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Growth and Changes Continue to Define Common Application

Today, the Common Application, Inc., announced the latest in a series of changes to its standardized admission form, used by an ever-surging number of applicants. The 2011-12 version of the Common Application includes new questions about marital status and children, and an optional question about military status. The new version, which will go live on August 1, also asks for more-detailed information about language proficiency and prior college-level coursework.

Such changes, though minor, reflect the increasing diversity of the Common Application’s membership. In recent years, several large public universities—including the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and the University of Connecticut—have adopted the Common Application. Last year, the organization welcomed its first international members.

The continuing evolution of this virtual document also reveals the complexity of admissions in the digital age. Even as the Common Application has simplified the admissions process in various ways, it has raised questions—logistical and philosophical—for high schools and colleges alike. The organization’s members continue to debate what the application should and should not ask. In a sense, the Common Application has become the living document of the admissions profession, subject to continual additions and revisions.

The new questions about marital status, children, and military status were added in response to the growing number of nontraditional students and veterans enrolling at member colleges, says Rob Killion, executive director of the Common Application, Inc. “This is just more data to help colleges understand who students are and how they got there,” he says.

Many older applicants have gaps on their transcripts. Mr. Killion describes a hypothetical applicant who graduated from high school 10 years ago, earned three semesters of post-secondary credit, but then put his or her education on hold: “The college might ask, ‘Why is this person applying to us now?’ But then they see this applicant has a 7-year-old, or that the applicant served in the military, and the whole context of the student’s life starts to come into play.”

The question about language proficiency also was revised to give admissions officers more context. Applicants are now prompted to check any of five categories that apply to their knowledge of a particular language: “speak,” “read,” “write,” “first language,” and “spoken at home.”

And once again the Common Application’s essay instructions will specify a length: 250-500 words (for the last several years, only the minimum was stated). Although word counts are not enforceable online, some admissions officers had asked the organization to restore a suggested maximum. “Without that, the essay size was noticeably increasing,” Mr. Killion says. “When you get a 10-page, single-spaced opus, it’s hard to know what to do with that.”

The most significant change considered this year did not result in a new question. The Common Application’s board members had discussed the possibility of asking applicants about their sexual orientation, but ended up deciding against it—at least for the time being.

Mr. Killion describes the decision as difficult. Board members, he says, weighed the possible differences among applicants from different backgrounds. For instance, how might a gay or lesbian applicant in rural Oklahoma differ from a gay or lesbian student in Manhattan?

“On the one hand, we ask about all these other demographic items, like ethnicity, marital status, and religion, so some people asked whether not having that question there singles it out as something shameful,” Mr. Killion says. “On the other hand, not all 17-year-old kids know they’re gay, or are comfortable with being gay, or they know they’re gay, but their counselor and their parents don’t know. Or maybe they do know, but think it’s none of your business.”

The 2011-12 Common Application does include a new option—“civil union/domestic partners”—for an existing question about the marital status of an applicant’s parents.

One minor change this year—a standardized “early decision agreement”—reveals the inherent challenge of establishing a uniform process for hundreds of colleges, all with their own admissions procedures.

The Common Application has long included an early-decision agreement for applicants to sign when applying to one of over 100 member colleges that offer the option. The form states that a student understand his or her “rights and responsibilities” as an early-decision applicant (namely, that he or she is making a “commitment to a first-choice institution”).

Some admissions deans had no interest in receiving the form. Among colleges that did require it, policies varied. Some institutions required signatures only from students, yet some also required signatures from counselors, and some also required signatures from students, counselors, and parents.

A while back, the Common Application, Inc., created a form that could be used in four different ways, depending on what the college wanted. Yet Mr. Killion says this only caused more confusion: “Counselors said, ‘this is insane—we can’t tell kids what to expect if the form works in four different ways.’”

And so the new early-decision agreement represents a compromise: it will require all three signatures. “This is one of the growing pains of moving to an online system,” Mr. Killion says. “A lot of colleges thought they were doing counselors a favor by requiring only one signature or no signature. What we discovered was that they valued a uniform process.”

Such growing pains are sure to continue. As of April 1, more than 565,000 applicants had used the Common Application during the current admissions cycle, an 18-percent increase over the previous one. Those applicants had filed 2.3 million applications, a 24-percent increase. And as of July 1, the list of member colleges will increase to 460; it will include 48 new members, such as Howard University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and the University of Southern California.

The Common Application’s expansion has come with criticism, which tends to take two forms. The first is that the application is too common—that it has made the admissions process too generic and too easy for applicants. The second is that it’s not common (or easy) enough, because about two thirds of member colleges require supplements, which vary in length.

Stephanie Balmer, vice president for enrollment and communications at Dickinson College and a member of the Common Application’s board of directors, predicts that the organization will continue to wrestle with questions about the proper balance between shared goals and institutional needs.

“As membership grows,” she says, “the question will be: are we talking about a common application or a common platform? As membership diversifies, are we really able to be common at the field level?”

In any case, technology will continue to shape that discussion, just as it continues to transform the admissions process. Soon, the Common Application will unveil a new mobile Web platform that will allow students to register, search for colleges, and review the status of their applications. The image of Susie scrolling on her iPhone is a reminder that the admissions process, so often portrayed as larger-than-life, is also a pocket-sized affair.

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