Using the Universal College Application (UCA)

The UCA application site,, went live on July 1st; feature-rich, stable, reliable, dependable and efficient—UCA launched a full month before the Common Application is scheduled to flip on the switch.

Yet before you rejoice or yawn, let’s recapitulate last year’s launch of the Common Application’s new version called CA4. On August 1st, 2013, after a record number of applicants registered, CA4 crashed, allowing only 74 of 517 member colleges to upload their supplements. Then, the number of technical issues rapidly escalated from missing recommendations and transcripts, unsupported browsers, lost payment records, to crashes when applicants skipped questions instead of answering them sequentially. The situation became so alarming that many members, such as SMU, began touting their own on-line application as an alternative. Princeton unilaterally revoked its exclusive arrangement with the Common Application and signed on with the UCA.

After this debacle, and the ensuing dismissal of the Common Application’s Executive Director Rob Killion in February, Censeo, an independent consulting company, issued a report on the Common App’s technical problems. It stated that CA4 had been released without sufficient beta testing—confirmation of the obvious—and that the Common App was having difficulties defining itself as fundamentally “a membership organization or a technology vendor”.  Additionally it noted that the Common App’s tiered pricing program for exclusive members, which reduces member application processing fees from $4.75 to $3.75, created ‘a single point of failure.’ If the Common Application site cannot process applications, recommendations and all the rest…there are no alternatives for many of the Common App exclusive members. In most systems, and particularly in technology, redundancy is paramount. Last year’s CA4 launch was living proof.

Regardless, hundreds of Common Application members remain exclusive including Columbia, Dartmouth, Haverford, Rhodes, Swarthmore, and Stanford. Harvard, a maverick, has voiced its dislike of exclusivity and continues to voice the need for competition. However, most of the Common App members tend to side with Carey Thompson, vice president of enrollment at Rhodes College (Memphis, TN), and a Common Application board member: “I think students, members, and the high school community benefit by not having multiple platforms that confuse an already confusing process.”

But just how confusing is the college application process? The University of California has its own application site (as do most public universities), as does the California State system. There is the Common Application composed of over 500 members, a UCA of over 40 members, and then there are a couple thousand colleges, including MIT and Georgetown, that have their own. Are you confused? Just Google up the school of interest and type the word ‘admissions’ and chances are very good that you’ll be taken to the admissions page with a link to its application. Frankly, if this confounds potential applicants, they might not be ready for the challenges and responsibilities of college.   

Currently there are 44 college members with the UCA, including some of the most select colleges in the country including the University of Chicago, Cornell, Harvard, Johns Hopkins, Rice, Duke, Tulane, Vanderbilt, and, of course, Princeton. Applying to any of them using the UCA will give you the flexibility to submit a 500 word essay about any topic you choose, and any multimedia information about you that you wish to share. It will also differentiate your application against a sea of thousands of Common App submissions. It also allows for the customization of counselor recommendations so that its information can be tailored, unlike the more rigid Common Application.

The Common App is controlling a vital pinch point between applicants and independent colleges, which generated revenues exceeding $13 million in fiscal 2012.  As Robert Massey, the vice president of communications at Lafayette College mentioned in Inside Higher Ed, while admissions offices might find certain CA rules or actions questionable: “…they will comply. They [The Common App] are the 800-pound gorilla.”  Turning to the UCA might possibly keep this 800 pound gorilla in check.