Editorial: Give the Common App a chance

Monday, November 18, 2013

This year, the Common Application — an organization that standardizes the college admission process for Brown and over 500 schools — introduced its new system, CA4. Unfortunately, this rollout has been characterized by technical difficulties, leaving frustrated students struggling to meet admission deadlines. Dealing with the consequences has been a “nightmare,” Jason C. Locke, a vice provost at Cornell, told the New York Times. Since August, when the new system premiered, students have faced numerous problems: New questions have been added, essays have been unable to upload and some parents have been forced to pay admissions fees multiple times because they received no confirmation. While we sympathize with affected students and encourage the University to provide allowances for Common App-related delays, we believe that a standardized application benefits not only Brown but also the high school applicants.

One of the first schools to use the Common Application, Colgate University, aimed to “reaffirm what was important in admissions,” Mary F. Hill, a former dean of admissions at Colgate, said in a Chronicle of Higher Education article. The benefits were immediately obvious: Colleges could get more information from prospective students, and applicants could use the same form to apply to several institutions. Its most explosive growth happened from 2001 to 2012, when applications done via the Common App quadrupled and the number of colleges accepting the Common App doubled. It was during this period that many schools, including Brown, moved from having distinctive applications to adopting the Common App in order to reach a wider variety of students. In 2007, the University of Chicago, a famous abstainer, switched to the standardized form under the leadership of president Robert Zimmer, a former Brown provost. As the last remaining elite institutions began to accept this standardized form, many decried a ‘one-size-fits-all’ college admissions culture that would remove the individual character of each institution.

Despite its flaws, the Common App helps institutions with a key metric — attracting diverse and talented students who are less versed in the nuances of the college admissions process. Students who are the first in their families to go to college or who come from schools that offer limited guidance, are less likely to be able to handle completing multiple sets of confusing applications. At its best, the Common Application reduces the workload of applying, streamlining what would otherwise be an overwhelming and off-putting process. A reversion to the previous system would certainly preference students with the resources — often including private counselors — to manage time-consuming concurrent applications. Instead, a streamlined Common Application gives Brown and other highly selective schools a chance to attract disadvantaged students who may have been discouraged by the cumbersome paperwork.

We hope that students and institutions give the new Common App sufficient time to fix its obvious deficiencies, given its potential to level the playing field of college admissions to some degree. But we would like to see this leveling go further. By the time disadvantaged students reach their senior years of high school, they have already missed opportunities that would enable them to gain access to elite and sometimes life-altering institutions. The Common App has enormous influence in the landscape of higher education, and we would urge the organization to work collaboratively with both high schools and colleges to identify promising but underprivileged students as early as possible, perhaps providing basic information early on about how to become an attractive applicant. The Common App, when used appropriately, can be an equalizing force, and we would like to see this extended to level the playing field in college admissions.


Editorials are written by The Herald’s editorial page board: its editor, Rachel Occhiogrosso, and its members, Daniel Jeon, Hannah Loewentheil and Thomas Nath. Send comments to editorials@browndailyherald.com.

  • Nathan Nelson

    Although I agree with the argument that students, high schools, and college/universities should be patient with the glitches in Common App because of its long term and over riding value, I don’t think this editorial made a strong case for what that value is. The main premise seems to be, if I understand it right, that Common App “levels the playing field of college admissions to some degree”. According to the Brown Editorial Board, students who are first generation college applicants are” less likely to complete multiple sets of confusing applications”.
    As a high school counselor from Minnesota I can ceratinly attest that there is a big advantage in understanding the college application (and financial aid) process if someone in the family has been through that process. In my opinion, however, I have found (over many years) that individual college apps are quite a bit easier then the confusing Common App. When a student applies to single college using that college’s individual form you are only dealing with one entity. With the Common App there is a lot of switching back and forth between what the specific college wants and what Common App wants. One of the changes this year is that Coomon App requires that member institutions use only the Coommon App as the “official” application. To really help first generation students it would be best to give them the option of using the individual school’s admission forms or the Common App. Which ever they find less confusing.
    Normally I don’t engage in conspiracy theories but in honor of the 50th anniversay of the JFK assasination I submit that the real reason for the growth of the Common App is that it can inflate the number of applications to a college/university and, if finessed correcly, may make a school more selective. Having a high number of applicants is important to a college/university and is in fact the current lead story of the Brown Daily Herald.
    Nathan Nelson, Northfield, MN

  • Counselor

    First generation and low income students do not face improved odds with a system that requires high speed Internet, a computer with the latest browsers installed, and hours of navigating through software that was not just a little bit glitchy but flat out broken. I challenge the author of this article to try to navigate a complete set of applications on the the Common Application this year. Have you actually tried it? I have students who have had to contact customer support and counselors for help dozens of times. Does that sound like a system that helps disadvantaged students.

    If we want to make this process more accessible we would do three things. 1. Have more and better counselors in high schools. The average national rate right now is about 500 counselors person student with most counselors having NO training in college counseling. 2. Demand accountability from the Common Application. Why was this software not beta tested? Why were counselors and students not included in development? What are they doing with the millions of dollars they receive in payments from colleges? 3. Allow students multiple avenues to apply. Do not allow colleges to accept a price break for being “exclusive” users of the Common Application.