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College-application Supplements Becoming Big Pain

When Zoe Portman finished her essay for the Common Application the widely used college-admissions form that can be sent to multiple schools she thought she had completed the bulk of the application process.

But the senior at Harriton High School in Rosemont, Pa., who is using the Common Application to apply to 10 schools, was in for a surprise: the supplementary forms that nine out of the 10 schools require along with the Common Application. It looked easy at first, Ms. Portman says, but then “you realize there’s question after question that you have to answer.”

By the time she finishes it all, she says, she will have given written responses describing everything from a risk she once had to take to the place where she grew up. “It’s such a hassle,” she says.

The Common Application was introduced in 1975 to streamline the admissions process for students, but as the experiences of Ms. Portman and countless others this college-application season show, it has evolved into something far from simple.

The supplements have become more demanding, creating headaches for applicants, as an increasing number of colleges particularly more-selective institutions such as Stanford University and Northwestern University have started accepting the Common Application. At the same time, applicants and counselors have bristled at attempts by Common Application Inc., the nonprofit group that supplies the form, to prohibit students from tweaking their essays and other parts of the application for different colleges. The frustration has helped to create an opening for a new rival, the Universal College Application, which arrived this year and is already accepted by more than 50 schools.

The Common Application board used to require that a school’s supplement be limited to one page. But it changed that policy in 1995, as more highly selective institutions that said they needed to ask specific questions of their applicant pools began to join the consortium.

Now, more colleges than ever about 70 percent of the Common Application’s 316 participating schools require students to fill out supplements. “We philosophically believe our members should be able to ask any questions they need to ask to enroll the classes they want,” says Rob Killion, executive director of Common Application Inc., which charges member schools a fee.

In response to criticism, Common Application Inc. is trying to limit students’ application workload. This year, it is asking colleges to eliminate any duplicate questions that appear on both the Common Application and institutional supplements. It is also trying to curtail the amount of changes students can make to the application for each school.

“The Common Application is caught in a tug of war between colleges and secondary schools,” says Mr. Killion. Colleges need to ask as many questions as they can to help provide a better picture of each applicant before making admissions decisions, he says. High schools, on the other hand, want to keep the process simple for students.

In some cases, colleges themselves have tried to cut down on the extra work required of applicants. For example, Johns Hopkins University this year made it clearer that freshmen applicants could choose to write the Common Application essay and skip one of the two essays on the school’s supplemental form. Last year, the phrasing on the supplement encouraged students to complete both the school’s essays even if they had done the Common Application essay, says Director of Undergraduate Admissions John Latting.

High-school seniors say that in some cases, filling out the Common Application plus the required supplements amount to just as much work as filling out individual institutions’ applications. Emily Paulhus, 17, a senior at Windham High School in Willimantic, Conn., is applying to five schools using the Common Application, four of which require supplements. “It’s not a ton of time saved,” says Ms. Paulhus, who on a recent weekend spent six hours sitting in a chair staring at the supplements.

The University of Pennsylvania, which started using the application last year, requires on its supplement two short-answer questions and an essay on why freshmen applicants’ interests are a good match for the school. It also offers an optional essay with three suggested topics. The University of Chicago known for its “Uncommon Application,” which asks unusual essay questions will begin accepting the Common Application next year. It plans to continue asking unique questions in its supplement. Applicants to schools that require supplementary essays must still write the essay for the Common Application.

“We’ve had to police the supplements pretty closely to keep them under control to make sure they don’t become another application,” says Tom Parker, dean of admission and financial aid at Amherst College and a Common Application board member.

This July, concerned that allowing applicants to modify their essays for different colleges undermined the intent of the Common Application, the board decided to restrict students from making changes.

The move resulted in a backlash from independent guidance counselors, who said students should be able to tailor their essays to different institutions and at the very least be able to change some parts of the application, such as financial-aid intent or major, which could vary from school to school. Last month, the Common Application board backpedaled and decided to hold off on the changes until next year.

Brett Cohen, 17, a senior at the North Broward Preparatory School in Coconut Creek, Fla., got caught up in the confusion. When Mr. Cohen sent in the Common Application to the University of Tampa, he listed “Study Hall” as a course. He decided he wanted to list “Yearbook” instead to make a stronger statement when he applied to Ithaca College in Ithaca, N.Y. But he found he couldn’t copy his application and make the change.

Mr. Cohen is concerned about whether it will affect him. “You want to do everything perfect for college,” says Mr. Cohen. “One slip-up, you never know.”

For the rest of the current admissions cycle, students will be able to change their applications for different schools. But Mr. Killion says that the Common Application plans to implement restrictions in 2008. Applicants will still be able to change their financial-aid intent and majors for different colleges but they won’t be able to alter their essays and responses to short-answer questions.

A new for-profit contender, the Universal College Application, launched this year. The application, which permits participating schools to use supplements, was created by the Common Application’s former software developer and also charges schools that use it a fee. It asks questions similar to the Common Application and can be modified for different schools.

Unlike the Common Application, though, membership isn’t restricted to colleges that require essays and recommendations. Harvard University, Duke University and Johns Hopkins, among others, have begun accepting the application as a way to broaden their applicant pools.

Some high school counselors prefer the school’s own application in certain cases, even though colleges say that they view all applications equally. (Many colleges offer students a choice between the Common Application and their own.) “If there’s a substantial difference between the two, you should really use the institutional application,” says Cigus Vanni, school counselor at Cherry Hill High School West in Cherry Hill, N.J.

Many counselors and deans of admissions say that the Common Application is still the most efficient way to apply to multiple colleges, as it eliminates the chore of filling out background information required by every institution. The application’s intent was never to eliminate all the work on the student’s part, but rather the redundancy of the background questions that are needed for each school, Mr. Killion says. Extensive essays are unavoidable, as schools “are going to need those answers regardless of the Common Application,” he says.

The more important question students should be asking, Mr. Killion says, is, “Do you really want to answer your mother’s name more than once?”

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