Aug 21, 2011

Common Application forced to Backtrack

In an unusual change in direction for members of the Common Application organization, the Common App was forced to backtrack on a decision to unilaterally reduce the number of characters or words allocated to the short answer question on its 2011-12 electronic application form.

“Upon launching the 2011-12 system on August 1, we realized that we had neglected to inform counselors about the short answer change from 1000 characters to 750 characters in any of our spring updates,” explained Scott Anderson, director of outreach for the Common Application. “As you know, this change took many by surprise.”

For the record, 1000 characters roughly translates into 150 words, and 750 characters translates to about 125 words.

Unaware that the modification had taken place or that the Common Application was adjusting the space allotted to one of two essay questions on the form (“Please briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences in the space below”), students working on the application were thrown off by what seemed like arbitrary changes in the word count.

“Am I crazy or did the character count on the short answer section of the CA just revert back to 1000 characters,” noted Shelley Levine, a Maryland based independent college consultant who picked up the problem. “Earlier this week, the character count limit was 750, which usually came out to be way less than 150 words. Today, the instructions above the space read 1000 character limit.”

Evidently, the folks at the Common Application received a number of complaints about the short answer immediately following launch, as the question traditionally provided a 150-word limit. Without notifying colleges or applicants of behind-the-scenes maneuvering, the Common App quietly went ahead and reinstated the former character limit.

But in the meantime, over 3,100 applications were submitted through the system—210 of which in the first 24 hours the Common App went online. And those students were forced to adhere to a different, much more restrictive word limit for their responses.

“While the 750 character count was only in effect for two weeks, we recognize that the timing is not ideal given that there are some students who may have already edited their original responses based on the shorter character limit,” said Anderson.

The shifts in character count and the resulting impact on students using the Common Application further underscores the power of the single largest electronic application provider in the country. That the change could take place without announcement and a correction made without apology is unsettling to many.

“What else are they going to change without telling us,” remarked another area college consultant. “This is really disturbing.”

And what should students do who already edited their responses to meet the 750 character limit?

If they haven’t submitted any applications, they can simply revise, making sure to use the “Print Preview” function to insure the answer fits in the space allotted, as character limits continue to be subject to truncation issues.

If they have submitted, there is little to be done, according to Anderson.

“Once an application has been submitted, it cannot be retrieved for editing. However, the fraction of students who submitted a short answer response using the 750 character constraint can certainly create an alternate version with a new response for subsequent applications.”

And that is what they should do.

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