In February, the Common Application, used by nearly 700 colleges and universities in the United States and abroad for admissions, announced some big changes to its essay prompts for the 2017-2018 college admissions season. It just announced some new changes, which you will find in this post by Jeff Knox, an educational counselor at PrepMatters, a test prep company with offices in Bethesda, McLean and Washington. Before joining PrepMatters, Knox worked in the University of Pittsburgh’s office of admissions and financial aid and was a high school teacher.
The Common App was developed in 1975 to help reduce the number of separate applications and essays a student applying to numerous colleges and universities would have to complete. Many colleges and universities, however, still request additional information, including extra essays. The Common App is believed to have sparked an increase in the number of colleges to which high school seniors apply, in turn increasing the number of applications that many schools receive.
Some of the changes to the Common App mimic what is being done on a new application by what is called the Coalition for Access, Affordability and Success, which includes all Ivy League schools, Johns Hopkins University, Stanford University and the University of Virginia. It was billed as an initiative to simplify the admissions process and improve college/student interaction throughout the high school years, though many college counselors don’t think it has done that.
Coalition members include Harvard and Yale universities, along with every other Ivy League school, Stanford University, Johns Hopkins University, the University of Virginia and the University of Michigan, among others. The stated goal of the coalition is to encourage low-income families to apply to this select group of colleges, but critics wonder how many will be really helped, given that all students can use it.
By Jeff Knox
Every year, the Common App, an online application used by nearly 700 colleges and universities admissions offices in the United States and abroad, announces changes big and small. In February, I analyzed the considerable adjustments to the all-important college essay prompts, and now the Common App has announced more changes. Here is a snapshot of those changes:
A More Detailed “Courses and (Now) Grades” Section
In previous versions, the Common App required only a student’s current coursework to be listed in the actual application, and self-reporting GPA was optional. It left colleges free to request additional information, such as the previous years’ class schedules and even specific grades, in their school-specific supplemental pages. Now, however, the main portion of the Common App (that will be submitted to all schools to which a student applies) will ask for the names of classes taken (or to be taken) over the four years of high school. Additionally, for the first time the Common App will ask for grades as they appear on the student’s transcript. Interestingly, this is in line with what students are being asked to do by the Coalition App, an alternative to the Common App that debuted last year to mixed fanfare.
Colleges already see this information on the official transcripts that high schools are expected to send on behalf of students. Just as they do with SAT and ACT scores, students will self-report this information, but colleges must still rely on the official reports that come directly from institutions, not those received from the students themselves.
So in essence, there’s no appreciable difference in admissions for students except for two things: colleges will receive a sense of students’ academic performance in advance of the arrival of the official transcript, and now the monkey-work of inputting grades is being outsourced to millions of adolescent fingers rather than those of inundated admissions staff. Some colleges, both members and nonmembers of the Common App, including University of Southern California, University of Pittsburgh, and the University of California system, already request students to include this level of detail. The grunt work is annoying, but I believe the methodical process of inputting each grade will give students a chance to see the landscape of their academic performance over time and perhaps give them a better perspective of the academic impression they are conveying to colleges.
It’s still unclear whether this section will be required or optional; however, in the spirit of thoroughness, I always recommend a student complete every bit of the application he or she can, especially when it’s information that’s bound to be revealed anyway.
Google Drive Integration
In recent years, Google has sunk its teeth into public and private schools by offering teachers and students a convenient way to create and collaborate on assignments. Many students use online tools such as Google Drive to write papers, make presentations, and correspond with teachers outside class time. Now the Common App will offer a way for students to upload documents, such as essays and resumes, directly from Google Drive into their applications.
I’m pleased to see this change because there are many students who don’t have personal computers and rely on school and community resources to access this type of technology. Since student work can be saved in the cloud to be later revisited, students have a much easier way to work and collaborate, knowing that the tools they have are compatible with the Common App. Part of me, however, is also skeptical about one aspect of this change. To me (a tech layman but college application expert), I foresee the likelihood of functionality glitches and formatting issues. I can’t help but remember the substantial technology bugs that came with the functionality changes of 2013 and made using the Common App that year needlessly stressful for thousands of students and counselors across the country, even prompting deadline extensions by a number of colleges. I presume that the Common App will also include text-box options that will still enable students to type directly into the Common App rather than upload documents and, thereby, avoid this potentially problematic issue. I notice, too, that this is another functionality that is similar to what the new Coalition App offers its students.
Following the footsteps of the less-than-well-received Coalition App, the Common App will now allow students to assign advisers to the Common App to view their work and check on their progress. School-based counselors were already integrated into the Common App as students were required to electronically invite them to their account. Now students who are working with community-based organization (CBO) advisers, independent counselors, or “other advisers” can assign these individuals to their Common App account, which will position these advisers to see the students’ progress and provide guidance.
This allows for greater support, especially for students who don’t attend high schools with the best college counseling resources, but I wonder how the Common App will monitor who students invite. There doesn’t seem to be a way to regulate who is a counselor and who is just anyone, and there is no word as yet as to whether there will be a cap on how many people a student can invite. So it’s possible an eager rising senior could have her counselor, her parents, her boyfriend who attends [insert impressive sounding name] University, her lawyer uncle, and her three BFFs to view and comment on her Common App work. One unanswered question is whether the Common App (or colleges and universities) will require the invitee to identify the nature of his or her relationship to the applicant. Sounds stressful to me, but, even so, the intention of the Common App in making this change is a good one.
Translation to Spanish
Clearly a number of students in the United States have Spanish as their first language or come from Spanish-speaking homes. In its newest version, “key information” of the Common App will be translatable into Spanish to provide greater access to these students — and to support the counselors and advisers who are working with students who will find Spanish translation useful. It stands to reason that down the road the Common App will offer translation resources for other commonly spoken languages. All in all, it’s a great change.
The Common App suggests that these are only a few of the changes to expect in its next version, scheduled to be released August 1, 2017. I am closely monitoring the Common App so that I can help keep students and families informed and also explain the ramifications of any changes that emerge. And of course, you can follow the Common App too on Twitter @CommonApp or by reading its blog “what’s (app)ening?” Stay tuned…