Aug 13, 2016

Are colleges signaling application preferences?

Yale gave the Coalition an advantage by launching earlier than expected.

A long-standing agreement the Common Application has had with member colleges requires that in the event an institution offers multiple applications, that institution can show no preference in admission resulting from which application a student elects to use.  An applicant may only submit one application, and all are to be considered equally in the eyes of the admissions office.

In fact, the National Association for College Admissions Counseling (NACAC) addresses this issue in its Statement of Principles of Good Practice (SPGP) by stating that all postsecondary members should

“…not discriminate in the admission selection process against applicants based on the particular application form they use, provided that the college or university has agreed explicitly to accept the particular version of the application;”

In other words, if a college offers the Common App along with the Universal College Application (UCA) and/or the Coalition Application and/or any other application—electronic or paper, the college or university agrees to show no favoritism.

Because colleges uniformly refuse to provide data on application outcomes vis-à-vis application products, there’s no way to test if a college shows preference for one product or another except anecdotally. But sometimes an admissions office will let slip a preference.

“We love the Universal College Application,” explained one admissions representative in an off-the-record conversation about the relative qualities of various products last year.  The comment was made in reference to quality of service and responsiveness to colleges.

Another Common App member might promote its own application during information sessions or suggest a demonstrated interest advantage through the use of the application they developed in-house.

Favoritism? Maybe, but these admissions offices would never admit it.

With the addition of the Coalition Application this year, students will have an even more complicated decision to make about which product to select, with some colleges offering as many as three or as in the case of Wake Forest University, four different ways to apply. It’s assumed students will use the product that best represents their credentials and is easiest for them to use.  But it’s complicated!

There appear to be a number of factors that could enter into this discussion. For example, the Common App boasts of nearly 700 members, and neither the UCA nor the Coalition can come close in terms of breadth of representation.  

On the other hand, the UCA and the Coalition allow personal statements to be submitted in PDF form, which supports greater formatting and control over how an essay will “look.” The Common App employs a less flexible “direct entry” box for this purpose, which produces essays that all look alike to admissions readers and discourages creativity or use of nonstandard characters and formats.

There are also differences in the wording of specific questions, particularly around testing, gender identification or disciplinary issues that might favor the use of one application over the other.
But what appears to trump all these considerations is the fact that the Common App has a working relationship with Naviance, which school counselors generally appreciate and which is not open to any other application provider

That doesn’t mean the process of document submission outside of Naviance is any more difficult for the applicant, as both the UCA and the Coalition have very simple and straightforward mechanisms for submitting and monitoring official documents. But for schools with significant investment in Naviance, the loss of this tool could represent additional work in the counseling office and/or the loss of a control factor many like to have.

So are there other factors in the decision of which application to use? Despite the promise not to show favoritism, it’s no secret that some colleges have a greater investment in one application over the other. Sometimes this shows on websites.

For example, as of this writing Bryn Mawr, Clemson, Harvard, Penn State, Purdue, Rutgers, Pitt, Virginia Tech and Connecticut College don’t mention the Coalition Application on their websites even though they are listed by the Coalition as accepting the new application for 2016-17.

And marketing students know that product placement is everything. So it’s probably to the Coalition’s disadvantage to be mentioned last on most member websites.  For Indiana University and Johns Hopkins University, it comes in number three out of three. And if you click on the “Apply” button for NC State, you’ll go straight to the Common App’s website.

On the other hand, the University of Chicago, one of the founders of the new application, happily promotes the Coalition on its admissions webpage:

The University of Chicago is proud to be an inaugural member of the new Coalition for Access, Affordability, and Success. The Coalition comprises over 90 of America’s leading colleges and universities, and is dedicated to making the college search process more accessible for students across the nation. A suite of online college planning tools is now available—completely free of charge for all high school students. Those applying to UChicago for fall 2017 can use the new Coalition application, which will be available in July of 2016. More information on the Coalition for Access, Affordability, and Success can be found at The University of Chicago will also continue to accept the Common Application and the Universal Application.

Preference? Not so much stated as suggested. 

Northwestern promotes a Coalition video on its website, but is clear to say about which to use, “We have absolutely no preference. You should choose whichever application best suits your individual circumstances—just be sure you submit only one of these two applications to Northwestern.”  

But timing can be everything. Yale, another Coalition founding member, went live with the new application this weekend giving it a jump on the Common App, which as of this writing still shows Yale waiting to launch. 

Many would argue that the addition of a new application, or multiple new applications if Cappex gets off the ground, represents yet another complication and ratchets up the stress already underlying the application process. Others would say the process is improved when competition exists within the industry, and certainly there is evidence that the Common App has stepped up its game since the Coalition came on the scene.

From the applicant perspective, it gets down to economies of effort and/or application features that support their credentials. Will all of these products get the job of applying to college done? Yes. But that doesn’t mean that applicants can’t or won’t have preferences as to which they want to use. It also doesn’t mean that colleges are entirely without opinions on the matter.

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