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Common Application is a complete disaster

As an independent college admissions consultant, it's my business to be very knowledgeable about the ins and outs of every college application that my students could conceivably have to fill out in order to get into the colleges of their choice. For years the Common Application was by far the easiest online application to navigate, fill out, and submit. Such user-friendliness is what got 500+ colleges to become members of the application that, as its name implies, allows college applicants to use only one application to apply to a diversity of schools. Unfortunately, those who helm the Common Application couldn't leave well enough alone. For over a year the site for the application heralded a new and improved Common Application, known as CA4 (Common Application 4), would be unveiled on August 1, 2013. The new Common Application was supposed to be intuitive to use, simpler to fill out and navigate, and generally the best thing since sliced bread.

Ever heard about the danger of over-promising and under-peforming? Well, let's just say that never in my entire career had any student or parent once complained about the Common App - until August 1, 2013

The new Common App is a monstrosity. Users can't format proper paragraphs for their college essays. Green check marks appear on parts of the application the user has AND has not filled out. There is no ability to print preview one's application until submission time. Students who have accomplished a lot in the extracurricular realm are put at a disadvantage because they are given only ten puny slots plus 650 words to detail their achievements, whereas the old Common Application allowed students to upload detailed lists of the breadth and depth of their accomplishments. Upon initial login, the application load time is ridiculous. College-specific supplements are still not available weeks after the launch (which was not supposed to happen), and those supplements that are online sometimes ask the same question, but with different word limits (this question used to be on the common part of the application, not the school-specific part of the application). Recommendation requests for students at Naviance schools are a nightmare. I could go on.

The real losers in all of this are the students from this year's senior class who have been cheated out of a seamless application process that their predecessors took for granted. Colleges, too, will be cheated from getting a full picture of what a student applicant is capable of if they can't even assess whether or not a student knows how to create a paragraph in a word processing document!

I liken this disaster to whenever Facebook goes through an update. Facebook will try to change the layout of its pages to keep users on the site longer, thus giving Facebook the ability to charge higher ad rates by saying people are still spending a lot of time on Facebook. I get it, Facebook is in the business of making money. But, why in the world would a non-profit that was created to help students mire students in what feels like an online form circa 1996? Why would the powers that be at the Common Application want to do this to already-stressed out college applicants?

The only answer I can muster is that those in charge of the Common Application wanted to prove they were doing something to earn their money and titles; therefore, they set out to create CA4, the worst, most unnecessary, and foolish expedition since the U.S. entered Vietnam. Or Iraq. Or, dare we fear, now Syria? While comparing the new Common Application to a war zone may be crossing a red line, at least ask yourself this question: would those directing and managing the Common Application's transformation ever be able to keep their jobs if they worked for a for-profit company that lunched such a flawed product? I highly doubt it. In fact, only DMV or college/university employees could prove more useless and incompetent and still somehow manage to keep their jobs. It's no surprise then that many members of the Common Application's board come from Common Application member colleges.

The 517 colleges that are members of the Common Application should demand heads to roll at Common Application headquarters. If they don't, they will be accomplices in the ruination of this once great tool. Sadly, since so many in higher education operate in a parallel universe unlike anything resembling the real world, many admissions officers, deans, and directors may be completely oblivious to the travesty playing out in homes and schools around the world everyday every time a student logs into the "new and improved" Common Application. If changes aren't made, colleges should drop the Common Application. It's a sad day when the bureaucratic underworld of PeopleSoft-managed college applications doesn't look that bad anymore compared to the Common Application. Oh, how the mighty have fallen. And for what?


Craig Meister is president of Tactical College Consulting, a Baltimore-based college admissions consultancy that specializes in giving students the tools they need to find and get into their best-fit college.

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