May 7, 2014

A “wish list” for the Common Application

Tomorrow, Common Application member colleges and universities will meet for a second annual Member  Conference in Washington D.C.  More than 600 “admissions professionals” are expected to attend.

In addition to welcoming Paul Mott, interim chief executive officer, and three new board members—Mary Lou Bates of Skidmore College, Robert Springall of Bucknell University, and Patrick O’Connor of the Cranbrook Kingswood School—the association plans to report on findings from an independent assessment conducted earlier in the year by the Censeo Consulting Group.

During the two-day conference, staff will provide an overview of 2013-14, discuss a "strategic vision," and present “changes in year 2 of the new system,” some of which were already introduced at the recent Potomac &  Chesapeake Association for College Admission Counseling (PCACAC) Spring Conference. 

And not surprisingly, many of these changes are based on findings from Censeo’s surveys of executive directors and school-based counselors, and they reflect very real concerns about the reliability of CA4 technology expressed by admissions professionals throughout the industry from every sector except  independent educational consultants who were left out of the review.

In absence of more formal input from independent educational consultants (IEC’s), a simple survey was recently conducted of hundreds of IEC’s who were on the frontline of the Common App rollout last August and who doggedly worked with Common App executives and staff on software repairs and improvements.

Based on responses received, here is a “wish list” for conference attendees, board members, and  Common App executive staff based on the experiences of IEC’s throughout the fall and into the New Year:
  • Return to the use of uploads for core essays—the personal statement and additional information.  Even with proposed improvements, text entry boxes are not nearly as effective or reliable for formatting and presenting essays.  Uploads may be more expensive for the Common App, but they provide a far better product for applicants and colleges. 
  • Allow for more than 2 opportunities to revise or correct personal statements.  In the past, the Common App allowed up to 10 versions of the personal statement.  While this much flexibility may not be necessary, the current limitation is unnecessarily stressful.
  • Arrange—as originally promised—to have all Writing Supplements available and loaded into the system on August 1.  Some counselors even recommend returning to the July 1 opening date for the future.
  • Revise questions surrounding test score submission so students may pick which SAT, ACT, SAT Subject Test, and AP scores they want to have considered.  The current wording is confusing and requires students to provide more information than either the Common App or the student intend.  Ask which scores the student wants to report and don’t ask how many times the student has taken the test!
  • Require all Writing Supplements to display word or character limitations. 
  • Return to “Topic of Your Choice” as one of the prompts for the personal statement.  Note that not everyone is agreement about this recommendation, and many students found excellent “work arounds,” but it’s a “wish” that comes up frequently enough for it to warrant consideration.
  • Make available a “printable” version of the Common App.  While the introduction of “smart technology” makes this more difficult, a better template could be devised than the simple chart provided last year.  It will take some thought and the resulting document may not address all options, but it’s doable and strongly recommended by counselors working with low income and international students.
  • Provide a heads up on supplemental essay prompts  and don’t make these warnings dependent on completing all college-specific questions first.  In other words, fix the glitches resulting in “stealth” essays.
  • Keep the “Application Requirements” grid up-to-date and accurate.  Make information on essay requirements more detailed.
  • Provide capability for recommendations to be “tailored” to specific colleges.  The requirement that counselors draft one and only one recommendation to be sent to all colleges produces less-than-satisfactory results for applicants and colleges.  It’s unfair and discriminatory that only Naviance high schools have the expensive luxury of producing individualized recommendations.
  • Allow access to Print Preview prior to the full completion of the application.
  • Reinstate the “extracurricular” short answer essay.
  • Add a choice of “other” to the list of birth country choices so applicants can fill in the appropriate country.
  • Increase the character limit in “descriptive” areas of the Activities section, such as “Position/Leadership” and “Details, Honors Won and Accomplishments.”  At minimum, provide a mechanism for helping students see when they are coming close to or exceeding limits.
  • Incorporate a common “Certification of Finances” form into the application for international applicants.  This form is required by all colleges in order for international students to obtain a student visa.  The current system of individual forms—including use of the common College Board form—is unnecessarily cumbersome.
  • Provide for some “live” support and technical assistance.  Even if limited, the ability to speak with a human being in special circumstances could reduce time and frustration for counselors and students.

Note that many of these suggestions have already been incorporated into the Universal College Application and may be considered “industry standard” for high-volume college and scholarship applications, particularly those involving essay uploads and recommendations.

But beyond what’s listed above, counselors have other more technical recommendations and ideas for improvement in the application software and interface they would love to share. And a more formal mechanism for presenting these suggestions or for being heard by the Common Application association would be welcomed by the international community of IEC’s.

“Most importantly, I think the Common App organization needs to have a technical advisory board in addition to the board of directors, and that the people on that advisory board should be familiar with state of the art software engineering tools and practices used for developing high-volume websites for end users who are not especially tech savvy,” suggested Marilyn Stelzner, an IEC in Lausanne, Switzerland, who worked in Silicon Valley’s software industry for 25 years.

And other IEC’s voice the desire to have a more active role in advising the Common Application or having their opinions sought on future surveys concerning Common App management and technology.  This particular wish has been conveyed both formally and informally to Common App executive staff as well as to University of Pennsylvania Dean Eric Furda, who is the president-elect of the Common App board. 

And it’s reported that the new Common App administration has become much more open to feedback from IEC’s and membership organizations that represent them.  Good news for everyone!

Shirley Bloomquist, a Virginia-based educational consultant with many years of experience as a school counselor, sums up the hopes of many, “…my recommendation is having an experienced, knowledgeable educational consultant on the Common App advisory board.”

It wouldn't solve everything, but at least the Common App would be getting a different view from a different sector of industry professionals.

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