THE BLOG
09/02/2013 05:23 pm ET Updated Nov 02, 2013

New Common Application 'a Monstrosity'? I Don't Think So

I was taken aback to see this global take-down of the new Common Application on Twitter this morning, by a college counselor. A quote from his article: "The new Common App is a monstrosity."

I don't agree with some of his complaints, and I question the wisdom of dumping on the Common Application without proposing any short-term solutions for students or even advising patience.

In my work with students since the new Common App went live on August 1st, I can't say I've had the same difficulties navigating the site that he's had, but I don't doubt that problems exist. Instead, I'd like to offer a solution or two and another perspective:

1. When writing your Common App essay and supplements, compose them and save them on Word documents. DO NOT compose on the application itself. I have read a number of stories of people losing their essays when there's a glitch -- and having to start over. Don't do that to yourself. As an extra precaution, email these Word Docs to yourself as well.

2. I simply don't agree with his complaint that "10 puny" activity slots are too few. Most students will have 10 or fewer activities. If you have more than 10, list the 10 most important activities. Colleges will get a very good idea of who you are with the top 10.

3. The single 650-word essay is a great opportunity to tell schools more about who you are. I think the new questions are terrific and much better than questions in previous years, which were dry as a bone. In working with some 15 students so far this summer, these questions have led to terrific essays.

4. It's true that some of the supplements are not yet available, but most are. Latecomers, including the University of Michigan, are now up. Why complain about this? Why not just urge students to be patient? Most early-decision/early-action applications are not due for two months.

5. The new application only has one essay question -- the 650-worder. The Common App eliminated the second question asking students to write briefly about a job or extracurricular activity. I've noticed that some schools are now asking this question in their supplements -- and some are not. Different schools ask for a different number of words -- 150 or 250. If you're applying to schools that ask this and want different word counts, write a 250-word essay (on a Word Doc) and then cut it down when a shorter version is required. Keep both in a Word file.

6. The counselor complains that when copying essays onto the application, it's impossible to indent or put spaces between paragraphs. This is a problem, and I agree that it should be fixed. But for the first time this year, the Common App is not only limiting words (250-650) but counting the words. In past years, there was something of an honor system about word-count. Obviously the computer program that counts words can't count them with indents or line spaces. I don't know the details anymore than you do, but there is clearly a trade-off in the technology at this point.

I monitor the #CommonApp Twitter feed, to see how students are doing with their essays and applications. There's some frustration, some joy (when the application and essay are finished, for instance), and a lot of good (gallows) humor about this enterprise. I don't work for the Common Application, and I have no particular interest in promoting it, but I do have an interest in pairing solutions with criticisms, whenever possible.

For news, advice, and additional help with college and grad school essays and personal statements, and for other college application information, please visit my blog at Don't Sweat the Essay.

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