The Application Process

In our twice per decade (if we’re lucky) cleaning out of our large steel filing cabinets, we were recently amused to find copies of our old newsletters. Dating to the close of the last century, these read like some kind of archeological evidence of a by-gone admissions era, though certainly one in great flux. It’s hard to believe that 1999 was only 14 years in the past. We identified some important trends in our old Educational Choices newsletter, which we printed on stock paper and put in the snail mail. These include the rise in Early Decision and Early Action application plans and numbers, increasing numbers of high school graduates, the colleges requiring 3 “SAT II’s”, and the rise in students trying out that weird test from the Mid-West, the ACT. However, the most striking difference between then and now, and one with much current import, has to be our discussion of the “many ways to apply to college.”

In those transitional days, we fielded many questions about which was the best way to apply to college. Did mailing paper copies have more of an impact by showing more interest and personality? Should the applications be typed? If so, where the heck can I find a typewriter? Is it true that I can now “download” applications from a college’s website? Aren’t paper copies safer? In 1999, we listed other new options for students, which some of you with some greyer hair might recall: College Link, where students could fill out a college’s own application on a computer disk, print it out, and mail it in. Expan, a College Board software package accessed at school guidance office to facilitate electronic filing. Apply, a CD-ROM (remember those?) with 600+ applications to be filed electronically or printed out and mailed. And, last but, as we now know, certainly not least, the Common Application, which at that time was printed or received in hard copy and mailed in, sometimes along with a college supplement. With 191 Common Application members, the first generation online system launched in 1998-99.

Where are we today? Paper copies, snail mail, CD-ROMs, and other competitors are in the dustbin of application history. The last one standing is the fourth generation, completely web-based Common App, launched this year with 517 members. Certainly there are a few other options, notably the large majority of colleges and universities that are not on the Common App and which use their own or outsourced online applications. The Universal College Application has just 32 members today, and while there are some specialized priority application options or selective organizations like Questbridge that handle apps for some groups of students, the Common App is clearly the starting point for any students considering selective private and, increasingly, public institutions.

Like us, you might get the regular update emails from the Common App noting the astronomical increases in student users, applications filed, forms uploaded, and so on. Like us, you might also be handling quite a few confused and stressed out parents and students trying to navigate this new web-based application system, with its multiple hidden menus and college-specific supplemental questions. As such, we’ve begun to wonder just how “common” the Common Application is. Unfortunately, as the process has supposed to become easier, more standardized, and streamlined, it has morphed into a Rube Goldberg-esque adventure in cyberspace. Let’s not even begin to talk about students trying to understand how to connect to their high school’s Naviance system or to their ACT or SAT score reporting. Sadly, just as we are experiencing historic demographic and geographic shifts in the college-bound population, with more students from areas of the country which haven’t historically sent many students to selective colleges, and students whose parents did not attend college, or who did so in another country, we are continuing to erect barriers to their easy access.

When we are working with any parent or student, from international students to Americans from lower income or higher income backgrounds, we find them identifying many of the same challenges and concerns in the application process. Why must things be so complicated and confusing? If it’s a Common App, why all the supplements? Why can’t we print out a draft to work on? Is there really a limit of 20 colleges? Are we supposed to file 20 applications? And how about those essay topics? No open topic? What do “they” want us to write about? We are also concerned about some of the other unintended consequences of the rapid move to electronic applications and a standardized process, including: the crowding, and crowing, effects of massive increases in application numbers; the loss of personal attention in the application process, with a necessary move to reliance on test scores and GPA in place of a more individualized evaluation of the candidate; and the shutting out of non-traditional students who have trouble coping with such a complicated and high-tech system.

Isn’t there another way? There is at least one other model we could look at: the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service in the U.K. (UCAS). Now, no system is perfect, but somehow the British universities manage to admit students who are limited to 5 applications, and who write 1 essay, which is geared specifically toward their academic interests and why and how they would pursue them in college. Though Oxford and Cambridge have some additional requirements, as do fine arts or other highly specialized programs, the system is remarkably straight forward compared to the Common App. Would it work in the U.S.? Not perfectly — the U.S. higher education system is far larger and more diverse, and our political system is different — but perhaps we can draw some lessons from it.

We believe in the original goals of the Common Application system: let’s make it easier for students to apply to a reasonable number of selective colleges that require one essay and at least one recommendation letter. Let’s lower stress on overworked and confused students, and increase access and decrease barriers to college entrance. Some colleges have no supplemental questions and are accepting the “basic” Common App as their only application. That helps. And the Common App system doesn’t have the authority to coordinate the many disparate parts of our complex admission process, including two different financial aid systems and two different major standardized testing programs, which should be better integrated. However, in an odd “Back to the Future” way, we, and many students and parents, have begun to wonder whether we shouldn’t return to the days of filling out one hard copy application for each college. Since that’s not about to happen, how about the Common App members coming together, and agreeing on, say, two essays, one creative, and one focusing on the student’s academic and extracurricular goals and interests, and eliminating the rest of the supplements? That, and let’s limit the total number of apps to ten, with one Early Decision and one Early Action allowed.

A version of this article appeared in CollegeBound Newsletter, October, 2013