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What the Common App won't tell you or 10 reasons you need to do your research

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One thing that hasn’t changed with the introduction of the new Common Application (CA) is the need to research individual college requirements and programs before completing and submitting an application—any application.

This isn’t anything new or revolutionary. It has always been the responsibility of the applicant to be aware of what a college wants and by when.

But this year, it’s more important than ever for students to take the time to fully review websites and focus on requirements, because the Common App is very inconsistent about the information it provides.

While various glitches and software problems have dominated the news, one element of the software that’s gone largely unnoticed is the degree to which colleges are now able to customize their applications.

In fact, the Common Application isn’t so “common” any more. And that’s one reason paper applications are no longer even possible.

After a member conference in May, colleges were sent home to choose from among a series of questions that in effect created individually tailored Common Applications.

The various permutations and combinations of questions—both suggested and requested—were designed to reflect the level and degree to which colleges wished to conduct “holistic” reviews of applicant credentials.

While certain elements were required, colleges actually had quite a bit of flexibility in the design and content of their individual applications.

In other words, using the new “smart technology” and a bank of questions provided by the Common App, admissions offices were free to devise custom applications.

And some colleges did better than others in terms of making best and timely use of the technology.

As a result, some of the biggest snafus in the new CA involved the Writing Supplement and its relationship to member-specific questions—the uncommon sections of the Common Application.

In their haste to get applications completed, colleges left off questions and instructions or didn’t realize the degree to which the member-specific questions would control various linked elements of the application.

Issues surfaced involving “stealth” essays or green checks that simply refused to appear on cue. And not all applications included instructions for specialized programs or requirements. Some do but many do not.

As a result, applicants cannot rely solely on the Common App to provide them with all application requirements or options. They must research individual websites to get the most complete picture of what colleges want or allow.

While next year’s Common App will no doubt address many of these issues, it’s worth reminding this year’s applicants that this is a complicated process.

They really need to read the requirements outlined on college websites and investigate independent sources, like College Essay Organizer or All College Application Essays.

And here are 10 reasons why (current as of this writing):

1. Connecticut College: The only activities listed on the CA are ROTC and various musical options—voice and instruments. Judging from the Connecticut website, however, there are many more activities available on campus.

2. Cornell University: Applications to undergraduate programs in human ecology, architecture, and landscape architecture require the submission of portfolios. Students selecting those majors on the CA receive no guidance as to the requirement and must find it on the school website.

3. Drexel University: Students applying for fashion design or graphic design must submit a sample of creative work through highschoolportfolios.com. Students selecting those majors receive no guidance on the Common App as to the extra requirement.

4. Harvard University: The Harvard website provides detailed instructions on the submission of scholarly articles, research or creative writing. Applicants have two options for submitting these optional materials either electronically through Slideroom.com ($10) or by sending hard copy through the mail. Note that you cannot open Harvard’s Slideroom.com account on the CA. The process may only be accomplished through Harvard’s website.

5. New York University: NYU has several special programs with supplemental requirements, but selecting these programs on the CA Questions Tab will not make these requirements appear, nor does it provide guidance where to find them. There is no access to Slideroom.com via the CA although it is required for various Tisch School submissions. Students applying for the Dental Hygiene program must submit a separate application and essay.

6. Syracuse University: Although no opportunity is provided on the CA, a resume may be sent to the Office of Admissions via orange@syr.edu and an admissions officer will add it to the application. And the only “activity” listed for Syracuse on the CA is Study Abroad. If you have other interests, you may also send them to orange@syr.edu. This information is found on a Syracuse webpage dedicated to troubleshooting the Common Application.

7. University of Miami: Several dual-degree programs require supplemental forms/applications and arts programs require portfolios. Students selecting these programs on the Common App must research the additional requirements on the school website.

8. Virginia Commonwealth University: There are no questions or guidance on the Common App relating to the VCU Honors College, the Guaranteed Admission program, or the Honors College scholarship essay. To learn more about these programs and access the appropriate supplementary applications, students must research VCU webpages.

9. Worcester Polytechnic Institute: WPI has a “FlexPath” application option, which allows students to submit examples of academic work or extracurricular projects in lieu of standardized test scores. Although WPI’s member-specific questions allow students to indicate they are applying via FlexPath, applicants cannot submit their work through the Common App. Instructions on how to submit FlexPath work are only available on the school website.

10. Yale University: On its website, Yale suggests that applicants may submit writing samples and scientific research papers. These kinds of “supplementary” materials are to be provided through Slideroom.com, which is opened by the CA if the applicant indicates an intention to submit an “art” supplement. Note that submitting a research paper will cost the applicant an additional $10 for the Slideroom.com service.

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