Many high-school counselors offer colorful descriptions of “fast-track” applications, an increasingly popular recruitment tool among colleges. Such applications come with students’ names and other information already filled in. Typically, these solicitations also provide other incentives, like waived essay requirements, and promise quick admissions decisions.
For these reasons, some counselors call them “crap apps.” Matthew J. DeGreeff, director of college counseling at the Middlesex School, in Massachusetts, uses a simile instead. “This is like catnip for admissions deans,” he says, “because you can expand the application pool overnight.”
That counselors tend to view quick-and-easy applications with suspicion is nothing new. But there’s growing concern in high schools about how such applications are coexisting with another fixture of the admissions realm—the Common Application, the free admissions form accepted by 414 colleges.
At the National Association for College Admission Counseling’s annual conference last month, several counselors discussed what they described as an increasingly common scenario: students using a fast-track application to apply to a college that’s a member of the Common Application. In such cases, high schools cannot electronically submit students’ supporting documents—transcripts, secondary-school reports, and letters of recommendation—to colleges.
Why not? Because a member college isn’t able to download those documents until (or unless) a student submits his or her application through the Common Application’s Web site. In other words, a student can bypass the Common Application’s system by submitting a fast-track app, but that student’s counselor cannot do the same. In those instances, counselors say they must send supporting documents through the mail— and they must rely on students to tell them that they’ve filed a fast-track app in the first place.
“It’s adding another layer of complication to what’s already a stressful process,” says Ed Graf, a college counselor at Isidore Newman School, in New Orleans. “Students are just trying to freakin’ apply to college.”
Mr. Graf and other counselors have criticized Royall & Company, a direct-marketing firm that has pioneered the use of fast-track applications. Some of Royall’s clients package them as “V.I.P.” applications. The irony: Some colleges send such apps to thousands—even tens of thousands—of prospective students each year, which, of course, raises a philosophical question: If everyone’s a V.I.P., is anyone really a V.I.P.?
The company’s leaders, who did not immediately return a telephone message on Wednesday, have previously described fast-track applications as a time-saving means of simplifying the application process, helping colleges reach more prospective students. They’re also good for business: Most colleges that use them report significant increases in applications.
In recent years, Robert Killion, the Common Application’s executive director, has heard numerous complaints about the challenges raised by fast-track applicants applying to Common App colleges. Some counselors have asked why the nonprofit association does not transmit supporting documents for students who choose that option.
Money is one answer, Mr. Killion concedes. For each application filed through the Common Application, the association gets a $4 fee from member colleges who use the Common App exclusively (institutions that also accept other applications pay $4.75 per applicant). “We’ve built a system for students who want to follow the Common App model,” says Mr. Killion. “If a student wants to pursue an alternative path, that’s their prerogative, but I’m not sure why we, for free, should have to subsidize someone else’s system.”
Mr. Killion also describes other reasons for the policy. Transmitting school documents only when students apply via the Common App ensures the confidentiality of student records, he says. The policy also prevents colleges from being inundated with documents from students who might list numerous institutions on their “My Colleges” list, but not end up applying to all of them.
So what should counselors do when students submit fast-track apps to a Common App college? Mr. Killion offers two solutions. One is for counselors to print and mail supporting documents, just like they must do when a student mails the paper version of the Common App. Another is to tell students who’ve already created a Common App account to go ahead and submit an application to the same college online, which will automatically allow high schools to transmit required forms.
Madeleine Rhyneer, vice president for admission and financial aid at Willamette University, in Oregon, thinks there should be a better way. “They’re not interested in rectifying it—they want people to use their vehicle,” Ms. Rhyneer says of the Common Application. “The Common App needs to change their practices.”
Willamette is a member of the Common Application, and it offers a fast-track application. “Colleges that use both are put in a squeeze,” says Ms. Rhyneer, a former chairwoman of the Common Application’s steering committee.
Although Ms. Rhyneer seconds the concerns expressed by Mr. Graf and other counselors, she disagrees with negative characterizations of fast-track apps. Willamette sends such an app to about half of its inquiry pool and uses it to encourage particularly promising applicants to apply. “Counselors tend to paint everybody using it with the same brush, but we’re not trying to get a zillion apps,” she says.