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The Gravitational Pull of the Common Application

Fall is here, and another harvest of college applications has begun. Over the next few months, hundreds of thousands of high-school seniors will apply to college through the popular portal known as the Common Application, a standardized form used by an ever-growing list of institutions.

 
Now in its 35th year, the Common Application began as a small membership association of 15 private colleges. Today, more than 400 institutions use the form, which many admissions deans say has helped them recruit more first-generation and minority students. Recently, the nonprofit group welcomed its first two international members.
 
Among the most-selective colleges, the decision to adopt the application seems almost inevitable—a question of when, not if. Two years ago, the University of Chicago, long known for its distinctive Uncommon Application, joined the party after years of principled objections. This year, Columbia University hopped onboard, becoming the last member of the Ivy League to do so.
 
In this era of hyper-competitive admissions, how can any college resist the Common Application’s gravitational pull?
 
Recently, I put this question to Charles A. Deacon, dean of admissions at Georgetown University, among the most-prominent institutions that have not adopted the application (nobody should hold their breath waiting for that to change). Mr. Deacon describes the application as both an unnecessary tool and an unwelcome symbol of homogenization in admissions.
 
The Common Application was created to promote equity in admissions by making it easier for students to apply to colleges that conduct “holistic” reviews of applicants. Mr. Deacon applauds that goal, but he says the standardized application prompts students to apply to colleges in which they have little or no interest. In turn, this tool for access can become a tool for competition among colleges.
 
“The Common App isn’t bad, but it’s an enabler of bad behavior,” he says.

This year, Georgetown received about 18,000 applications for a freshman class of 1,580. Mr. Deacon suspects that adopting the Common Application would bring Georgetown 3,000 to 5,000 additional applicants in the first year or two. But he says the university doesn’t need that many—and that it already attracts plenty of diverse applicants through its traditional recruitment strategies.
 
This year, Georgetown’s freshman class includes a record 142 black students, selected from a pool of about 1,400. Even if that pool had been twice as large, Mr. Deacon doesn’t think that he and his staff could have selected a more accomplished bunch of students. “As long as you get the diversity you need,” he says, “it doesn’t matter how many applications you have.”
 
Mr. Deacon’s not the only critic of the Common Application. In some circles, the form has become a scapegoat for a variety of ills—frivolous applications, stressed-out students, overwhelmed admissions deans. At a conference for private high-school counselors I attended this summer, the consensus was that the Little Application That Could had become a big, big problem.
 
Curiously, their objections differ. Some counselors say the form has made applying to college too easy, but others say that by requiring supplements, some participating colleges have made it too hard.
 
Rob Killion has heard both complaints. “There’s the concern that with the click of a button, kids can apply to 10 different colleges, but also the concern that it is no longer the quick and easy solution that it once was,” says Mr. Killion, executive director of the Common Application. “Both of these things cannot simultaneously be true.”
 
Or perhaps it just depends on what institutions you’re talking about. After all, participating colleges embrace the Common Application in different ways. About two-thirds require applicants to complete supplements. The majority of those supplements, Mr. Killion says, are short, with one or two pages of questions. A few dozen have longer supplements, with additional essay questions (Chicago, for instance, still requires applicants to respond to its quirky prompts, like “Find X”).
 
Mr. Killion notes that some institutions have had supplements from the Common Application’s inception. Where the concern is coming from, he says, “is really from people looking at a narrow band of very highly selective colleges with long supplements.”
 
But even among those colleges, it’s a reasonable assumption that the Common Application—designed to simplify the application process and expose students to more colleges—will attract more applicants, especially those from underrepresented subgroups. In the 2009-10 admissions cycle, approximately 500,000 students used the Common Application. A third of those were minority applicants, and about a quarter were first-generation college students.
 
Prospective members frequently ask Mr. Killion whether they should expect a big increase. Sometimes they hope the answer is yes, he says, but sometimes they hope it’s no. Yet Mr. Killion says that predicting—and measuring—the impact of the Common Application on application totals is difficult. After all, a college that joins this year probably saw big increases last year and the year before.
 
“We don’t exist to help colleges increase their applications, but it’s a side effect of what we do,” Mr. Killion says.
 
Brown University saw a 21-percent jump in 2009, the year it switched to the Common Application. In 2008, it had a 7.7-percent increase. Chicago saw a 43-percent increase in applications this year, the second since it switched, but it had seen an increase of 20 percent just a few years ago. Columbia saw a 13-percent increase in 2009. What will it see during this cycle?
 
Jessica Marinaccio, Columbia’s dean of undergraduate admissions, can only guess, but she and her staff are bracing for more applications. Previously, Ms. Marinaccio had worried that the Common Application would bring a wave of applicants, hindering her staff’s ability to maintain its intensive evaluation process, which includes reading responses to essay questions.
 
“Philosophically, we’ve always believed in what the Common Application stands for,” she says, “but we needed to get to the point where we had the infrastructure to do it.”
 
Recently, Columbia’s admissions office went all-electronic, which helped ease some logistical concerns about switching to the Common Application. The university has also hired three additional admissions officers to help handle the expected growth. “Without those additional hires,” she says, “it would be very challenging to do what we do in a way that we feel we need to do it, spending a lot of time with each application.”
 
Whatever benefits the Common Application might bring a college, the decision to adopt it sometimes involves competitive considerations. Recently, admissions officers at several colleges have told me privately that institutional peer pressure pushed them to adopt the form. One described how a senior administrator at his institution had asked the admissions staff, “Who do we think we are by not accepting it?”
 
Mr. Killion says the motivations go well beyond mere competition. “There’s no college that would tell you they don’t want more applications from students of color, kids from Arizona, or more international students,” he says. “And if you’re not a member of the Common App, those kids aren’t seeing your name through us.”
 
At Georgetown, Mr. Deacon says joining the Common Application has become a keeping-up-with-the-Joneses phenomenon. He concedes that his opinion has been shaped, in part, by Georgetown’s enviable position in the marketplace. As a well-known institution with ample resources in the nation’s capital, it benefits from built-in demand. If the university’s applications dipped sharply, he admits, he would feel pressure to get more.
 
That’s not likely to happen, despite Mr. Deacon’s relatively conservative approach to admissions. Each year, Georgetown begins its recruitment process by purchasing the names of PSAT test takers with equivalent scores of at least 650 on the critical reading section, 620 on the math section, and self-reported grade-point averages of A- or better. Last year, that was about 44,000 students, Mr. Deacon says. The university also buys another 5,000 to 6,000 names of underrepresented minority students with lower scores.
 
Georgetown invites all those students to join its mailing list, and 12,000 to 13,000 of those students typically respond. The admissions staff supplements this search with a host of outreach, including travel to 140 cities and towns each year, and “pipeline” building in far-flung areas.
 
Unlike most colleges, Georgetown strongly recommends that applicants submit scores from three SAT Subject Tests. The university also urges students to sit for interviews, and the vast majority of applicants do so. In other words, applying to Georgetown takes commitment.
 
Is that bad? “It’s about being satisfied with where you are,” Mr. Deacon says. “We have talented kids who represent a diverse cross section of the country. We can all get our fair share.”

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