Aug 22, 2009

And Common App for All?

As the roster of colleges and universities using the very popular Common Application grows to nearly 400, it’s easy to forget that the vast majority of post-secondary schools still use their own carefully devised application forms. To be a member of the Common Application system, schools agree to promote access by using a holistic selection process that includes objective as well as subjective criteria such as at least one recommendation form, one untimed essay, and broader campus diversity considerations. Since the Common Application went online, total college participation in the program has taken off and application numbers increased significantly as students find it all too easy to hit the button and apply. In the first 24 hours of going live this year, created 3064 new student profiles—35% more than last year at the same time.

Yet despite Common App advantages, not everyone wants to be part of the club and most colleges continue to stick with their own documents. Whether they believe the Common App is lacking in one way or another, not reflective of school priorities, or too difficult (too easy) to use, these schools persist in doing it their own way.

One such school is the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Bucking the trend, MIT rolled out a new application substituting three short answer questions (200-250 words each) for the old “optional” essays which drove everyone nuts trying to decide whether MIT really wanted the additional information. The old application asked students to show or describe something they created. This gave my son the opportunity to show off a 3D face he spent months creating as part of a larger facial recognition project. Others pursued different ideas and sketched stick figures or printed out photos of their Eagle Scout projects. Those who knew “optional” usually meant “required” and who weren’t all that creative, simply cranked out another page-long essay.

But before anyone gets too excited about the new options, please be aware that the team in the MIT admissions office is dabbling in the trendy area of noncognitive assessments. The new questions are not particularly subtle attempts to get at tricky and hard to quantify noncognitive traits such as leadership, resilience, and creativity which are usually designed to help students who might not get in based on grades and scores alone. For MIT, the new application is designed to filter out less interesting geeks and surface more interesting multi-dimensional applicants who will contribute to the wider MIT community instead of holing up in their rooms with their computers as friends.

While the Common Application generally serves to streamline the process of applying to college, there are good reasons why colleges might continue to invest in developing separate applications or supplements. Looking for traits or qualities that enrich campus culture or trying to determine sincerity of interest through such questions as the infamous “Why Penn” essay are the most obvious means of accomplishing this. Sorry kids, there’s no free lunch. If a school asks lots of questions, they want to learn more about you even if it causes additional work. If they learn more, they’re more likely to make a better and more informed decision. Or so we hope.

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