Illustration by Arnel Reynon
For a growing number of students across Virginia, the use of The Common Application is as much a part of the process of applying to college as taking an institution’s tour or deciding on a major. The Common Application (commonapp.org) is an online program in which first-year and transfer students can apply to member institutions by filling out and submitting one “common application” online. It replaces or offers an alternative to filling out a different form for each institution, whether online or in print.
A nonprofit organization that shares the name of the application form, The Common Application comprises 550 national and international mem-ber colleges and universities, all of which use a “holistic” application review process — meaning they look beyond test scores and transcripts to such factors as the applicant’s extracurricular activities, community service and achievements.
It was established in 1975 by 15 private colleges with the goal of having a standardized application form that would be accepted by all its member institutions. During the first 30 years, membership rose to 276, and in 2001, public institutions were invited to join. Of the 550 current members, 16 are in Virginia. Just last year, 809,000 students applied to college using The Common Application — an increase of more than 85,000 applicants over the previous 2012-13 period, when there were 723,576 applicants.
After creating a username and password, students can begin the application process. A series of tabs and prompts helps guide the applicant through exactly what he or she must fill out. The Common App portion is the same for everybody and includes sections for personal, household and educational information, test scores, extracurricular activities, and an essay. A college search will need to be completed in which member institutions can be added to the applicant’s online list; after that, varying unique-to-the-university supplemental sections must be filled out — these can include anything from a few questions about academics and residency to additional essays. It’s also important to note that an application fee is required for each institution in a specified amount, unless the applicant is receiving a waiver. There is also a comprehensive online help center where applicants can view videos, get information or ask a question if they need assistance with the process.
A Simpler Approach
Of the 16 member institutions in Virginia as of the 2013-14 application season, seven use The Common App as their only means of application for first-year, full-time, degree-seeking admissions: Christopher Newport University, the College of William & Mary, the University of Mary Washington, the University of Richmond, the University of Virginia, Virginia Commonwealth University and Washington and Lee University.
U.Va. has been a member since 2008. Dean of Admissions Greg Roberts says the university chose to exclusively use The Common App primarily for the benefit it offers students, but also because it simplifies the process for the admissions department. “Our interest was to have one application because it would be less confusing and complicated to students,” Roberts says. “They’re not confused by having several different types of applications, nor do they have to ask, ‘Is it better to submit this application or that application?’ For us it helps with processing — only receiving application materials and applications from one source.”
UMW became a member in 2001, the first year public institutions were invited to join. While Director of Undergraduate Admissions Melissa Yakabouski is unsure whether the university would have become a member sooner had it been possible, she says that Mary Washington joined because of an interest in expanding its applicant pool, and because it made it easier for students to be able to apply to multiple institutions. Upon joining, UMW also used the online application provider CollegeNet (collegenet.com) for first-year students, but it started using The Common App exclusively about 10 years ago. “Really it was a matter of ease and efficiency,” Yakabouski says. “It was in our best interest in order to process applications quickly and be able to review them efficiently to have one form, and that’s why we’ve stuck with one application.” However, CollegeNet is still used for graduate and adult degree applications at UMW.
There are nine nonexclusive member colleges: Emory & Henry College, Hampden-Sydney College, Hollins University, Marymount University, Randolph College, Randolph-Macon College, Roanoke College, Sweet Briar College and Virginia Intermont College.
E&H is a more recent member, having joined in 2012. David Voskuil, vice president for enrollment management, is new to the college this year but says he assumes that the college uses The Common Application to increase enrollment, adding that it is promoted across the country not only by college admissions departments, but also by high schools. E&H does not use it exclusively, because Voskuil says the college believes that a number of students want to apply specifically to E&H, and therefore it gives them the option to do so through its own website. “We’re looking to find as many students at this point that will benefit from an Emory & Henry experience as we can in the area, and I think by closing off the online application [on college websites], you’re just basically shooting yourself in the foot,” he says. Growing Pains
When the updated version of The Common Application — an upgrade to handle the increasing number of student users (800,000 students, 3.5 million applications and more than 10 million school forms) — rolled out last year, it was plagued with technical problems and glitches. Among various issues, students and counselors had trouble submitting information, and colleges and universities had trouble downloading it. W&M extended its early decision deadlines, dates by which a student can apply and receive a response earlier than other students, to ensure that technical difficulties would not negatively impact students’ applications. Tim Wolfe, W&M’s senior associate dean of admissions, says that while the challenges did not directly affect the college per se, it was unfortunate that students, teachers and counselors encountered difficulties. “It was really fundamentally a significant overhaul, and what we’re confident will be, in the end, a significant leap forward,” Wolfe says. “But certainly in that first year, I think there were some components [that] just didn’t have a chance to get tested quite to the level that folks would have liked.”
The Common Application has taken significant steps to ensure that testing is completed for the 2014-15 application season. It engaged a third party, the Censeo Consulting Group, to do a complete review of The Common Application. In an email, Scott Anderson, vice president for policy for The Common Application, says, “[Censeo] made a series of recommendations to ensure stability going forward. Based on those recommendations, we implemented many changes, including giving members more time to test the 2014-15 Common Application, prior to launch.”
Pros and Cons
Lauren Mussey is a freshman at Mary Washington this fall. She applied using The Common Application because it was required, but notes that she would have used it regardless. While Mussey says she really didn’t encounter many hiccups with her application, she did incur a problem in which her essay did not appear as it should have, with improper spacing and indentations. She typed her essay in Microsoft Word, then had to paste it into Notepad, and then into The Common App, and even after she corrected it on the online form, her essay was not formatted correctly. She was worried that the colleges she applied to would see the essay and think she didn’t know how to type. Luckily for Mussey, her mother worksin the admissions office at Mary Washington, and after speaking with her and other friends, she found that the problem was widespread; after that, she felt she could relax a bit.
Collegiate School graduate and male valedictorian Brian Davia recommends other college applicants use the form. He is attending Georgetown University in Washington this fall. While Georgetown is not a member, he did fill out The Common App to apply to other institutions and says that in doing so, it made filling out the Georgetown application much easier. “Not only is The Common Application an easy, simplified way to apply, but it also opens more options to other universities or colleges that you might not even know about,” he says. “[The application is] already filled out, so it’s just the click of a button [to add additional colleges], which is a lot simpler for a lot of high school seniors.”