Apr 20, 2011

The Common Application Shares Changes for Next Year

The folks at the Common Application (CA) recently posted a sneak preview of next year’s application form, which will be used by 460 member institutions including many local colleges and universities such as American, Howard, George Washington, Catholic, Johns Hopkins, William & Mary, UVa, Mary Washington, Towson, Christopher Newport, the University of Richmond, and Saint Mary’s College of Maryland.

Not much has changed that the average applicant will notice—the color scheme and order of questions starting with the easy stuff like name and address and working up to the dreaded personal statement are all pretty much the same.

There are, however, a few adjustments and subtle changes that those of us in the business of advising high school students are making note of.

First, and possibly most important, the Common Application’s essay instructions will specify a length: 250 to 500 words. For the past few years, only a minimum was stated and applicants were free to upload documents that only the most dedicated of readers could possibly get through. It wasn’t all that unusual for overly anxious students to drone on for up to 1000 words or more in an attempt to impress admissions offices with erudite prose. It didn’t work, and CA member institutions begged for mercy.

We are told that the word length is a suggestion—one that students should take seriously. But it’s not enforceable as the document will remain an upload.

Interestingly, the word limit for the short answer question on extracurricular activities or work experience has been eliminated. According to the Common Application, “We’re moving away from the 150 word limit since it’s not something we can enforce online.” Instead, the online version will specify a 1000 “character” limit, and students will once again need to carefully craft responses to avoid truncation.

Sensitive to criticism about difficulties completing the Extracurricular & Work Experience section of the form, the Common Application reduced the number of “activity” spaces from 12 to 10 and increased the amount of room allowed for “positions held, honors won, letters earned, or employer.”

While this will also ease the truncation problem, the shortened section may pose an issue for students with longer activities lists. Presumably a good resume uploaded in the section set aside for “circumstances or qualifications not reflected in the application” will be the solution.

Responding to applicants who parsed out a more limited meaning to instructions concerning disciplinary history, the Common Application has revised its language to read, “These [disciplinary] actions could include but are not limited to, probation, suspension, removal, dismissal, or expulsion from the institution.” Unfortunately this question changes each year, as applicants devise ever more creative workarounds to the truth.

For students opting to go the Early Decision (ED) route, the Common Application will again include a required early-decision agreement for the over 100 member institutions offering the ED option. To reduce confusion over conflicting rules governing the agreement, the Common Application will now require signatures from students, counselors, and parents/guardians—no exceptions.

The 2011-12 Common Application also contains new questions about marital status, children, and military status that are targeted to colleges enrolling more nontraditional students and veterans. In addition, the question concerning language proficiency was revised to provide an opportunity to list multiple languages as well as indicate level of competency.

And finally, to address the expanding needs of smartphone users, the Common Application promises a new mobile website for account access on the go. Details are to come.

The new Common Application will go on line August 1, 2011. Until then, students are encouraged to use the preview version—complete with highlighted changes—to familiarize themselves with the application.

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