UChicago, seeking prestige, drops Uncommon Application

In an effort to increase the number of applicants and simplify its admission process, the University of Chicago has decided to adopt the Common Application starting with the class of 2012, applying next year.

Despite its long-standing, unique rejection of the Common Application and its marketing of an “Uncommon Application,” UChicago followed the lead of its new president, ex-Brown Provost Robert Zimmer, who encouraged the change. Discussions on changing the application began early last summer and continued through the fall, according to Vice President and Dean of College Enrollment Michael Behnke.

“We took note of the fact that two of our major competitors, Northwestern and (the University of Pennsylvania), had decided to accept the Common Application. That led us to do a little digging, and we discovered the impressive recent growth of the use of the online Common Application,” wrote Behnke in an e-mail to The Herald.

UChicago was well-known among high school seniors for its Uncommon Application, which some students value especially because of its variation from the norm. The school’s Uncommon Application has unique essay questions that allow “more opportunities to express yourself,” according to UChicago’s admission Web site. Behnke said a supplement to the Common Application will include the school’s quirky essay questions.

UChicago officials said the change is designed to streamline the application process. “I think that an issue with the Uncommon Application is that it’s asking you for routine information – where you went to high school, for example – that isn’t anything new, and so there is no reason that you can’t ask for common information in a common way,” Zimmer said at a student forum, according to the Chicago Maroon, the student newspaper.

Behnke agreed with Zimmer’s statement. “The only thing that is really ‘uncommon’ about our application is the essay section, and that will remain unchanged in a supplement that will be required of all applicants,” Behnke wrote. “We may even keep the term ‘uncommon’ in some way, but students will now be able to submit truly common information such as name and address, family information and list of activities in a common way.”

Although the decision is final, some students remain opposed. Behnke said, “There was an outcry in response to language implying that we were replacing our own application with the Common Application. When we reassured people that we would still be requiring our own essays, most expressed understanding.”

Luis Lara, a junior at UChicago protesting the change, disagreedwith the decision to adopt the Common Application as well as the administration’s handling of the change. “The university has no intention of allowing students to have their say in the matter. It was done without our input, and there was no public discussion held,” Lara said.

Lara added that the Common Application encourages students to apply to schools they haven’t fully researched. “The Uncommon Application is symbolic for the university, and it is a reason students apply. (The Common Application) is going to make it easy for students to just apply to a school they don’t even know about,” Lara said. “Applicants will apply to the school and treat it as a lottery because they can apply to so many others. Many of them probably won’t know anything about what the school stands for.”

Lara started a Facebook group called “Save the Uncommon Application,” which over 1,000 members joined. Because of the high number of members, Lara, along with other students, has decided to start a petition against the change. “So far, we have 1,272 signatures, and we plan to present this to the administration. But so far, university officials aren’t responding,” Lara said.

Other students acknowledge both positive and negative effects to the change. “Changing to the Common Application will definitely raise the number of students that apply to the university, and this in turn will raise the school’s rankings,” said sophomore Steven Leiva. “However, the school has always prided itself on resisting the change that other comparable institutions have followed in accepting the Common Application. I have always believed that this fact helps account for the kinds of students that enroll at (UChicago).”

Behnke said the university’s transition to the Common Application was part of an effort to improve UChicago’s ability to compete with other top schools by increasing the number of applicants. “We received 10,340 applicants this year. That is considerably lower than the number received by our peer institutions. We do not expect the same jump in the number of applications as many peers experience,” Behnke said. “We do not try to be all things to all people, and our especially challenging essay questions will continue to make that clear. I do expect, however, that we will be somewhat more selective.”

Lara takes issue with changing part of UChicago’s culture in order to bolster its prestige. “I don’t think this is the only way that the University can compete against other top universities and be numbered high in rankings,” he said.