Previewing “CA4,” the new Common Application

Well, May just flashed by, and a number of projects and events took me away from blogging for several weeks. Apologies for the extended silence in AdmissionsCafe, and thank you for your patience!

Now that things have mostly quieted down for the class of 2013 and current seniors have made their college choices for fall, juniors (and their parents) are revving up for coming marathon of the 2013-2014 admissions cycle. With “CA4,” (the latest version of the Common Application) on the horizon, the months ahead are sure to be interesting.

Members of the Class of 2014 won’t have to worry about the changes in the Common App, of course – CA4 will simply be what they know as the Common App. College counselors and college admissions personnel who have been through earlier iterations of the Common App will be the ones making comparisons, and beginning sentences with phrases like: “well, last year it worked like this…” From what I’ve seen so far, (kudos, by the way, to the Common App board and to all those who worked on the many aspects of the new version!) CA4 looks like a very effective and user-friendly revision. I’m especially enthusiastic about the changes to the writing section, and am eager to see how students respond to the new essay prompts.  

When changes to the writing section were announced last fall, I commented on the hue and cry over the disappearance of the “topic of your choice” prompt. (See post of 12 October 2012) I’m happy to see that it hasn’t returned, and I think the new prompts encourage essays that offer self-reflection. This is a big improvement – I felt that the previous prompts were written in such a way as to discourage reflection. The previous prompts led with the invitation to describe a person, event, or issue of importance. The request for reflection, to “tell us why this is important to you,” tacked onto the end of the prompt, led many students to think that this was of less importance to readers.

In addition, the new prompts, by giving students well-defined and specific topics to which they can react, provide structure for the responses that I think they will find helpful. We’ll have to see how things go as students begin to craft their responses, but my hunch is these prompts will do a better job of eliciting useful information about applicants for admissions officers.

I have mixed feelings about the 650 word limit on the essay, and I will be interested to see how students respond to it. In combination with the new prompts, the word limit should certainly cut down on the number of recycled class assignment essays that applicants submit, which will be a boon for admissions officers. And the 650 word limit for the essay is not out of line with length restrictions that versions of the University of California application, for example, have contained. I am eager to see how the word limit will be perceived by students, though. Will there be any characteristics common to the respondents who feel that 650 words is too few? Will there be characteristics shared by those who feel that 650 words is way too many? Will there be a pattern of differences emerging between the two camps? I do like the fact that a variety of opinion on this matter has been anticipated in the Common App instructions: I smiled when I read that “650 words is your limit, not your goal.”

Looking at another area of CA4, the ability to create “alternate versions” of the Common Application still seems like an existential oxymoron to me. (Also, each time a student wants to create an alternate version of the Common App, I’m reminded of Calvin’s “duplicator” machine in the Calvin and Hobbes comic strips. Click here and here to see two of those cartoons.) However, I understand the genuine motivations for, as well as the superstitions and anxieties that provoke students to create alternate versions of the application. I’d love to know the reasoning behind the decision to allow “unlimited” edits to all parts of the application except the essay, though, and to know why the number of essay revisions was capped at three. I understand the rationale about balancing the need for students to make corrections and updates to sections of the application with the philosophy of a “common” application, as one of the Common App explanatory notes says. But why three essay versions? Why not two or four? Is there a dry, technical reason for this, or did the discussions about this limit veer into the realm of philosophy? (In the latter case, I wonder if we can look forward to earnest, if esoteric, conference presentations about the nature of the essential self, as seen through the lens of the Common Application…)

In any event, one of the great things about working in college admissions is that the scene is always changing. No two years are ever exactly alike, despite overall similarities in the cycle as a whole. Clearly, the changes embodied in CA4 and the ways in which students respond to the new version will keep things lively this fall. So all hail CA4! Here’s hoping the August 1 launch goes smoothly.

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3 thoughts on “Previewing “CA4,” the new Common Application

  1. As a private college counselor for the last twenty five years, it seems like everyone involved in the college admissions process feels we need more changes. First the Common App and then the College Board and their proposed new SAT. I don’t mind the changes as long as they are improvements for students.

  2. I like the new essay prompts too!

    I am interested by a couple of developments. First, even the “additional information” section has a 650-word limit, and no longer allows an uploaded document. While it will be fine for the vast majority of applicants, it does send the message that the application is more restrictive and limited than ever before. Perhaps it’s an accurate way to send the message to applicants that readers have only limited time with their files, but it is a big change. Second, the removal of the “activity” essay sends a similar message. Individual colleges may, of course, add those options, which leads me to the following impression.

    I saw a preview version of the interface and found a lot to like about it. It feels to me like it has morphed into a Common Application SYSTEM more than a Common Application. It is actually highly customizable by colleges while providing a single login and interface for that customization. The multiple versions/corrections now allowed fit into that model, as does the name change from “Supplement” to “College-Specific Questions.”

    • Thanks for your comment! I definitely see your point about the application becoming more restrictive, and I agree that it underlines the fact that readers have a limited time with any one application. I tend to see the revisions as an attempt to level the playing field, and to limit the opportunities that students with more resources (or who are more savvy about “coloring outside the lines” of the application) have to make their applications “uncommon.”
      Re: shift from Common Application to Common Application System — that’s a really interesting idea. Is that an outgrowth of the increasing volume of Common App users, I wonder?

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