College Application Process

Common App 5

On August 1st, Common Application 5 (CA5) launched. After two weeks of application writing, it appears to be stable. It only took 5 minutes to find the registration screen after initially landing in the CA5 Knowledgebase off Google. I consider that reasonably intuitive. To date, over a dozen students I’m working with have uncovered most of the supplements they were looking for. The stability alone is a relief after the crashes of CA4.

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 ( 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 ( 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.    

C4- The New Common Application’s Difficult Premier

The launch of the new Common Application (CA4), according to CA4’s senior director of policy, Scott Anderson, has proven to be a “learning curve for all.”

At the recent NACAC Conference in Toronto, a panel of Common Application officials faced the music. Scott Anderson wryly noted, “If you read blogs, you would think nothing is working. That’s not the case.” Or is it? If you’re planning to apply early (by November 1st) to private schools using CA4, it might not be a bad idea to start now. The process of getting your data inputted correctly, your recommendations submitted correctly, or your payments for applications processed correctly might prove a bit more challenging this year. The online application’s 2013 debut has, as Scott Anderson implies, been anything but smooth.

August 1st, 2013, when CA4 went live, saw over 1000 applicants from a dozen countries set up new accounts in the first 20 minutes, exceeding the most optimistic predictions. Soon thereafter, the system promptly crashed, allowing only 74 of 517 member colleges to upload their supplements into the CA4 system.

By August 15th, CA4 usage was up substantially from a year ago: 585,000 unique accounts (up 20%), 14,340 applicants (up 22%) had submitted 31,352 applications (up 23%) of which 14,340 had writing supplements, and 8100 had fee waivers (up 43%). Unfortunately, payments were tracked for only 18,800 applications (down 4.5%) CA4 has issues in payment processing, which is being done through a third party; credit card processing can take 24-48 hours.

The main problem areas CA4, subject to change, include the following:

Login Issues: after changing email addresses, many users have had difficulty logging back on the system. As of September 13th this issue was resolved, going forward, but not retroactively. So, if you happened to set up your account prior to September 13th, changed your email address and were unable to login, it’s best to email the Common App Help Desk for assistance.

Green Checks: for whatever reason, the CA4 software developers assumed applicants would fill out the application questions sequentially. Skipping among the questions causes the green checks (indicating a section of the application is complete) to go on regardless of status of that section of the application.  

Unsupported browsers: Some recommenders have had difficulty creating accounts because they were using unsupported browsers. Approved browsers include Safari (5.1 or higher), Chrome, Firefox, and Windows Explorer 9.0: all the specifications can be found on the Common Application site,

Formatting Documents: The best approach to responding to a prompt in CA4 is to do all your formatting and corrections in Word and then pasting it in. Then don’t mess with it.

FERPA: ‘FERPA’ in essence allows applicants to review all information in their educational file (transcripts, but particularly, in respect to the Common Application, recommendations submitted by recommenders within 45 days of a request). On the CA4 there is a box for students to waive their FERPAs. Most recommenders will refuse to write recommendations unless the FERPA is waived; applicants are having a hard time finding the FERPA waiver box (Here are the instructions for finding the FERPA waiver in CA4- Once the FERPA is signed, it cannot be undone.

Any issues that you run into can be reported to the Common Application Help Desk, which ensures response within 10 minutes (average), though stay patient.  

As CA4 launched, the Common Application signed exclusive arrangements with members including Washington University (MO), Rice, and Duke. 331 of the membership, however, are nonexclusive, including Harvard University, Howard, Carleton, Davidson, and Johns Hopkins to name a few. The best way to find alternative ways to apply is to go to the admissions website of the school.

If you are applying to private schools, stay calm, start early, and be ready to work through a few difficulties. Eventually CA4 will run smooth as silk, but getting any software running well, especially with the feature set and the vast numbers of applicants and members as CA4 has, is a huge undertaking. We’re in the midst of it now.  

C4- The New and Improved Common Application

If you are planning to apply to Notre Dame, Cornell, University of Michigan, Stanford, the University of Saint Andrews (Scotland) or 524 other schools, you might have already encountered the Common App.

Since 1975 the Common App has brought uniformity to the admissions process. After all, once you’ve inputted your extensive list of extracurricular activities (you’re allowed to list 10 on the Common Application) in one application, what a waste to have to do the same thing to yet another application, and then another. The Common App allows you do this just once for all its member schools.

The Common App’s 4th revision (which is why it is called C4), announced on 8 February 2013, will be available online on 1 August 2013. Overall it appears that the Common Application is attempting to apply metrics to track feedback from members and applicants and build them into the application on an ongoing basis. C4, in effect, will be a sentient document that will constantly morph to the needs of the users. There is some innovative thinking in C4.

Let’s look at some of the more prominent changes C4 offers:


  1. Essays: 5 new essay prompts are now featured in the writing section of the main application. The actual prompts can be found at, The elimination of my favorite, “Topic of your choice,” is sad (as it allowed many UC applicants to use one of their personal statements. Californians still might be able to, but it will take some clever editing to get it to directly address the new essay prompts.  The new five essay prompts will be reviewed annually and might change over time depending upon feedback from members. Also, essays can now be up to 650 words up from 500 and must be at least 250 words for the more laconic applicant.
  2. College Supplements: the Common App has streamlined the college supplement into a ‘member page’ and a ‘writing supplement. This is the portion of the Common App that is individualized by each member school and asks about legacy, major interest, in-state status etc.,’ The writing supplement can incorporate resumes, short answers, research papers, graded assignments…whatever the College might want to review. What’s superb about this redesign is that now colleges merely check off what it is they want to use, and their supplements are ready for action. With last year’s version, some colleges didn’t get their supplements set till well into September. Now, colleges will have their supplements ready on the same day the main Common application launches.  
  3. Special Supplements: The Arts supplement will now use a cloud based program called, which allows applicants to upload portfolios or music samples online. The Athletic supplement will be discontinued, which makes sense, since most of the recruiting is beyond what the Common App can offer.
  4. Non-academic evaluations: for submission by peers (Dartmouth College), coaches, clergy, and others is now offered.


Last year, approximately 690,000 applicants submitted 2.8 million applications through the Common Application site. That’s an average of over 4 applications per applicant. This is impressive, but when you consider that most public schools still have their own application (though over the recent years the Common App has added UNC-Chapel Hill, University of Michigan, with Purdue joining this year), and that there are 2,774 4-year institutions in the US (though keep in mind the Common Application is now international in scope with four UK and one Austrian university added this year), the Common Application is still not all that common.

Certainly there are still selective campuses that do not use the Common Application. MIT and Georgetown immediately come to mind. Georgetown refuses to use the Common Application because, according to Charlie Deacon, the Director of Admissions, “We don't have the Common App because we think that each person is unique and each school is unique.”

In any case, most applicants have too few hours in a day to accommodate too many unique schools. The Common Application represents substantial labor savings. That alone makes it uncommonly applicable to your admissions efforts.  

The Checklist and the College Application Process

The Checklist and the College Application Process

When applying to college, it’s a very good idea to use a checklist to ensure all the requirements are submitted by deadline. A generic checklist, such as the one found at, covering recommendations, thank you letters, special submissions, financial aid…, might be sufficient, but the problem is many schools have so many offerings that a customized checklist might prove more effective. Devising your checklist will depend on the schools and the programs of interest.

The 2010 Prompt Parade

  • The UC and USC personal statements remain the same
  • University of Chicago: “Find x”
  • University of Dallas and Caltech want to know your sense of humor
  • Tufts University and the Optional Video prompt

If you’re a senior you’ve already begun this year’s admissions process race (and if you haven’t, the race has already ended for the University of California application and for the December 1st Scholarship review application for USC, but not to worry, there are still plenty of applications left to write.) The supplements to the Common Application (along with the thousands of schools that still have their own applications) contain a parade of prompts ranging from the dull and tired to the bizarre and esoteric.

Assuming you just finished the UC application, the two prompts you ran into have been around for the last several years. They do, however, aptly serve their purpose. “Tell us about the world you come from..”  makes you define your world, to narrow it down to preferably one incident that distills that world, adds a conflict and resolves it in a meaningful way that gives the admissions office a sense of how it has affected your life.  The second UC prompt, “tell us about an experience…” requires narrowing and, usually another story.  If you’re clever you’ve probably figured out that both these essays can be used in the Main Common application, and at least one of them can be used for the main USC application, neither of which have seen much change over the last years as well.  It’s when you start to explore the supplements to the Common Application that you start to see some new stirrings.

Up until 2006 the University of Chicago quietly attracted and enrolled a very cerebral class of students, some of whom even designed their own t-shirts for the university, “Where Fun Comes to Die”. The school had spurned the Common application to such an extent, that its homespun application was proudly labeled by the admissions department the ‘Uncommon Application’.  Then James Nondorf took the helm of the university admissions and financial aid office and things changed dramatically at Chicago.  

Chicago went to the Common Application and even designed a recruiting booklet showing students engaged in music, dance, and playing football.  Applications have consequently soared.  Just fewer than 20,000 applications were received for the fall of 2010, an increase of over 40% from the previous year.  The questions on Chicago’s supplement have still, however, retained their intellectual, provocative nature:

Essay Option 1: “Find x.” 

or Option 2:  “Dog and car. Coffee and Tea.  Great Gatsby, and Catcher in the Rye. Everyone knows there are two types of people in the world. What are they?”     

Here are a few of the more choice and different prompts:

University of Dallas: “Tell us your favorite joke or humorous anecdote.”

Cal Tech: “What are three adjectives your friends would use to describe you?”

“Caltech students have long been known for their quirky sense of humor and creative pranks and for finding unusual ways to have fun. What is something that you find fun or humorous?”

The Smith College essay is particularly challenging, especially since it requires an answer of fewer than 150 words:

“Imagine that you are the director of admission at a highly selective liberal arts college and you had to choose from among a group of very well-qualified applicants. Aside from excellent academic performance, what one characteristic would be most important to you in making your decision? Why?

In terms of the more inventive prompts, the prize this year should go to Tufts University, outside of Boston.  In its optional topic section, containing 9 prompts to choose among, is the option to create, “…a one-minute video that says something about you.  Upload it to an easily accessible Web site (if you use YouTube, we recommend using a privacy setting) and give us the URL and access code.”  To see some fairly clever responses just go to You Tube and search ‘Tufts Optional Essay’. The ‘Math Dance Girl’ is one of the most popular.  

2010 에세이 프레이드

  • UC, USC 예전과 동일
  • University of Chicago: “Find X”
  • University of Dallas, Caltech: 유머감각 찾기
  • Tufts University: 비디오 만들기 선택

여러분이 졸업반이라면 에세이 설문의 프레이드를 시작했으리라 믿는다 (UC원서접수는 이미 끝났으며, USC 역시 12/1이 장학금 원서심사가 마감이다).  그러나, 아직 마감이 남은 원서가 많이 있다.  Common Application 와 수 천의 대학 자체 원서의 에세이 설문은 진부하고 식상하기도 하고 별나고 난해하기까지 하다.

여러분이 UC원서의 두 가지 에세이를 썼다면 알겠지만, 이 설문들은 수년간 같은 것이었지만 매우 적절한 설문들이다.   “Tell us about the world you come from… (본인의 삶에 대해 설명하시오)”는 여러분의 삶을 설명하면서, 한 가지 사건에 대하여 갈등과 해결을 보여, 입학 심사관에게 이 사건이 여러분의 삶에 영향을 끼친 점을 알리는 것이다.   다음 설문은 “…tell us about an experience….(여러분의 한 가지 경험을 설명하시오..)”는 더 상세하게 한 가지 사건을 설명하는 것이다.  이 두 가지는 Common Application의 에세이 설문이며, 또한 USC의 에세이에도 작년부터 쓰이고 있다.  또한 Common Application의 추가적으로 필요한 새롭고 흥미있는 에세이 설문들이 있다.

2006년까지 University of Chicago에서는 매력적이고도 지적인 학생들을 모으면서, 어떤 학생은 대학 T-shirt의 디자인을 “Where Fun Comes to Die (즐거움이 죽는 곳)”으로 하였다.  이 대학은 철저히 Common Application을 거부하고, 자체 원서를 ‘Uncommon Application’이라고 칭하였다.  그러나, 이대학의 입학심사/재정위원장이 된 James Nondorf는 Common Application을 받아들이고 음악, 무용, 축구(즐거움의 회생인가?)활동을 실은 안내서를 만들었다.  그리하여 올해는 원서접수가 전년도 대비 40%늘어난 2만명이 응시하였다.  한편, 시카고대학의 에세이 설문은 여전히 정밀하고 참신하다:

  1. 를 찾아라)
  2. Essay option 2: “Dog and car”, “Coffee and Tea”, “Great Gatsby and Catcher in the Rye”처럼 세상에는 두 가지 형태의 사람이 있다.  어떤 사람들인가?

다른 대학들도 에세이 프레이드에 참가하고 있다.  아래의 예를 참고하기 바란다.

  • University of Dallas: 여러분이 좋아하는 죠크나 격언에 대해 설명하시오.
  • Cal Tech: 여러분의 친구는 여러분을 어떻게 표현하는지 세 가지 형용사로 설명하시오.  “칼텍의 학생들은 재치가 뛰어나고 창의적이며, 특이한 즐기는 방법을 찾고 있다.  본인은 어떻게 즐거움과 유머를 찾는가?
  • Smith college: 이 에세이는 도전이 되며, 특히 150자 이내이어야 한다.

“본인이 명문대학의 입학심사관이라고 가정하고 우수한 학생들 중에서 입학생을 뽑아야 한다.  학업이외에 어떤 특징을 고려하겠는가?  왜?”

  • ·          Tufts University: 터프스대학은 창의적 질문으로 상을 주어야 한다.  선택사항으로 9개의 에세이 설문을 주는데, 한 가지는 “…본인을 알리는 1분짜리 비디오 촬영으로 Web site (YouTube)에 올리고, 대학에 URL과 access code를 알려라…”이다.  YouTube의  ‘Tufts Optional Essay’에서 “Math Dance Girl’는 매우 유명하다.

비디오를 사용하든지 글로 표현하든지, 에세이를 즐기도록 하자:  결국 여러분 각자의 드럼을 치며 행진하는 것이다.