If you think it feels like the January application deadlines are approaching at the speed of light, you’re not alone. High school seniors are scrambling to wrap things up by perfecting their essays and securing glowing letters of recommendation during their winter breaks.
Students applying to several different schools often turn to the Common Application in hopes of simplifying the undeniably stressful college application process.
Instead of filling out separate applications for each potential college, hopeful undergraduates can submit the Common Application to participating colleges and universities. Established in 1975 by 15 private colleges that wanted to provide a standardized undergraduate application, the Common Application is now accepted by over 400 schools across the United States.
Rob Killion, executive director of the Common Application, says it’s been estimated that 1.9 million versions of the document will be submitted for the 2011 freshman class—an impressive increase of 27 percent since last year. More and more students may be taking advantage of the online form because it’s supposed to help smooth out the procedure of applying to multiple colleges, but an irritating technical glitch is frustrating countless applicants.
Answers to short essay questions can be up to 150 words in length, but the online version of the Common Application is causing headaches for most students. Students are prompted to perform a “print preview” of their answers to view the actual version a college admissions officer would see, as opposed to the version the student sees where their response was typed in on their own monitor. Most students’ responses are being cut off at the margins, mid-sentence or mid-word, even if the responses are under the 150-word limit.
The issue is not occurring exclusively in the short essay section—some applicants have noticed that the form is cutting off parts of their parents’ job titles or even details of their own extracurricular activities—but the essay response problem has caused quite a stir in the media.
According to the New York Times, executive director Killion admits that the problem, or “truncation,” as it is known within the Common Application offices, has existed for more than a decade without causing much concern.
This fall, though, so many students, parents and counselors complained about the issue that the Common Application recently embedded a link to a warning box within the form.
“It is critical that you preview your Common App and check for truncated information. If you preview the Common App and find some of your text is missing, you should attempt to shorten your response to fit within the available space,” it warns students.
Thanks to the Common Application glitch, applicants are no longer guaranteed 150 words to respond to questions which might affect their college acceptance. Instead, they have something closer to 1,000 characters because some letters take up more space than others.
“A capital W takes up 10 times the space of a period,” Killion explains. “If a student writes 163 characters that include lots of Ws and m’s and g’s and capital letters, their 163 characters are going to take many more inches of space than someone who uses lots of I’s and commas and periods and spaces.”
Essentially, students are being forced to use abbreviations in order to get their point across in the allotted space. “Believe me, if there’s a way to do it, we’d do it. Maybe there’s a way out there we don’t know about,” was Killion’s answer when asked why the problem has yet to be corrected.
Bruce Poch, vice president and dean of admissions at Pomona College in Claremont, California, points out that one year ago standardization required that Taiwan be identified in the Common Application as a province of China, not as “Taiwan, Republic of China.” That “unfixable” designation — and politically problematic label and drop-down box — was fixed within weeks.
Audrey Kahane, an independent college counselor, recommends that students give themselves more than enough time to fill out college applications. Rushing at the last minute will only cause bigger problems. Be sure to have someone proofread your Common Application before clicking the “Submit” button, because once the Common Application has been submitted to a college it cannot be altered or resubmitted.
New York Magazine helps soften the blow of the annoying Common Application glitch by informing readers that some college officials know about the problem and don’t penalize prospective students for it.
“In a nutshell, I would empathize with students’ frustration. A truncated essay is not going to be the end-all, be-all of an admissions decision,” said NYU’s Shawn Abbott.
Melissa Rhone earned her Bachelor of Music in Education from the University of Tampa. She resides in the Tampa Bay area and enjoys writing about college, pop culture, and epilepsy awareness.
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