5:42pm, November 13, 2013, Topics: Common application, common app history, common app glitches, academic merit, supplementary material
In the late 1800s, elite colleges admitted students from private schools based on entrance exams in Latin and Greek. State schools let in almost everyone who graduated from high schools certified by the universities’ professors. It wasn’t until private colleges opened their admissions to public school students that anyone saw the need for an application. There were more students than the schools could serve, and administrators noted with dismay that selecting based on academic merit alone dangerously increased the percentage of Jewish students.
In 1919, Columbia University unveiled the first modern college application. The eight-page form requested, among other things, a photograph, “religious affiliation,” and “mother’s maiden name in full.” Harvard, Yale and Princeton created their own forms, as Jerome Karabel details in his book “The Chosen,” requesting photographs and instituting personal interviews. As one admiring Harvard board member put it, there was “consequently no Jew question at Princeton.”
The “character”-based application spread from the Northeast across the country. It eventually evolved into what became known as the Common Application, which began in 1975 and currently serves 517 colleges. Where the application was initially devised to exclude, it now serves to include. Schools, not just applicants, want to be “well rounded.” The Common Application gives students the option of including religious preference and race (“please indicate how you identify yourself”).
There have, however, been drawbacks to relying on a single form. This year, the Common App came under fire for the glitches in its new online system: credit cards or essays weren’t accepted; information had to be entered two or three times. Colleges were forced to extend their early-decision deadlines, and some reverted to paper applications. The Common App officials got almost as much flak for changing the essay question: “We got some criticism when we said we were going to get rid of ‘topic of your choice,’ ” says Scott Anderson, director of policy for the Common Application, but it’s “so open-ended that unless students are very skilled writers, they’re hindered by the lack of focus.”
Many schools continue to require supplementary material. Columbia: “List the publications you read regularly, including print and electronic sources.” The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill: “What do you hope to find over the rainbow?” That’s because applications don’t just filter students — they’re meant to attract them too. As the University of Chicago’s website proclaims, “U. Chicago’s provocative essay questions are almost as well known as our Nobel laureates — and at least as entertaining.”