While I applaud the changes made earlier this month to the Common Application essay questions, the generic application, used by over 525 colleges in the United States and a few abroad, could do so much more to provide truly equal access to higher education.
Yes, it is good that the questions are simplified from previous versions. Board President Carey Thompson explained that the 15 college counselors who created them “worked diligently to ensure that all applicants, regardless of background or access to counseling, would have the chance to tell their unique stories.”
And there are three important changes in the format. The required length is now a firm 250-650 words rather than the previous recommendation that did not prevent students from writing more. The essay is now submitted as part of an online form and there is no option to choose your own essay topic.
It also helps that the essay questions will change every year; It will be harder for knowing insiders and paid consultants to game the system.
Here are four steps I believe could further improve the application experience:
1. Eliminate redundancies between the main Common Application and different college and university supplements.
2. Simplify and streamline financial aid paperwork so that students do not need to submit the same family financial information three times.
3. Insist that the cost savings Common App have provided to college members with the revised Common App be passed on to students in lowered college admissions fees.
4. Streamline the end-to-end admissions process.
How could this happen? The Common Application could offer a simple, unified early admission round, where students submit basic personal, family and financial information, work and activities, possible majors and professional plans, a transcript, test scores, and a short, 250-word essay to a handful of colleges. Colleges can give thumbs up, thumbs down, or decide they need more info. The second round could include more questions, specific to those colleges.
Processing over 3 million online applications, and gearing up to handle all online admissions in the United States over the next two decades, the Common Application has the institutional clout to pursue structural changes that would make the admissions system more navigable for all students. Sustained by payments from member colleges, the Common Application has not challenged the ways the admissions process creates needless hurdles for students and families.
Until these larger changes are embraced the Common Application cannot achieve its mission of “equity, access and integrity" in the college admissions process.