Waiting for the Coalition Application to Improve

Is alternative to the Common Application really as good?

November 25, 2019

The timing couldn't have been better for the Coalition for College when it announced its creation in 2015. Eighty top colleges -- including Ivies, Stanford University, the Universities of Michigan and North Carolina at Chapel Hill -- announced that they were creating a new application, featuring special features like a "locker" for student materials.

Its top competitor, the Common Application, appeared vulnerable. In fall 2013, the Common App introduced a new software system that resulted in numerous glitches and system crashes that prevented applicants from submitting their applications on time. Students, guidance counselors and college admissions deans all complained not only about the problems, but what they perceived as a slow response from the Common Application. Many also started talking about how the Common Application represented a “single point of failure” in admissions technology, since many institutions had no other way to accept applications.

So many in admissions were excited the Common App would have competition. About 150 colleges have now joined, although only three colleges are unique to the Coalition: the University of Maryland at College Park, the University of Washington and Virginia Tech. Most are also members of the Common App (which has nearly 900 members).

But it hasn't turned out quite as planned. Some colleges have dropped the Coalition. And complaints about it have spread as complaints about the Common App have subsided.

Last week, the movement against the Coalition received a hand from Susan Solomon, director of college counseling at the Pacific Bay Christian School, in California, in posts on a Facebook group and admissions Listserv (reprinted here with her permission.)

"Many counselors responded that they ignore the application, others discourage their students from using it, and everyone voiced frustration," the comment said. "For those of us who have students applying to Coalition exclusive universities, we don't have a choice, but to help our students navigate through the application. So, I am appealing to the Coalition folks for help. Please take a hard look at this application. If you haven't already, please gather a group of students and watch them try to apply to a few different colleges through the Coalition."

The stated goals of the Coalition are laudable, Solomon said. "But after watching my students struggle with completing the application (and some giving up), the goal of 'less stress' is not working out. I encourage the Coalition exclusive universities to go back to using your own application (if you don't want to use the Common App), until the major problems with the Coalition are resolved."

On Facebook and the Listserv, reactions have been positive.

In an interview, Solomon outlined some of the problems she has seen:

  • There is "nothing intuitive about working your way through the application. Students constantly ask, 'am I done with this section?'"
  • "The academic section where students have to input their transcript is so confusing. Rather than simply adding their courses as they appear on the transcript, students have to choose from a long list of course/subject names -- many that have no relevance to their own academic history."
  • "Students can't see what the individual college requires until they fill out the entire application. So for example, University of Washington does not require the main Coalition essay, but they do require their own main essay and supplement. The main essay has a word limit of 500 words, which is 150 less than the Common App. So kids complete the application and then have to rewrite their essays to make it work for this unexpected lower word limit."
  • "For the University of Washington, you can't even submit your essay through the main coalition app: This is the message that pops up as kids are trying to figure it all out: 'Please note: You must submit your essay and short response within the UW application questions. We are not able to retrieve your essays from the Coalition Essay section of your Profile. If you only submit your essays through the Coalition Essay section of your Profile, we will not receive them, and your application will be incomplete.'"
  • "Students really don't like the application. I had an application workshop last week for students applying to UW (coalition exclusive) and from the very beginning there were questions, which quickly turned to frustration."

She also pointed to the comments other counselors put on the discussion areas.

"I attended an event for college counselors hosted by the Coalition App people in NYC, several months ago. They appeared quite certain, based on their research, that students and counselors found the app very easy to use. I was dumbstruck. When I politely tried to make one or two suggestions for improvements, I was rebuffed. I desperately wish that current Coalition-only colleges would add the Common App as an option."

Or as another poster put it: "I. Despise. Them. I want to lock the developers in a dark room, barefoot, with Legos on the floor, blindfolded, and tell them they have two minutes to get across the room or they will be shocked violently. Despise."

Solomon said she wasn't terribly impressed with the response posted by the Coalition: "Thank you for sharing this feedback Susan. As a member and chair of the Coalition, I encourage you to reach out to their team for assistance. They are happy to address specific issues students are experiencing."

It's just like last year, she said. "Our feedback is that the Coalition is terribly cumbersome to navigate, but when we express this to the Coalition people, little progress is made."

The issue of the three colleges that require applications with the Coalition is important. The application totals for those institutions are large, meaning that the Coalition totals are large (if but a fraction of Common App) and going up.

Timothy Groves, interim executive director of the Coalition for College, issued this statement: "The Coalition is proud of the work we are doing to serve students, and the partners who support them, for whom access to our member institutions can be daunting. We take all counselor concerns about student frustrations with our application seriously and encourage anyone with a question to reach out to us directly. Our top priority is to make college accessible for all students, and we regularly survey users about their experiences with our application and consistently receive high marks overall -- 83 percent of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that the Coalition application was easy to use and that they would recommend MyCoalition to friends or family. On areas that receive less than ideal feedback, we have made -- and continue to make -- swift updates and changes to improve ease of use for students. Our application is designed to be different from other applications. Our biggest difference is that content is generated dynamically based on student inputs, which can save steps for applicants and allow them to share their accomplishments and find a strong fit with a member institution."

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