New common app sparks criticism

This fall, hundreds of thousands of high school students will apply to colleges around the country. But a recent slew of changes to the application process has left many of these students and their counselors unhappy.

The Common Application — the online undergraduate college admission application that is used by more than 500 universities in the United States, including Yale and its peers — underwent several major transformations in its newest iteration, which was released this August. In addition to sporting a new, minimalist-styled online interface, the application features a new set of essay questions that does not include the popular “topic of your choice” option offered in past years. For the first time, it also enforces a strict 250 to 650 word limit on essays.

While it is hard to predict how the Common Application’s changes will affect applicants to Yale, Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Jeremiah Quinlan said that the Yale Admissions Office will still review candidates in the same holistic way of years past.

“I will note that we maintained the open-ended format of our [specialized] essay question so that students applying to Yale could tell us about something that is important to them that does not fall under one of the Common Application questions,” Quinlan said, referring to the essay prompt on the Yale Supplement that asks for an additional 500-word essay on a topic of the applicant’s choice.

In general, college counselors and college admissions experts have not supported changes to the Common Application.

David Petersam, president of Virginia-based higher education consulting group AdmissionsConsultants, called the word limit and restrictive essay prompts “limiting and frustrating” for many students because they do not encourage specificity or creativity.

“What the Common App seems to really be doing is curtailing opportunities,” Petersam said. “I can see they’re trying to simplify the process, but it’s not truly in the applicant’s best interest. It’s another way the Common App tries to encourage students to apply to more schools.”

When students attempt to standardize their application to apply to a larger number of schools, Petersam added, they will usually end up spreading themselves too thin and wasting time.

Even the new online interface has stirred up its fair share of concern. The new system has already faced numerous glitches, including log-in problems and confusing, roundabout steps to accomplish simple tasks, said Terry Kung, co-director of college counseling at Immaculate Heart High School in Los Angeles and former assistant director of admissions at Columbia.

“Counselors have been up in arms about too many changes with the Common App,” Kung said, recalling that over 5,000 counselors and admissions staff members attended the National Association of College Admissions National Conference in Toronto last week, which was “peppered with concerns and buzz about the new app.”

Kung added that having worked with the new application with many of her own students now, both she and her students think that its features are frustrating and not intuitive.

Another major concern about the application is its insistence on uniformity. On the Common Application website, the organization explicitly encourages students to use the same essay for all of their schools — instructions that go against the advice of almost every college counselor and admissions consultant interviewed.

But high school students interviewed expressed mixed reactions to the new application. Although some were disappointed in the removal of the “topic of your choice” essay option, Kanupriya Gupta, a high school senior from Florida, said she thinks the change can actually be beneficial.

“It provides applicants with a sense of guidance and direction if they’re feeling overwhelmed by picking an original essay topic,” Gupta said. “The new word limit also serves to reinforce the simplicity of our essays and convey who we really are.”

The five essay prompts on the 2013-’14 Common Application ask students to describe different types of experiences or accomplishments that have shaped their lives, ranging from “an incident or time when you experienced failure” to “an event that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood.”

Currently, 517 colleges and universities in the U.S. use the Common Application for admission. In last year’s admissions round, roughly 3.05 million applications were submitted through the site.

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