Nov 20, 2010

Harvard Welcomes Users of the Universal College Application

At a recent breakfast meeting sponsored by Harvard, Princeton, and UVa, guidance counselors and independent college consultants commiserated about this year’s problems with the Common Application.

“Your colleges haven’t had any deadlines yet,” remarked one northern Virginia guidance counselor. “We have recommendations that still haven’t been received by colleges with November 1st deadlines, and we don’t know where they are.”

Counselors are complaining loudly on message boards about the inflexibility of the Common Application and despair about issues involving the electronic submission of supporting documents through its for-profit associate, Naviance.

Applicants are warned that their carefully crafted responses to Common Application questions may be cut off and not seen by admissions readers who download a document that looks exactly like a preview, which may or may not be readily available for viewing.

And colleges are quietly complaining about the inability to receive transcripts and recommendations as soon as they are transmitted by high schools if those documents are filed before the student actually submits the Common Application online.

It’s not unusual for software to experience glitches, but when one company so totally controls the market, it’s difficult for unhappy “customers” to find less buggy alternatives, particularly when the top dog goes to extreme lengths to block competitors.

“We at Harvard welcome competition,” said admissions dean William Fitzsimmons, in response to questions about the rivalry between the Common Application and the Universal College Application, both of which are accepted at Harvard. “We’ve been with the Common Application since 1992, but the Universal Application definitely has some advantages for us.”

The most critical UCA advantage cited by the Harvard dean is the ability to download transcripts and recommendations in advance of an application submission. The Common Application refuses to allow these documents to go to colleges before a student commits to an application.

For colleges with a “single review” process, meaning no Early Decision or Early Action, this can result in artificially long delays in receiving materials and getting application files started. These delays often result in a bottleneck toward the end of the process when the floodgate of materials suddenly opens and drowns admissions staff struggling to keep up.

Another UCA advantage may include the ability to “customize” counselor recommendations, which colleges complain are becoming too “generic” thanks in part to Common App rules against tailoring information for a particular school. The UCA also does not discourage applicants from customizing essays and makes the process relatively straightforward for enterprising students willing to make the extra effort.

There’s no question that the Common Application organization was a pioneer in college admissions. The founders may be applauded as nothing short of visionary for recognizing the advantages of a shared form and pulling colleges into the brave new world of electronic applications.

But now it’s time to welcome others into the market and understand that the entire industry benefits from the challenge of competition. As much as we try to streamline and simplify, college admissions will never be a one size fits all kind of an operation.

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