Meet the New Common Application

Denver — The new Common Application will make its debut next summer, the result of an $8-million revamp of the online system that’s designed to handle an ever-increasing volume of applications from around the globe.

As of August 1, students, college counselors, and admissions officers will see several changes intended to improve the user experience. Some of those changes, however, are already prompting debate.

During a meeting at the National Association for College Admission Counseling’s annual conference here on Friday, Common Application officials said that the new version would no longer include “topic of your choice” as an essay prompt (this news was met with gasps). Instead, students will choose one of four or five essay topics that are likely to change each year.

Several counselors lamented the removal of the “topic of your choice” prompt, describing it as a welcome invitation for students to express their creativity. One counselor said the prompt benefited teenagers who didn’t fit a particular mold. “By removing this, you’re actually making the process more stressful for students,” he said.

Another counselor applauded the change. Removing the prompt would level the playing field, he said, because now all students would be limited to the same questions. The prompt, the counselor said, disproportionately served savvy, affluent students who were comfortable writing about their achievements.

The essay length will remain the same—250 to 500 words—but for the first time the application will enforce the minimum and the maximum. Students who write essays that are too long or too short will receive an error message prompting them to make adjustments.

Among other changes, students will see fewer questions per screen. Applicants will not have to answer questions that don’t apply to them, based on their answers to previous questions. A sidebar will offer on-screen help, and a new interface will feature “at a glance” progress checks that show students what parts of the application they have and have not completed. (Think green check marks.)

The new system will also streamline the fee-waiver system for students, allowing them to indicate if they qualify just once instead of making multiple requests of various colleges, Common Application officials said. Eventually, they said, the new system will do more to help counselors from community-based organizations monitor the progress of their students.

Unlike the old model, the new system will not allow students to upload a résumé, although member colleges can add that option if they choose. In such cases, applicants will still be able to zap a document (say, a research paper they wrote) to the admissions office, but that transaction will not happen as part of the Common Application.

Eventually, the Common Application will have overlapping admissions cycles—starting in August and ending after Labor Day—that run simultaneously. And as of next summer, the Common Application will become an online-only venture (so long, paper).

“We need to do this, we’re excited about doing this,” said Rob Killion, executive director of the Common Application. “But it’s change, and the first year of change is hard.”

Mr. Killion said he welcomed further discussion of the new application, including the 500-word limit, which some counselors have criticized and others have praised. For now, it’s safe to say that no matter how the Common Application evolves, someone, somewhere, is not going to be happy about it.

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