Nov 15, 2010

‘Preview’ Your Online Application OR Risk Coming Up Short

Judging from questions posted on “professional” counselor bulletin boards, even the pros get confused about what colleges can and cannot see when they download or view your application.

In short, what colleges see is exactly what you see when you preview the document—even if you take extreme care to stay within the allowable character or word limits specified in the application instructions.

This holds true for the Common Application, the Universal College Application or most other applications you submit electronically. And this is why all forms strongly suggest that you “Preview” your document before pushing the submit button—regardless of how tired you are or how close you are coming to deadline. Otherwise, you risk sending a document that will be weirdly truncated.

One easy-to-blame culprit involves “variable-width” fonts. In the early days of computing, programmers worked with monospaced fonts, or fonts whose letters and characters each occupy the same amount of horizontal space. Without getting too technical, computer applications have moved away from monospaced fonts and now routinely employ variable-width.

When you complete an application question online, your response is posted in an efficient variable-width typeface. But the system can only enforce a character count and cannot measure the physical length of a response. And not all characters are created equal.

For example, the Common Application sets a 1000 character limit on the question asking you to “briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences.” The suggested “word” limit is 150 words or fewer. But because characters are not equal in the amount of space they take up, your essay can easily exceed the space limitation imposed by the document.

If you doubt this is the case, try typing 1000 “W’s” or “M’s” and paste your “document” into the answer box. You’ll find that all are happily accepted by the program. Now, press preview. What you will see is only about half of your “document.” If you substitute with 1000 “i’s”, you will see all of the document plus lots of additional white space allowing for even more characters. “W’s” and “M’s” take up way more space than “i’s.”

In the Common Application, the problem occurs not only in the short answer section but also in the fill in the blank responses in the “Extracurricular Activities and Work Experience” section. Even if the application allows you to describe in detail all the awards and honors you received as a member of your high school dance team, it’s possible they will not all show up on the documents colleges actually read.

A second, more obscure formatting problem involves spacing. If you persist in hitting the “enter” key—for multiple paragraphs or if you like to write in haikus—you easily run the risk of scrolling beyond the space allotted for an essay response, regardless of the word or character limit. The Common Application appears to allow no more than eight single lines in the 150 word short answer, even if those lines are single words and fall well within all limitations.

For those of you who previewed your documents and noted some truncating but went ahead and hit the submit button anyway, don’t despair. If you stayed within the character limit—in other words, if the application allowed you to type your entire answer, the data is still there. It is available to readers if they care to take the time to go back into the system and read the complete answer.

I won’t lie to you, however. It’s not easy to retrieve the data, and it’s extremely unlikely that the average admissions reader will bother.

So what should you do? Preview—not just for typos but also for what shows up on the document. If truncating occurs in such a way that the response makes no sense, go back and edit. For essays, look for extra words and tighten up your prose or paragraphing. For other responses, use standard or easy-to-understand abbreviations (capt. for captain). Do not use text-speak or nonstandard abbreviations.

Unfortunately, there is a little more bad news for users of the Common Application. The Common App’s system requirements list a limited number of “supported browsers,” which include modern versions of Internet Explorer and Safari, among others. Students using Safari, however, have reported problems previewing applications. And anyone using an older version of Internet Explorer or Chrome is plain out of luck.

In the event you are experiencing problems with your online application, do not hesitate to contact the various “support centers." But whatever you do, don’t wait until the last minute. Responses can be significantly delayed depending on traffic to the site.

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