The Common Application is getting a makeover.
Last week, the Common App released a series of changes to its 2011-12 standardized admissions form, which is expected to be used by record-high numbers of applicants.
The changes, which take effect Aug. 1, will ask applicants to provide information on marital status and children, military history and language proficiency. Students will also be prompted with new questions on prior college-level coursework and high school disciplinary history.
Though Rob Killion, executive director of the Common Application, Inc., said the changes are “not earth-shattering,” he stressed that they reflect a growing diversity of the organization’s membership. Beginning July 1, the Common App will welcome 48 new member schools, bringing the total number of participating colleges and universities to 460.
Dean of Admissions Eric Furda said he was not surprised by the changes, adding that the larger member pool of the Common App has had various effects.
Having more participating institutions “means that a broader cross-section of students are going to be able to discover Penn through an avenue that they wouldn’t have otherwise,” Furda said. On the flip side, though, the increased ease in applying to more schools “has meant that Penn’s supplement … has become an increasingly important tool for us to distinguish applicants.”
On top of the additional self-identification questions that students will be asked to complete, the new version of the Common App will also instruct applicants to cap their essays at 500 words. Over the past four years, students have only been given a minimum word count of 250.
“Without giving an upper limit for word count, it seemed that students were making the assumption that more was automatically better,” Killion said. “Many essays were far too long for admissions officers to read.”
Furda said the new limit on essay length will bring the Common App in line with Penn’s supplementary application.
“It’s a reasonable amount of space to communicate your ideas without feeling as if you’re writing a book report,” he said.
Not all, however, were pleased with the decision to limit word count.
“I would never have been able to get my essay below 500 words,” said Engineering freshman Cristina Sorice, whose essay was more than 1,000 words. “Your writing is where you have the freedom to show who you really are.”
Arynne Wexler, who was admitted early decision to the Class of 2015 from the Horace Mann School in New York, said not including an upper word limit “was a good thing because the amount someone wrote told a lot about the applicant.” However, she “definitely understands” how admissions officers can be overwhelmed with application volume.
Killion explained that any decisions to alter the content of the Common App are made by the organization’s board of directors, which consists of nine deans of admissions from member institutions and four high-school counselors.
While Furda had little direct input in the changes for the 2011-12 version of the application, that may change in the future. Furda was recently elected to next year’s Common App board, which will allow him to help set the direction of the organization over the next four years.
He will officially take his seat on the board on July 1.
Along with other members, Furda will be charged with the task of “managing the extremely rapid growth” of the organization, Killion said. “We’ve gone from being a small paper application to arguably the college clearinghouse for America and that presents a lot of challenges,” he added.
Regardless of Furda’s work with the organization, it may be difficult for him to escape what Top Colleges educational consultant Steven Goodman called the “irony of the Common Application.”
The Common App has “made it easier apply to more schools, which has caused application totals to rise and acceptance rates to drop noticeably,” said Goodman, a 1989 Graduate School of Education alumnus. “That definitely wasn’t the application’s original intention.”
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