Several weeks have passed since the introduction of the new Common Application, also known as CA4, and sadly, it still stinks. While a few member institutions have started allowing students to upload clean, organized, and depth-oriented extracurricular resumes to their Common App supplements, the overall common part of the Common Application is still far too cumbersome to navigate and clumsily designed to be thought of as anything other than a major step backward for students, colleges, and high schools.
With that in mind I found myself dreaming recently about a world without the Common App, and luckily for some college-bound high school seniors, such a world does exist, and it can exist for you too!
Despite the Common App's strong-arm tactics aimed at dominating the online undergraduate application marketplace, alternatives do exist. Many public universities, for instance, remain free from the Common Application's cloud of complexities by keeping publication of their online applications in-house. Such high-quality examples include University of Wisconsin Madison, University of Texas at Austin, Penn State, University of Maryland (which is great because you can upload your entire extracurricular record in a Word Document or PDF without having to endure copying and pasting details of honors and activities into miniature text fields), campuses of the University of California, and whole host of others.
Unfortunately, many of the applications these schools publish are not as streamlined or simple to use as the old Common App. By far the best application out there is the Universal College Application. It currently includes 32 member institutions, including the likes of Harvard, Johns Hopkins, and Tulane. The fact that these three colleges and 29 others subscribe to this easy-to-use and student-friendly application demonstrates that when members of these colleges' admissions teams talk about advocacy of a student-centered admissions process that promotes access, equity, and attracting the greatest diversity of applicants, they really mean it. The proof is in the pudding. Unlike the Common Application, the Universal College Application is a far more intuitive application than the present incarnation of the Common App (which makes sense because several of the major architects of the first few versions of the Common App are the same people behind the Universal College App). Yet, even more intriguing for a student applicant, the Universal College Application allows students to write about what they want in their main essay, and even upload it as a Word Document or PDF. Once upon a time the Common Application allowed this too, but since the current Common App is the modern day equivalent of New Coke or that dreaded GAP logo that lasted just a handful of hours, such flexibility (read individually) is no longer possible on the Common App. As previously mentioned, the current Common App is so square that it can't even recognize paragraph indentations. The exact wording of the Universal College App's essay prompt is:
Please upload (files must be under 1MB) and/or write an essay (500 words or less) on a topic of your choice that demonstrates your ability to organize your thoughts and express yourself. Some ideas include writing about: a person you admire; a life-changing experience; or your viewpoint on a particular current event. If you need additional space, please use the Additional Information section.
How liberating! So much better than the painful options from this year's Common App (I am especially talking to you, "Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family." Students using the Common App are typically seventeen-year-olds for goodness sake! In a world where many college graduates live at home into their thirties, the Common App is seeking adult teenagers!). I am also a huge fan of the fact that the Universal College Application allows students to upload extracurricular resumes that demonstrate how deeply a student has pursued his or her passions. While the current Common Application promotes shallow breadth in applicants, the Universal College Application gives students a chance to showcase their focus and depth.
Keeping up with the times, the Universal College Application also allows students to use a multimedia link feature to share with admissions officers various web-based content items, such as videos of performances, on-the-field accomplishments, published articles, or an e-portfolio. This gives the applicants a chance to set themselves apart from other applicants using a far more dynamic medium than simple resumes or essays.
The leaders of the Common App have proven themselves to be tone-deaf to the needs of students; therefore, more colleges should join the Universal College Application. At the very least I pray that more colleges think twice about joining the Common Application. Directors' of Undergraduate Admissions who value access, individuality, and a free market will join the Universal College Application. Directors' of Undergraduate Admissions who value the opposites (and themselves) have gone or will go exclusively Common App. Directors' of Undergraduate Admissions who stubbornly choose to still manage their own online applications at least deserve respect for their independence, which has for the time being prevented the Common App from becoming as monopolistic as it wishes to become. One OPEC for this Earth is enough.
So, if you are applying to Harvard, do yourself a favor. Apply with the Universal College Application.
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.