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Online college applications are becoming more efficient, but some educators are not cheering

The Common Application 'makes life a lot easier,' says a high school student. 'It creates confusion,' says a university administrator.

November 13, 2010|By Larry Gordon, Los Angeles Times

As high school senior Victoria Kaestner works on her college applications over the next few weeks, the 17-year-old from Long Beach will be using an Internet tool that has become increasingly popular with schools and students.

Kaestner is among an estimated 600,000 students nationwide who are expected to apply to college this fall using the Common Application, an online system that can send their personal and academic information from a single form to more than 400 schools. It is now the dominant portal for students hoping to gain admission to the most in-demand colleges.

"It makes life a lot easier," said Kaestner, a top student and basketball team captain at Wilson High School, who is using the tool to apply to 14 private colleges, including Stanford University and several Ivy League campuses. She said she can't imagine filling out separate paper applications for her numerous choices, as most students did just a few years ago.

"That would be so terrible," she said.

The Common Application is so much on the rise that young people are sometimes annoyed with schools that don't accept it. But some college officials say they worry that the shared form has heightened the admissions frenzy because students find it so easy to apply to multiple schools, occasionally including some barely on their radar.

Representatives of the Common Application, a nonprofit membership organization, say they don't believe it is raising the admissions stakes. Students use the form to apply to four colleges on average, a number that has remained fairly steady for a decade, said Rob Killion, executive director of the Virginia-based organization. Any uptick in applicants reported by newly linked colleges could be caused by other factors, including their own improved marketing, he said.

"I think if you want to make sure you have only applicants who are the most serious, there are ways to do that other than making them write their mother's name and occupation and father's name and occupation a second time," Killion said, referring to the kind of duplication his service eliminates.

Widely known as the Common App, the five-page form contains questions about family, citizenship, grades, courses, extracurricular activities and disciplinary problems. It requires a 250-word essay, although many participating colleges require additional writing samples, which are also submitted through the website.

Tech-savvy young people have embraced the shared application since it went online in 1998, but its use has shot up in recent years. Last year, about 500,000 students used it to submit about 2 million applications, according to Killion. That was triple the number of users five years earlier, the group's figures show.

This year, 414 four-year colleges and universities are using the Common App, twice as many as a decade ago. About a third, including Stanford, Pomona College and Loyola Marymount University, require all applicants to use the common form; many admissions counselors predict that additional schools will soon eliminate the alternative applications they maintain online or, in rare cases, on paper. (Membership is limited to four-year colleges and universities that require student essays and recommendations, which teachers and counselors increasingly submit online through the Common App website.)

Among 29 new members this year are Columbia University, the last holdout from the Ivy League, and the University of Michigan, a highly ranked public university. Also new are the organization's first overseas schools, the American University of Rome and Jacobs University in Bremen, Germany.

David Hawkins, public policy and research director for the National Assn. for College Admission Counseling, said the shared application is such a large presence among more selective colleges that some might feel pressure to join or risk losing applicants. Parents and students, he said, are all looking for ways to tame the admissions process.

USC, a prominent holdout, is studying whether to join next year, said admissions dean Timothy Brunold. "We've gotten a lot of feedback from high school counselors and prospective students who would really like us to go to the Common Application," he said. "I think we've heard that enough that it is time to think about it in earnest."

One vocal critic is Georgetown University. Charles Deacon, its undergraduate admissions dean, said he thinks the shared system unwisely replaces the human touch with technology and makes it too easy for students to apply frivolously to many schools, if they can afford the $65 fee many campuses charge or are eligible for waivers.

Deacon also suggested that the system encourages colleges to garner extra applications in order to boost their rejection rates and drive up national rankings. "It creates confusion and a false sense of reality," he said. "It makes it seem that college admissions is more competitive than it is."

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