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(Small) Change for the Better

The Common App was down all last week, readying essay questions and tweaks for another onslaught of new applicants. Starting today, more than 942,000 students (the vast majority from public schools) will be applying to at least one college or university through the Common Application website. Top officials from the Common App organization recently presented a webinar for Independent Educational Consultants Association members, to share changes users will experience in the coming application cycle.

Most of the updates detailed below fall into the category of “It’s about time!” But the organization’s willingness to continuously improve the user experience is heartening – even if it is partly motivated by staying ahead of the competition. Here is what you need to know:

  • It might be easier than ever to apply in-state. Among the 48 institutions new to the platform are 12 public schools, including Indiana University, the University of Wisconsin at Madison, and George Mason University in Virginia. A total of 100 public colleges now use the Common App, even if many also offer their own separate application.

  • Planning ahead really gets you ahead. If you began filling out the Common App before today -- good for you! Just log in with your old user name and password, and the software will walk you through the steps to rollover your background data and college list. Tip: Un-check the box allowing colleges to contact you before you apply. Agreeing would allow a college to continue sending you marketing material (i.e. spam), even if your interest in the institution is long gone.

  • Colleges cannot ask you to reveal your college list. Last year the National Association of College Admissions Counselors passed a rule barring member institutions from asking applicants where else they are applying. The Common App, as a member of NACAC, will not support that question in any individual college section. Federal financial aid forms (FAFSA) recently made the change as well, so having the Common App on board is a major stress-reducer for most applicants. However, if you are applying to highly selective colleges, you will still need to carefully plan your interactions with their interviewers and financial aid forms (CSS/PROFILE) in order to keep this information private.

  • Your work will not be lost. The system will automatically save your writing in the more extensive Activities and Essays sections. Every 90 seconds, if you are working directly on a question or editing in full-screen mode, the system will save your changes even if you forget to. This can be a lifesaver if your screen goes to sleep when you have your essay open!

  • The Common App can deal with new or old SAT scores. The software offers the correct self-reporting categories, whether you took the test before or after March 2016. Note, however, that the application does not capture the new ACT subscores; admissions readers must wait for you to send an official report. Tip: You may choose to submit the Common App without self-reporting any scores. Pros: Some colleges use the self-reported scores to flag candidates for their honors programs or top scholarships. Others use them to get a head start in reading apps if official test scores are the only thing missing from a file. Cons: You might take the test again and get a higher score, or you might choose to apply to one or more test-optional colleges. In those cases, leaving this section blank could be in your best interest.

  • It’s easier to actually finish. The “preview” stage used to alert the applicant to unfinished sections. Now the software will tell the applicant what information is missing -- too few recommendations, a blank essay question, or an incomplete FERPA waiver, for instance. The student no longer has to retrace every step just to hit “submit.”

This year’s incremental improvements are encouraging for those of us who follow the process from year to year. For most applicants, though, this is the first and only time they will encounter the Common App. The extensive questionnaire may be a little daunting. Check out my blog post on this topic last year for some tips on getting started.

If you could use a personal coach with experience in the entire application process, click the “Contact Me” button at the bottom of the page, or give me a call at 847-660-8625.

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