The Chronicle of Higher Ed writes of The Gravitational Pull of the Common Application (may need a subscription).
"Fall is here, and another harvest of college applications has begun. Over the next few months, hundreds of thousands of high-school seniors will apply to college through the popular portal known as the Common Application, a standardized form used by an ever-growing list of institutions.
"Now in its 35th year, the Common Application began as a small membership association of 15 private colleges. Today, more than 400 institutions use the form, which many admissions deans say has helped them recruit more first-generation and minority students. Recently, the nonprofit group welcomed its first two international members....
"Two years ago, the University of Chicago, long known for its distinctive Uncommon Application, joined the party after years of principled objections. This year, Columbia University hopped onboard, becoming the last member of the Ivy League to do so.
"In this era of hyper-competitive admissions, how can any college resist the Common Application’s gravitational pull?
"Recently, I put this question to Charles A. Deacon, dean of admissions at Georgetown University, among the most-prominent institutions that have not adopted the application (nobody should hold their breath waiting for that to change). Mr. Deacon describes the application as both an unnecessary tool and an unwelcome symbol of homogenization in admissions.
"The Common Application was created to promote equity in admissions by making it easier for students to apply to colleges that conduct “holistic” reviews of applicants. Mr. Deacon applauds that goal, but he says the standardized application prompts students to apply to colleges in which they have little or no interest. ...
"This year, Georgetown received about 18,000 applications for a freshman class of 1,580. Mr. Deacon suspects that adopting the Common Application would bring Georgetown 3,000 to 5,000 additional applicants in the first year or two. But he says the university doesn’t need that many—and that it already attracts plenty of diverse applicants through its traditional recruitment strategies.
"Mr. Deacon’s not the only critic of the Common Application. In some circles, the form has become a scapegoat for a variety of ills—frivolous applications, stressed-out students, overwhelmed admissions deans. At a conference for private high-school counselors I attended this summer, the consensus was that the Little Application That Could had become a big, big problem.
"Curiously, their objections differ. Some counselors say the form has made applying to college too easy, but others say that by requiring supplements, some participating colleges have made it too hard.
"...participating colleges embrace the Common Application in different ways. About two-thirds require applicants to complete supplements. The majority of those supplements, Mr. Killion says, are short, with one or two pages of questions. A few dozen have longer supplements, with additional essay questions (Chicago, for instance, still requires applicants to respond to its quirky prompts, like “Find X”).
"Mr. Killion notes that some institutions have had supplements from the Common Application’s inception. Where the concern is coming from, he says, “is really from people looking at a narrow band of very highly selective colleges with long supplements.”
"“We don’t exist to help colleges increase their applications, but it’s a side effect of what we do,” Mr. Killion says.
"Brown University saw a 21-percent jump in 2009, the year it switched to the Common Application. In 2008, it had a 7.7-percent increase. Chicago saw a 43-percent increase in applications this year, the second since it switched, but it had seen an increase of 20 percent just a few years ago. Columbia saw a 13-percent increase in 2009. What will it see during this cycle?
"At Georgetown, Mr. Deacon says joining the Common Application has become a keeping-up-with-the-Joneses phenomenon. He concedes that his opinion has been shaped, in part, by Georgetown’s enviable position in the marketplace. As a well-known institution with ample resources in the nation’s capital, it benefits from built-in demand. If the university’s applications dipped sharply, he admits, he would feel pressure to get more.
"That’s not likely to happen, despite Mr. Deacon’s relatively conservative approach to admissions. Each year, Georgetown begins its recruitment process by purchasing the names of PSAT test takers with equivalent scores of at least 650 on the critical reading section, 620 on the math section, and self-reported grade-point averages of A- or better. Last year, that was about 44,000 students, Mr. Deacon says. The university also buys another 5,000 to 6,000 names of underrepresented minority students with lower scores.
"Georgetown invites all those students to join its mailing list, and 12,000 to 13,000 of those students typically respond. The admissions staff supplements this search with a host of outreach, including travel to 140 cities and towns each year, and “pipeline” building in far-flung areas.
"Unlike most colleges, Georgetown strongly recommends that applicants submit scores from three SAT Subject Tests. The university also urges students to sit for interviews, and the vast majority of applicants do so. In other words, applying to Georgetown takes commitment."