08/25/2014 03:36 pm ET Updated Oct 25, 2014

Applying to College Is Different This Year--Here's How

School hasn't even started for most students, but the college application process is in high gear for the Class of 2015. Students, parents, and counselors familiar with the ins and outs of essays, deadlines, and recommendation forms have already noticed three big changes to this year's application landscape. While there are more to come, it's important to watch these three big trends, and take action accordingly:

Common App Off to a Great Start Many college counseling observers kept a close eye on August 1st, the day The Common Application was scheduled to launch for this year's seniors. With a number of technological challenges on new platform, last year's Common App got off to a rocky start, making it hard for students to pay application fees, schools to upload transcripts, and colleges to download just about anything. The bumps were eventually smoothed out, but fears were high that Common App would face a new round of big challenges this year as well.

As it turned out, Common App didn't launch on August 1st--it launched 8 hours early, on July 31st. Since then, technology complaints are almost non-existent; aside from a few concerns about a new essay format used by some colleges, it's been smooth sailing for students, high schools, and college alike. I serve on Common App's board of directors, but this wasn't remotely due to me--the thanks go to the many, many, many hours of double-and triple-checking the staff at Common App put in this summer to make sure last year's debut will become a one-time occurrence. Thanks to them, it's history.

Early Applications Up Common App's strong start has come in especially handy for colleges that are encouraging seniors to submit their applications early--in some cases, as early as July. It's unclear why colleges are taking this new approach. Some have suggested that students are more likely to attend colleges that admit them early, but it remains to be seen if that strategy will work when many applicants may not even know about the new application schedule, since their high school counselors couldn't tell them about it.

This unannounced, unexpected change in policy has left many students and high schools in the lurch. Many public high schools can't send official transcripts when their records offices are closed in the summer, while other schools are limited to sending unofficial copies without the student's senior schedule. In addition, colleges subscribing to the Statement of Principles of Good Practice from the National Association for College Admission Counseling have agreed not to set any application deadline prior to October 15, and must treat equal treatment to all applications received by October 15th.

There are concerns this new policy will give an unintended bonus to students from high schools that have the means to keep their records offices open year round, putting applicants from poorer schools at a disadvantage. This trend is worth diligent observation.

State School Leaders Silent Secretary of Education Arne Duncan made sure state school chiefs had a busy summer. In late June, Secretary Duncan asked state leaders to make sure counselors had the resources they need to provide quality college counseling to students, and to lead their school's efforts in college readiness.

All this was supposed to be done by the end of this summer, but the response to date has been nonexistent. The need for better counseling is evident to students and the White House; for their sake, let's hope state officials are planning to float 50 major announcements in the next few weeks. Writing them a reminder letter could help.