Alternatives to the Common Application

With the debacle of the introduction of the fourth version of the Common Application (C4) fresh in mind, it might be wise to think about alternatives to the Common Application.

Undoubtedly the Common Application is a useful tool allowing an applicant to apply to numerous colleges with one main application, and usually a supplement. Through the Common App, recommendations can be sent electronically and its cloud-based Slideshow application enables applicants to upload portfolios and musical performances to be shared among the colleges. Moreover, the Common App has over 500 college members. It’s a convenient tool when it works.

One alternative to the Common Application is the Universal College Application (UCA). Interestingly, UCA is the creation of a for-profit company named Reiter, which in 1998 worked with the Common Application to launch its online version. Harvard, which is application agnostic, was the first college to become an UCA member.

If you logon to the UCA website you’ll find that its main application looks a lot like the Common Application (not surprising since the information is fairly generic). It contains personal, academic, family, test scores, academic distinctions, extracurricular, and employment information. It then has a spot for an activity description and personal statement of 500 words in which the applicant can choose a subject such as a person you admire, life-changing experience, or viewpoint on a current event.

Fortunately, the UCA doesn’t impose an arbitrary set of rules on the applicants, such as limiting the number of changes to the main application essay; rather, it can make visible (or invisible) the main application essay to the colleges depending on whether the college requires a main essay or not. Moreover, on the UCA, an applicant can link portfolios, online social community pages, and musical compositions to her application.

The major limitation of the UCA is its small membership. It does, however, include among its members Cornell University, Duke, Harvard, Johns Hopkins, Princeton, RPI, Tufts, and Washington University (St. Louis). If the UCA can convince a critical mass of colleges, such as the balance of the Ivy League schools, the University of Chicago, Stanford…to join, it can be become a solid alternative to the Common App. This year should be a boon for UCA’s membership efforts because of the shaky C4 launch. We’ll see what evolves. 

Another player in the admissions application universe is Xap (nationalappcenter.com). Through this portal, applicants can apply electronically to over 900 colleges. This all sounds appealing and exciting until a student begins using the application portion of the site and, for the colleges on the Common Application—you’re merely linked back to the Common Application site to apply. In essence, it is not really an alternative to the Common Application. The bulk of the non-Common App colleges are part of ‘mentor systems’ from a number of states, including the Cal State system. An applicant might just as well go to the CSU Mentor site directly.

If you’re applying to historically black colleges there is the Common Black College Application (eduinconline.com) which allows an applicant to apply to all 35 members of historically black colleges for only $35. Unfortunately, Howard University and Grambling are not included among the membership, but it does list Morgan State, Alabama A&M, and Virginia Union among its members. 

Though the UCA is a possible alternative to the Common Application, its membership is limited. Xap, for all intents and purposes, merely links over to the Common Application and the Mentor sites. The Black College Application is, of course, a niche alternative. Another alternative is to go to each college and access its own application: many have them, and it’s something MIT and Georgetown maintain. Most colleges are far from homogenized, so how can they be well served by an application, such as the Common Application, which treats them as if they were? The search for alternatives is far from over.