The Too Common Application

Crabby pines for individualism…

Is the Common Application a victim of its own success? Crabby thinks so and maybe you should, too. Begun by a small consortium of private colleges, primarily in New England, it has become a behemoth with over 488 colleges and universities subscribing to its wonderfully spare and relatively simple form. Enabling college-hungry students to apply to many colleges at a clip, it supposedly takes away the pain of having to file a different application for each institution.

Unfortunately, although colleges subscribing to the CA must agree to things like holistic review, they are still permitted to add wheels to the bike, much as early astronomers kept adding orbits to the planets to make sense of their motion until the model collapsed and they learned that the sun didn’t revolve around the earth. Crabby notes that many CA colleges have their own “supplements” — supposedly unique additions to the application that students must also complete before submission. Most of these supplements, however, seldom rise above the level of  “Why do you love us?” and add little to the discussion. Where distinct essays are requested, they don’t usually add much to the CA’s already ponderous and generic but decent topics.

Crabby has noticed that many colleges, despite their fealty to the CA’s principles, feel free to discard them in pursuing their own interests. Instead, the increasing number of supplements only makes things more confusing for applicants, as do the nitpicky extra questions about parents’ alumni status and similar semi-consequential issues. In some cases, the supplements don’t really ask for anything that’s new, forcing students to repeatedly fill in name, rank, and serial number in an endless litany.

The CA (at which Crabby feels it necessary to say he has several friends) says that the average number of applications filed per student has gone up only slightly with the CA form, and Crabby can believe that: the complexity of its supposed simplicity keeps the numbers steady. And the fact that its members now run the gamut of institutions from small liberal arts colleges to large state universities makes it frustrating rather than simpler because one still has to switch conceptual gears to accommodate the various expectations. One might well ask what factors Amherst College and the University of Michigan have in common that would enable them to share an application; this is stretching the bonds of collegiality a little too far, in Crabby’s opinion.

One of Crabby’s great college admission disappointments was when the University of Chicago joined the CA. Although it didn’t totally abandon its own peculiar essay questions (still available in their CA supplement), they gave up a measure of their uniqueness to dive into the larger pool. Before, they were proudly “Un-Common”; now, they are simply one of the crowd. Their application numbers have gone up, but they’ve lost some of their ability to have applicants self-select and provide them with an “Un-Common” pool of truly U of C-ready students. (Crabby is certain U of C will deny that, but he wonders what U of C admission officers must have felt when they adopted the CA. It was the end of an era, at least, at an institution which students proudly declare is “where fun goes to die.”)

Crabby thinks the Common Application is now both too common and too complex. Although its basic form is a model of directness and simplicity, the additional wheels on the bike make it unstable and hard to handle. There’s much to be said for a one-size-fits-all approach to college applications, but not when there are too many asterisks. And lumping the SUNYs with the Saints and open admission with under ten percent admission doesn’t really make sense. Students once again have to search very carefully through the underbrush to find what they need.

Really, a one size fits all application doesn’t work here. As much as Crabby would like to believe it creates a collegiate Kumbaya spirit among the 488 CA institutions, it only creates confusion. What does a “common” application really mean if it’s not truly common? If you have to hunt down and wrestle every variation to the ground before you can confidently submit your application, how is it really helping?

Crabby thinks the CA should tell members to put up or shut up–they’re either going COMMON or they’re not. If they want to know how much a student loves them, they can ask on their own. If they want a student to hop around the quad with a bag over his head, they can arrange that themselves. In the meantime, stop wanting to have your cake and eat it, too.

In the short term, since it’s unlikely there will be a movement to break up the party, Crabby suggests that the Common Application at least be subdivided into large semi-common parts: one for state institutions and similar; one for small privates; one for open and rolling admission schools; and one for whatever categories are left over. At least they could have more common features within each group so students wouldn’t constantly have to distinguish among them as they file.

But more than that, Crabby wonders if the Common Application has unintentionally and become a mechanism for the increasing homogenization and commodification of American higher education. If you can apply to multiple colleges with just a few clicks, why not? If it’s just about paying an extra fee, why not? If college #35 and university #355 are on the list, what distinguishes them? In its format the CA suggests that all its members are somehow of equal value, with just hints of difference; it suggests that Ringling College of Art and Design is on a par with NYU or Northwestern; that Westminster College (of Utah, Pennsylvania or Missouri) shares something significant with Morehouse or Mount Holyoke. They’re all more or less the same–just pick one.

Perhaps applying to college should actually be harder anyway to make sure students are really committed to going. More students deciding NOT to apply to certain institutions would make it easier for admission offices to make their choices and predict their yields, major headaches for deans. For all that, make the “Why do you love us?” the primary essay and see how candidates prove their devotion. Then you can throw out a topic like “What do you think about Wednesdays?” and see what it gets you.


7 thoughts on “The Too Common Application

  1. Ironic, we were just discussing this very topic in our offices. The CA now makes applicants so common that, in too many instances, it marginalizes the holistic review. I am very disappointed in the proposed changes as well… at least as being presented and discussed among colleagues, they appear to make it even more difficult for students to distinguish themselves and for colleges to make their selections. So, families, counselors and colleges are left viewing higher ed as nothing more than a numbers game, nothing more than another commodity to purchase. Disappointing and frustrating.


    • Thanks for commenting. Hearing all the new comments getting more frequent, maybe the CA will take a few moments to rethink things…


  2. Fantastic rant, Crabby! Until colleges stand up and say, “One size does NOT fit all,” this behemoth will continue to call the shots.

    With the CA you can’t link to online content (something the UCA has done for years) and counselors can secretly “opt out” of providing written evaluations for students. They’ve steadfastly refused to allow for “tailoring” of recommendations (another UCA feature) because tailoring recommendations somehow runs counter to the CA philosophy.

    They’re moving to a new platform, eliminating the most popular essay prompt, and bringing on the Big Ten. And who does this benefit? I’d say follow the money every time.

    Nancy Griesemer


  3. Will, this is probably your best post ever. What has particularly irritated me this year is seeing a growing number of colleges using their CA supplements as a thinly veiled attempt to market their campuses with essay prompts that wax poetic about research opportunities, student faculty ratios, and campus activities at the particular college. These “prompts” were like 30-second commercials thrown into the application. Sometimes the “prompts” were actually longer than the space students were allowed for replying. Is this really necessary?


    • Hi Carolyn- Thanks for your comment. I agree about the supplements; if they’re not commercials, they’re often just redundant. A more thorough screening might be in order.


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