A Common Complaint

October 15, 2007

The Common Application exists to streamline the admissions process. Students can apply to several colleges but use the same essays and avoid copying the same information into multiple forms -- a simple-enough concept that benefits applicants as well as colleges looking to improve the ratios of admitted students who enroll.

But one size doesn't necessarily fit all. The system already allows institutions to require supplementary materials and, until the current admissions cycle, it let students tailor their submissions to individual colleges and add new material after they'd already submitted the final application. Fears that some students were taking advantage of these capabilities to prepare a completely different application for each institution -- subverting the intent behind the "Common" system -- led the nonprofit consortium to limit the ability this year to "copy" and modify an already submitted application before sending it to more colleges.

Several weeks into the fall 2008 admissions cycle, a backlash has already led the Common Application to restore the previous functionality, effective this Friday.

The original change came as part of Common Application's new online infrastructure, which replaced the previous system this summer. Since "it would have been very difficult to predict which of the countless changes we made might be perceived as controversial and which wouldn't," according to Rob Killion, executive director of Common Application, officials did not clearly publicize the fact that the new setup would no longer allow students to submit alternate versions.

(The company that the consortium hired to build the previous incarnation, ApplicationsOnline LLC, has since created its own competing service, Universal College Application. The new service retains the flexibility that was originally part of its software solution for Common Application. "The capability for applicants to create an application, choose one or more colleges, submit it and log back in, access their application, copy it, edit it, modify it, enhance it, change it, for any field ... was a feature that was not only requested by applicants and counselors and colleges, but was a feature that they liked," said Joshua J. Reiter, president of ApplicationsOnline.)

The change caught admissions officials and high school counselors by surprise, some of whom said they didn't realize the difference until two or three weeks ago, after some students had already submitted applications. Criticism quickly mounted online amid confusion from students, including on the listserv for the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

"We were very concerned and disappointed that the Common Application had adopted that practice, and I’m delighted to hear now that they’ve seen the wisdom of being able to change it," said Marlyn McGrath Lewis, the director of admissions at Harvard University. "There are many reasons why a student would want to offer different kinds of information to one college [as opposed to another], and certainly a different emphasis."

Initially, Killion's response to questions on the listserv noted that the best way for students to tailor their applications was to make full use of colleges' supplemental forms. He added that in one particular case, changes could be made after the fact: if a student is rejected from an institution he or she applied to early. But even then, students would have to work through technical support to request an electronic "copy" of the previously submitted application to be modified.

"We know there will be anxiety [in the admissions process], but to throw this wrench in without any prior notification was difficult for me and all of my kids," said Christine J. Scott, director of college counseling at the Masters School, a private day and boarding school in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y.

Scott said there were several cases in which students might want to update an application they had already submitted. Colleges don't always have the same majors, for instance, and a student interested in environmental science might have to check "biology" for some institutions. Students rejected from their first-choice early application might also want to go back and revise their essays. Also, they might find it useful to tailor their written answers to colleges that emphasize specific areas of interest, she said.

Killion said he'd heard a consistent list of three to five areas that students request to modify -- including, in addition to Scott's concerns, the intent to rely on financial aid and choosing whether to submit scores to test-optional colleges. "We found a technological solution to creating some flexibility on those specific questions," he said, which the group will work on implementing for the next admissions cycle beginning on July 1, 2008, and continue to discuss at a board meeting in January. The resulting solution will likely allow flexibility on specific parts of the application.

But for now, beginning on Friday, Common Application will "make it like it was last year ," he said.

Despite what appears to be an outcome welcomed by admissions officials, there are still some lingering concerns about communication to Common Application member institutions.

"We’ve been somewhat disappointed in the quality and the timeliness of the communication, and we of course would always wish for greater input in what is permitted,” Lewis said. But, she added, “we are in fact genuinely pleased to be members of the Common Application." Harvard was also the first member of the Universal College Application, which Lewis called "flexible" and "a terrific working relationship."

Killion said: "In a good way, I think this was a case study in the way member-run not-for-profits should work. We made the decisions about the way the system would work based on what we thought would be best for kids," and ended up with "a good middle ground." In the meantime, Killion said Friday that he had been receiving feedback -- of the positive sort -- all day.

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