The Real Problem With the Common App
There is a certain uneasy pleasure to be taken, if one has had some argument with the Common Application, in the awareness that the current misfirings of the new version of the application has caused so much grief to so many people. Of course, some of the people who are inconvenienced, or, driven near mad, by the slow and painful release and correction of the new Common Application website are the very people who have taken great trouble and invested considerable time in the attempt to make the new version of this application available. Unlike the fiction of a "membership organization" that is the College Board, the Common Application really is overseen by thoughtful and experienced admissions deans and directors, and they have, no doubt, been embarrassed and inconvenienced by the problems with the new release.
Besides, and more significantly, virtually all admissions offices across the country have suffered from the delays. Worse, students and their counselors and their parents have been frustrated and vexed in their attempts simply to submit an application. So, any ungenerous pleasure really should be resisted, lest one imagine oneself in league with the opponents of Obamacare, who share a delight in the bedeviling technical troubles found in the health care exchanges, troubles that are interpreted as condemning the entire project. The problems caused by both faulty technical systems hurt, and we can only hope, despite any lingering arguments with the substance of the enterprises, that the glitches are untangled soon so people can go on about their important business.
We know some of the reasons why people resent the Affordable Care Act, but why would anyone resent the Common Application, to which no politics are attached and which seems designed only to make applying to college easier? If some people feel obligatory health care somehow denies citizens their rights — is it a right to be uninsured and find your family at risk? — how does the Common Application, when it works, hurt anyone?
The fact that the websites temporarily do not work is not really the issue, because both technical systems will be fixed sooner or later. Is the problem actually that something very important to so many people is controlled by a single entity, even if the entity is benign? We may be past the point where scruples about the centralization of power made possible, or necessary, by technical prowess and control can trouble us. Someone, the Common Application or the government or NSA or Google or Facebook, holds the trump cards, and if it isn’t them, then it looks like it will be someone else.
So, glitches aside, and the seeming inevitability of the move to a centralized, electronic nexus aside, why argue with the Common Application? Is it only my sentimental attachment to the Uncommon Application (an institutional, and lovably eccentric -- at least in my memory -- application, which seemed to work so well for the University of Chicago for so long), and my resentment at its passing, that leads to problems with the idea of the Common Application?
A more substantial reason than the merely personal is the likelihood that something important, and irreplaceable, is inevitably traded away in exchange for the ease of use (when it is working) of a universal application. Students express the wish to be relieved of the odious necessity of typing in their name and address five or six times (or, thanks, in part, to the Common Application, 15 or 20 times), and they are satisfied by having only one form to fill out, once.
The very ease of filling out the form, however, leads to systemwide problems. The ability to simply press the button and send off more applications seems likely to encourage more, and less well-considered, applications submitted per student, despite the Common Application administrators’ claims that this does not in fact happen. The counselors who work with students, and certainly the colleges, believe it does. (Could it be that, as is the case in almost everything else having to do with college admissions, we hear most, and most loudly, about the best counseled, most advantaged, most anxious students who are most likely to go overboard when submitting applications? And, that the most popular colleges are disproportionately the recipients of these extra applications? Perhaps average number of applications submitted per student is still kept low because the majority of student apply to one or a few colleges.)
In any case, I can assure you that colleges believe that adopting the Common Application will increase the number of applications received by something like 10 to 20 percent in its first year of use. Who and what is hurt by the fact that applying to college is made easier and the number of applications to any given college go up for mechanical, not thoughtful, reasons?
More applications make colleges “more selective,” whatever criteria for selection are put into play as more applications, sometimes vastly more applications, must be read and judged. Do the very criteria change by virtue of the huge number of applications many colleges must handle? For one thing, increases in the number of applications to be read mean either less time spent reading each application, and/or much bigger staffs of readers, many new, young, and exhausted, including outside readers distant from the full-time admissions office.
The suspicion that numbers — SAT or ACT scores, or grade point averages, or a count of the number of Advanced Placement classes taken, or anything to make decision making easier and faster — take on a new importance is hard to resist. When we speak of “holistic” evaluation, we imagine that at some point words, not simply numbers, matter, but who has time for a real consideration of, for example, essay writing, teacher letters, interview reports, entire transcripts, when so many applications need to be “read”? The Common Application, while inviting the easy submission of more applications, also invites easier and more expedient reading of applications, given the imposition of word limits on generic essays (though the topics are more interesting this year), drop down menus to provide digested bits of information, and the insistence on the inclusion of information, e.g., intended major or profession, that may be of interest to one college but may quickly sabotage an application at another.
Bard College is now making it possible for applicants to skip the Common Application if they are willing to write four essays in response to set, and (remarkably) sophisticated topics in the liberal arts and sciences. The Bard Entrance Examination, the BEE, eliminates the need to take and submit test scores, and to be subjected to other people’s generic questions and essay topics. This gesture is bold, and in asking for more work, more thought, more personal investment in the application, one small college challenges the idea that applying to college should be made easy. (Deep Springs, one very small college, has its own challenging application of another sort.) Bard will find out who is actually capable of thinking the way a Bard student is expected to think, the faculty will be asked to judge, and students will be honored by having their hard work carefully considered by the community they hope to join. Anyone who completes the BEE will know more about Bard and its expectations and ways than a student who simply applies to COLLEGE, rather than to a specific college.
The Common Application masks differences, which is surely a comfort to those institutions that would rather reveal as little as possible about themselves, so as not to discourage a single applicant. If the singular entrance examination is not likely to be a systematic solution to whatever problems the Common Application presents, it is at least a reminder that there was a time, not so long ago, when each admission staff did its best to write essay questions of particular value to that college, to decide exactly what information was necessary and would be useful in the consideration of a candidate, to convey in the very wording of the instructions the kind of relationship they wished to have with each applicant. That worked, and worked for students as well as colleges.
But, fewer applications were submitted then, and we know, whether we blame the ranking schemes or our commercial culture or greedy colleges, that ratings and prestige depend on application numbers, and ratings and prestige make presidents, boards, and alumni happy. The drive both to attract always more applicants in order to deny them admission now seems almost natural and legitimate. The pain involved in this bloated business is more easily ignored the farther someone is from the students who are necessarily confused by the deceptions and uncertainties engendered by the current system. And, the current system now runs on the Common Application, when it works.
Theodore A. O'Neill was formerly dean of admissions at the University of Chicago, where he currently is a lecturer.
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