As hard as folks at the Common Application push to enforce ‘a one-size fits all’ application process, Common App member institutions push back equally forcefully for freedom to individualize applications in ways supporting their various admissions priorities.
For example, most super-sized universities don’t need or particularly want essays and some don’t seem too concerned about guidance or teacher recommendations. But to join the Common App club, colleges must agree to accept at least one essay and one recommendation as part of the standard application package.
We call this providing a ‘holistic’ review of candidates—a core value of the Common Application.
But for those colleges that have traditionally conducted real holistic reviews, a single essay and generic recommendations are usually not enough. They want more.
It's a tough balancing act and in the quest to redesign components of its electronic application, the Common App had to find common ground between the conflicting needs of big state institutions and small liberal arts colleges—all equal members of the organization.
As a first step, the new application was designed to include a series of innovative “smart” questions incorporating common concerns colleges have about majors and programs on “member pages.” Sometimes these questions trigger additional questions in other parts of the application and sometimes they stand alone.
But beyond the more generic member questions, the Common App needed to accommodate the kinds of individualized essays or short answer questions necessary for a true holistic review—enter the Uncommon Application.
The 2014-15 Common App accomplishes this in two ways. First, some colleges elect to use the new, more robust member pages to ask essay questions. For the applicant, this saves the trouble of submitting two separate components of the same application. But it means that the entire application has to be complete before it can be submitted—including the pesky college-specific essays some of which can take lots of time and energy.
Other colleges use a writing supplement, or an entirely separate component of the Common Application, to list their essay prompts.
Submitted after the basic form and payment have been received, the writing supplement allows the applicant to break the process into two parts—the main application and a separate supplement—and to submit one part earlier in the process then the other.
"Last year, we had to chase after the writing supplements and remind students to submit them," said one Virginia-based admissions representative. "By putting our essays in the member pages, we hope to avoid that problem by asking them to submit everything in one document."
Both the member pages and the writing supplement allow colleges to probe deeper into applicant qualifications and interests by providing for the submission of a personal resume or uploads of papers or scientific abstracts. And they can ask the kinds of quirky questions—both short answer and full-on essays—that require an element of self-reflection on the part of the applicant.
Luckily, a number of well-organized colleges have already updated their websites and provided some information on what they will require in advance of the August 1st launch of the Common Application.
And note to admissions offices: this is a good thing. It helps applicants and those who advise them get started. And this is really important if your high school goes back into session sometime in the first or second week of August.
Here are some samples of Uncommon Application questions colleges will ask either on their member pages or on independently-submitted writing supplements (please check directly with the colleges or the Common Application):