THE BLOG

The Common Application: A Violation of Restraint of Trade?

09/26/2013 12:29 pm ET | Updated Nov 26, 2013

The Common Application, to which 517 universities subscribe and through which 2.3 million applications were submitted during the 2012-2013 admissions cycle, is getting a ton of negative press right now. And deservedly so. With all of these users, you'd think the Common Application, Inc. would be prepared for the upcoming application season. As it turns out, not so much. From students filling out help tickets and not getting responses to there being no 'save' button when the Common App shuts down by itself to green check marks appearing even when fields are left incomplete, there is a laundry list of issues Common App users are experiencing this fall.

The issues with The Common Application are indeed so extensive that I wish I could just tell our students at The Ivy Coach to use an alternative application. But I can't. At least not right now -- unless the colleges to which our students are applying subscribe to the Universal College Application (UCA) or have their own applications. The UCA has been around since June of 2007 (in fact, in a twist of irony, the UCA was first launched in 2007 by Applications Online, a tech provider for the Common Application). According to an article in Education Week, "Universal College App Offers Alternative to Common App," "When its work was not renewed, the company [ApplicationsOnline] decided to develop its own version. The idea was to 'do it differently and do it better,' says Joshua Reiter, president of ApplicationsOnline."

And they've achieved just that. Compared with the current incarnation of the Common Application (CA4), the Universal College Application is a very easy application to navigate. The only problem is that it's not getting the attention it deserves because its member colleges are so few. For this year's application season, the UCA has 32 member institutions, including Harvard University and Johns Hopkins University. Duke University was a member since its inception but it has withdrawn its membership for this year. Washington University in Saint Louis was also a member but is no longer. And of the current 32 member colleges, 15 of them are also members of the Common Application.

So why don't more colleges subscribe to the Universal College Application? And why did Duke University and Wash U not renew their memberships? Well, likely because the fee for each application submitted is greatly reduced when the college uses the Common Application exclusively. In other words, the Common Application incentivizes their exclusive use by penalizing the colleges that offer an alternative application. It seems logical that one could argue that this is thereby a restraint of trade.

We at The Ivy Coach wish more colleges would become members of the Universal College Application and here's why:

1. For the "Personal Statement" section of the UCA, instead of having to answer a very specific question and all parts of that question as with the Common Application, the personal statement on the UCA has no specific questions. The prompt is simply: "a topic of your choice." In addition, on the Common App., the personal statement gets pasted into a box and there's no formatting of that essay. There isn't even a way to separate paragraphs. With the UCA, the applicant can upload the essay and, in doing so, paragraphs can be indented (which makes for a much easier read) and symbols, diagrams, and even pictures can be added to the text.

2. On the UCA, applicants have an additional opportunity to convey their individuality by writing an essay about a meaningful activity. The exact question is: "Tell us about one of your extracurricular, volunteer, or employment activities." This question appeared on the Common Application for years but was just removed with the new CA4.

3. In the "Additional Information" section of the UCA, an applicant can upload another document. In past years when applying with the Common App., applicants would often upload their activity sheet under the "Additional Information" section. Now with the CA4, there's still an "Additional Information" section, but instead of it being an upload, it's a cut and paste box. An activity sheet formatted as a table, for instance, cannot be viewed as a table in this box.

4. In the section marked "Academic Distinctions" on the UCA, there's a 6,000 character max. On the Common App., the applicant is only able to list five honors - with a total character count of 500. While I am in no way suggesting that applicants should use the max of 6,000 characters, I am saying that students should not have to be concerned about listing some of their awards and not others.

5. If an applicant was to experience an issue on the Universal College Application, how comforting is it that the UCA site is monitored 24/7 and that response time is within minutes rather than the oftentimes days it takes for the folks at the Common Application to get back to applicants.

I certainly hope that more universities will subscribe to the Universal College Application, because it's simply a much better product than the Common App. But this is not likely to happen unless the Common Application, Inc. is forced to remove the penalty it inflicts on colleges that don't subscribe exclusively to the Common App. In our free market economy, one could potentially argue that the additional fees the Common Application imposes on colleges that offer both applications is a restraint of trade. And that isn't right.