03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

The College Insider: Admissions Freak-Out Countdown #7: All's Fair In Love And Warring College Application Services

It's almost over except the waiting: Deadline season is upon us, and before you can say "spell-check" all those apps will be out the door. Like many families, you probably embraced the popular and seemingly logical approach and sent the school's own application to your first-choice school to show how much you care - assuming that your school still has its own app, and hasn't adopted the Common Application that you're planning to use for all the rest.

A few of you may have substituted the newer Universal Application for the Common App,
but hey, an app's an app, right?

Except when it's a lawsuit, which the CA people have filed against the UA people, who seem to have used the same technology company that got the CA online in the late 1990s. Clearly, somebody forgot the non-compete clause.

To be fair, we're dealing with educators here, not competing blue jean manufacturers, so the initial motivation is pure enough. Seth Allen, Grinnell College Dean of Admission and Financial Aid and a member of the Common Application's board, wants "authentic information, rather than more of what's already being produced at the request of colleges," and thinks it's time to overhaul a decades-old application process to take advantage of new-technology tools. He says we can:

"Harness social media technology to allow students to develop a personal profile which would replace lists of activities and letters of recommendation." Teachers and other informed spectators could post on the profile to "provide third-party perspective."

"Allow teachers to upload a student's 'best' work. . . as part of a student's permanent file." Now, I remember a general warning never to send more work samples than requested because beleaguered admissions people barely had time to read essays and they might think you're overcompensating, but isn't the joy of the web its infinite real estate? There's no such thing as a bulging folder in cyberspace, so why not include that paper discussing the symbolism of the valley of ashes in The Great Gatsby?

"In place of essays designed to learn something new about a student, develop an online characteristics test which would evaluate students on multiple dimensions such as leadership, flexibility, ambition, tolerance, sense of adventure, commitment to others and so on."

I get it, I do, and I admire the effort; this is one way to discover the diamond in the rough, the kid who has a 2400 gestalt even if he doesn't test quite that high. But remember the advice about only disclosing things on the web that you wouldn't mind sharing with the world? Somehow, standardized personality tests online give me a little paranoid parental chill.

Across cybertown, the folks at Universal Application have asked ApplicationsOnline, the technologists who used to work for CA, to tweak applications in a different way: According to ApplicationsOnline co-founder and president Josh Reiter, the mandate from the Universal App's first clients, including Harvard University, was to figure out how to connect with a specific and underserved audience which he describes as "low-income, high-academic, first generation underserved populations," while not losing the full-fare population, of course.

Reiter says that UA reaches a more diverse population because of the way it defines school membership requirements. In brief, for the civilian parental brain, UA requires only that its members follow National Association of College Admissions Counselors guidelines and that they are accredited schools; beyond that, they can ask or not ask for whatever mix of applicant information they want. Reiter implies that broader subscriber requirements make for a broader mix of schools - increasing the likelihood that a student will stumble on schools he or she hasn't thought of.

Both application services, by the way, do outreach to community groups to enlarge their applicant base.

In case you're worrying - and how could you be doing anything else at this point? - everyone swears that schools don't care which app you use, so there's no need to change horses in mid-app, to cut-and-paste and dump the whole mess into a different system. On the other hand, they believe that their respective systems work better, which leads one rather organically to the question, How can an app simultaneously not make a difference and make a difference?

Sounds to me like what summa cum laude Pomona College graduate and Rhodes scholar Kris Kristofferson called a "walking contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction," in one of his songs. But look at it this way: If the app does make a difference in your child's chances, you'll never know, and at this point, ignorance is about as close to bliss as you're going to get.

Next Up: Admissions Freak-Out Countdown #8: Be The First On Your Block To Finish Your 2009 Income Tax

Karen Stabiner's comic novel about college admissions, Getting In, will be published in March 2010. Visit to learn more, or write to her at