At its inception, the Common Application was little more than an entity that photocopied and mailed paper applications to 15 member institutions.
About thirty-five years later in the digital age, the organization announced last month that its online system is scheduled for a makeover in 2013 to better handle the projected increases in application volume.
The form — which is currently used by Penn, as well as more than 450 institutions nationwide — is projected to process 10 million applications for more than 1,000 participating institutions by the end of the decade, according to Executive Director of the Common App Rob Killion.
The recently announced upgrade, known as “Common App 4.0,” will allow for a smoother and more user-friendly interface to handle the influx of applications.
The current version of the form, Common App 3.0, was adopted five years ago, following two versions that were used for six years each.
Dean of Admissions Eric Furda, who serves on the Common App’s board of directors, said the revision is inevitable for a computer system that has seen such an increase in usage.
“It’s an application, but it’s also a computer system. The infrastructure for supporting millions of students applying online is very different than when the application was just getting printed out,” Furda said. “The [admissions] process has enough challenges — you don’t want the act of actually applying to be complicated.”
Penn first began using the Common App in 2006. Since that time, Furda said, the increasing digitization of the application process has “absolutely” made life easier for the Admissions Office.
“What it’s providing is more time for us to evaluate the applications,” he said. “The processing side has become that much more efficient, at both the front and the back end.”
He added, however, that there are drawbacks to the transition to online applications.
“As long as it was legible, that handwritten application had some charm to it,” he said. “Even with the technology gains of efficiency that we have, an opportunity is lost in terms of personality and texture … The whole world now is Times New Roman 12.”
This past year, Penn received just 300 paper applications out of a total of about 31,000, he said.
While most of the pending changes to the Common App will come from a behind-the-scenes, technical side, it will feature one key revision that may affect applicants directly.
According to Killion, the Common App has discussed implementing a rotating board of college counselors who would be available to answer students’ non-technical questions, such as which box to check in the ethnicity section.
“A lot of counselors in schools are getting cut due to budget cuts … and those gaps can get filled through a couple of different ways,” Furda said. “The Common App feels that it has this responsibility.”
The Common App is also looking to resolve the issue of truncation, which refers to instances when the responses that the students see on their screen are cut off or appear different on the college’s end.
“The main reason we’re building the next-generation system is to handle massive volume increases — though as long as we’re building a new system we’ve also decided to build a new user interface,” Killion wrote in an email. “That’s the icing on the cake, though — the cake is volume management.”
The Common App plans to roll out its changes in summer 2013, before students apply to college in the fall.
Michele Hernandez, president and founder of Hernandez College Consulting, said the upgrade is long overdue.
“Any improvement is welcome,” she said. “Every year, I saw 50 percent of my students have technical issues. It’s unbelievably bad.”
College freshman Charles Gibson agreed that the Common App could use a friendlier user interface.
“It was generally easy to navigate but when it came to looking for where I should send my counselor’s application, I had a lot of trouble,” he said. “The website is really old and out of date.”
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