THE BLOG
08/02/2013 05:40 pm ET Updated Oct 02, 2013

New Common App Takes 'Common' to Absurd Extremes

The Common App has finally gotten an upgrade.

Released this week, the online application used by over 450 of the nation's most selective colleges and universities now offers a sleeker, more navigable interface than ever before. Applicants no longer have to gaze upon graphics that would have been at home in 1997.

What they cannot do, however, is adequately explain why they are great candidates for a college education. That is, if they follow the rules.

One of the directives that the Common App is emphasizing this year, is that students should not submit different personal statements (often called main essays) for different colleges. No tailoring. No swapping. No nothing.

The help section advises (here and here), "In general, the Common Application is designed to be completed one time and submitted to all of the colleges at once, or over a period of time...You should not customize your essay or make it college specific." The Common App had posted ominous online videos (since been taken down) insisting that customization "defeats the purpose of a common application" -- as if applicants are bound to serve the Common App and not their own interests. (Never mind the vagueness of "in general," the use of passive voice in "is designed," or the pointless contrast between "at once" and "over a period of time.")

Presumably, this directive -- which the Common App has zero power to enforce -- would save students the time and effort of writing multiple essays. But since when does a multi-million dollar enterprise care about how a 17-year-old spends his time? It does so when that enterprise wants to sacrifice students' intellect, creativity, and chances at college admission for the sake of a brand.

The problem is, common doesn't necessarily mean uniform -- in this case it means, or should mean, shared. It's a common interface, if anything. The applicants who will use that interface represent an infinitely diverse range of skills and personalities. Likewise, all 488 schools that belong to the Common App all advertise unique opportunities. What these students do with this interface should be no one's business but theirs and the recipients'.

Let's consider a few reasons why the Common App's insistence on uniformity is an absurd proposition on face.

Second Thoughts and Revelations

Imagine a bright but perhaps overly sentimental student who submits an early decision application with a heartfelt essay about Carrot Cake, her loveable but morbidly obese tabby. Now imagine somewhere between the Nov. 1 early decision deadline and the Jan. 1 regular decision deadline, that same student, working in a local university lab, isolates a protein that causes cancer cells to metastasize in the gall bladder. (Impressively, high school students do research such as this these days.)

If that student, who clearly knows how to follow laboratory protocol, also follows the Common App's rules -- which magnanimously advise that students fix only "minor grammatical or typographical errors" -- then every college to which she applies will learn about Carrot Cake. The same goes for all the other students who have 11th-hour revelations or who just come up with a different way to express themselves.

Colleges that prefer cancer-curing to kitty-cats will be none the wiser.

Multitudes

There's no doubt that cat-lovers can also be biologists. But, the designers of the Common App apparently do not believe that a poet or a musician can occupy the same body as does a scientist or an engineer either.

What if a student was deliberating between studying, say, civil engineering and creative writing? Why would that student not apply to, say, both Hampshire and Harvey Mudd? Or to Bard and Purdue? And why wouldn't that student want to allude to catenaries and calculus in his personal statement for one school and to the muses and meter in the other?

Furthermore, who cares? Would Harvey Mudd's admissions officers reject the student just because Hampshire got to read a gorgeous, lyrical essay about his latest novella while they had to read some irrelevant tripe about suspension bridges? Hardly. In fact, they wouldn't even know about the other essay. The only thing that suffers is the Common App's corporate ego.

Supplements

The Common App insists that students should feel comfortable submitting a standard essay because colleges can ask for customized responses via their supplemental essays. Fair enough.

Bard might naturally ask about artsy stuff and Purdue might grill students on their technical skills. Even so, colleges cannot ask for essays whose existence is unknown to them. And they cannot ask for essays that students feared to write for fear of violating a "rule."

Meanwhile, some colleges' supplemental prompts read like those for the personal statement. Princeton asks students to explain what they would do "in the service of...all nations." Tufts asks students to "let your life speak." Caltech asks about an ethical quandary.

Two types of dilemmas can arise here. First, students might respond to the supplements so powerfully that they might therefore want to use the new essay for the personal statement so that all schools can read it. Second, students might draft, and submit, solid personal statements that later turn out to be ideal responses to some schools' supplemental prompts. So, lest students submit two essays on service, ethics, or "life," they would clearly want to do some shuffling.

Notwithstanding the cries of agony that would erupt from the Common App's corporate headquarters, these ethical quandaries have a pretty clear solution: break the rules.

College... or Kindergarten?

Though the Common App would prefer to infantilize students at the very moment when they are supposed to be demonstrating their maturity, smart students will understand that the Common App can do nothing to prevent them from writing exactly the essays they want to write and submitting them to whichever schools they see fit.

As it should be.

Whether you're a published novelist or a nervous 17-year-old, writing is, in part, about freedom. This year's applicants should explore the ideas that they want to explore, they should tell the stories that they want to tell, and they should tell them only to those to whom they want to tell them.

There's nothing common about that.