

When it began, only a handful of colleges used the Common Application. They were all  small, liberal arts colleges that had a significant overlap in applicants and evaluated them based on a thorough reading of the application and, often, an interview. It was cozy, simple, and useful; since the institutions all required pretty much the same things, it made sense to have an application in common. (Students could still use the institutions’ own applications; no preference was given to either.)

common-appForty years later, the Common Application has 548 members ranging from Amherst College to the University of Michigan, Calvin College to Ohio State, St. John’s to SUNY. Do you see where I’m going with this? What once made the Common Application truly “common” in the sense of making things easier for students applying to a group of similar schools, now means “all these institutions use the same application for their convenience.”

In the last few years, as more schools have gone to exclusive use of the CA, which is now entirely online, the complexities within the Application have multiplied, making it a thicket of different requirements, supplemental essays, and confusing checkboxes. Two years ago, the disastrous rollout of the fourth generation CA online resulted in the removal of the CA’s Executive Director and thousands of late and mishandled applications from frantic students, whose parents and counselors were equally distraught.

Although the problems were laid primarily to poor beta testing, the fact that the CA was trying to please all of its members (colleges and universities) must have played a part. Despite signing on to a “common” format, many members wanted their own additions, including a “Why do you love us?” essay or some other institution-specific item. Paging through all of the windows online proved both time-consuming and frustrating for anyone trying to complete all the sections. It was not a pretty sight.

I’ve said before that the CA is a victim of its own success. In the drive to attain more institutional members, it seems to have twisted the meaning of “common” and paid more attention to the needs of the institutions than of the students and counselors who have to use it. How is it possible for massive Ohio State and tiny St. John’s to have anything in common enough to enable them to use a truly “common” application? Although one of the requirements for membership in the CA is that an institution use a “holistic” method of evaluating candidates for admission (that is, going well beyond numbers to include essays, personal recommendations, and so on), it’s clear just from looking at the member list that this requirement no longer applies.

In its drive to be all things to all institutions (remember, the CA is for the convenience of colleges and universities, not for students), it has also made mush of the essays many colleges ask for as part of their applications. I should say more mush, because the essays have been devoid of any real intellectual challenge for quite some time. They focus on soft and squishy topics ripe for dissimulation and posturing; they practically beg students to write drivel. To wit, here are the “prompts” for 2015-16:

1. Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
2. The lessons we take from failure can be fundamental to later success. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
3. Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?
4. Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma-anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.
5. Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.

Unquestionably, some students can rise to the challenge and make something out of any one of these nebulous feel-good topics. But because they must cover a wide range of applicants, they need to be as broad and unthreatening as possible. (Never mind the terror they strike in the hearts and minds of those applicants when it comes time to write them.) They require little evidence of deeply held personal belief, nor do they offer any opportunity to address genuine intellectual challenges. (Despite the reference in #4, the “problems” addressed — in my experience — tend to be fairly mundane.)

One way to address this blandness would be to use the power of algorithms. The broadnessimages of the topics reflects a time when the CA was paper-based. It wasn’t possible to tailor questions to applicants, so they had to be generalized. Now, however, it should be easy to match an applicant with very specific essay questions that could draw on the student’s particular school experience or background. Member colleges would agree to accept students’ choices.

If a student indicates taking three science APs and has medicine as a goal, she should be able to get essay questions based on that interest and background; if a student has depth in the arts or history, when he clicks on the essay portion of the application, a topic about one of them, referring to specifics, could appear. Students could then play to their strengths and write about something genuinely meaningful (or at least immediate) to them, instead of trying to create (often with “help”) phony scenarios out of very slight cloth. As a former admission officer, I would welcome the opportunity to read essays covering a wide variety of topics instead of hundreds of variations on “What My Grampy Taught Me About Life,” any number of which had me reaching for the Jack Daniels.

BONUS IDEA: To make this even more relevant to students’ experience and less susceptible to heavy editing, I recommend creating a National Essay Day where applicants would gather to write and submit their essay(s) on the spot during a four- or five-hour period. Students would choose one day out of four, let’s say, go to a testing center, click on a topic, and do it right then and there. With time to pre-write, write and revise, students would give colleges a more accurate picture of their thinking and writing capabilities.

Of course it would all be under some duress, but it would come and go and that would be the end of it. If the topics were geared to students’ real intellectual/academic experiences instead of to fairy tale narrations, it would all be easier to handle. Additionally, high schools might be encouraged to incorporate more writing and reading across the curriculum to help their students prepare for this kind of exam.

The too-common Common Application has become a behemoth too heavily tilted to the bureaucratic and marketing needs of institutions, leaving students in the lurch and forcing them to write, and admission officers to read, treacly, artificial, inflated prose inducing diabetic shock or stupor. If we’re going to continue using it, it needs to be tamed. It’s time to make the college admission application uncommon again (pace University of Chicago)!!

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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.
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