Preparing for College

Does Using College's Own Application (Instead of the Common App) Suggest Greater Interest?

Question: Does applying via the Common App have the same weight as a specific school application form? I know that they say it doesn't make a difference, but it seems to me that "Common App" says that you are applying to several (or many) schools, whereas the specific app might imply more interest in that school.

In days of yore (i.e., about a decade ago, maybe even a couple), "The Dean" used to insist that a student who really wanted to attend a particular college should use that school’s own application instead of the Common App. But I've long since about-faced on that stance. (I better not ever try to run for political office. I've got a long history of other 180's, too ;)) Nonetheless, I do urge high seniors using the Common Application to "demonstrate interest" to their target schools in other ways. But I make that same suggestion to students not using the Common App as well. (More on this in a minute.)


Colleges that belong to the Common Application must swear a solemn oath to honor it as their own, and--for the most part--I think they do. (More on this in a minute, too.) A growing number of institutions use only the Common App. In fact, you can spot many heavy hitters such as Princeton, Stanford, and Yale on the Common App’s “Exclusive Users” list. (Even the University of Chicago which came late to the party and for years flaunted its “UNcommon Application, is now on that roster.) See https://www.commonapp.org/CommonApp/ExclusiveUsers.aspx

Exclusive use seems to me to be the sensible approach. After all, if the Common App is truly equal, why offer an alternative? (Doing so seems even a bit Orwellian to me, as in, "All applications are equal, but some applications are more equal than others.”) And I also feel that students show sufficient commitment to their target colleges simply by filling out their annoying supplements … many of which require extra essays. (Critics of the Common App tend to claim that, with one swift click of a mouse, teenagers can apply to 10 colleges … or 100, with little regard to where their applications will be landing. But anyone who has been through this convoluted process knows that the supplement system has adulterated much of the convenience and stress-reduction that the Common App is supposed to provide.)

Yet, although the Common Application honchos (and most college admission officials) insist otherwise, I do believe that there are some colleges that give extra Brownie Points to applicants who use their own forms. Example: several years ago, an advisee of mine from New York visited a university in the Midwest. While there, he met with an admission staff member and mentioned to her that he was planning to apply via the Common App. She told him that using the school’s own application instead would suggest a more serious interest. (Never mind that this kid had already schlepped halfway across the country to see this school!) When I found out about that conversation, I did something that I don’t ordinarily do … I blew the whistle. I contacted the Common Application HQ’s and reported the incident. (Don’t know what happened after that. Someone’s head probably rolled. I didn’t provide any details that would lead to the kid involved, and he actually ended up at that school.) But the moral of the story is that there are probably a few admission folks who still cling to the belief that using the college’s own application, in lieu of the Common one, is a sign of a stronger desire to attend.

However, regardless of which application a student chooses to submit, I advise “demonstrating interest” in some way beyond merely applying. Sadly, “demonstrating interest” is yet another example of how this process has become more convoluted and self-conscious than it was in my own era. Now it’s not enough for high school kids to read everything possible about a particular school and tack pennants on their bedroom walls. Instead, today’s applicants—especially the borderline ones—are wise to clearly show their love to all their target colleges. This can be done via campus visits, by attending programs held closer to home, by writing to admission offices to ask for information that isn’t offered on Web sites (e.g., “I can’t make it out to Colorado but can you give me the name of a current student from my home city who might be willing to have coffee with me this summer?” or “Is there anyone I can talk to who’s majoring in engineering but also doing pre-med?”), etc.

I can’t remember exactly how long “demonstrating interest” has been a household term … at least in households where students (and their parents) aspire to hyper-selective name-brand colleges. But if you Google it on College Confidential, you’ll find a gazillion related threads. For some applicants, this has meant sending an endless parade of obsequious emails to their area admissions rep. So I am quick to caution students that it can be useful to show their genuine interest … but they should avoid badgering admissions staffers while also making sure that their message does reach them. I read an article a couple years ago on how perceived lack of interest can torpedo an applicant’s admission odds. The article quoted one admissions dean who cited a student who had been turned down because she lived less than 30 miles from campus and yet hadn’t bothered to visit. My immediate reaction was, “How do you know this poor kid never visited? Maybe she stayed with her second cousin or with another member of her high school pep squad? Perhaps she attended six classes and a debate-club meeting but she never dropped by the admission office. After all, if she lives that close to campus, she probably knows at least a couple students at the school!”

Similarly, I remember a young man who told me that he’d had a lengthy and enthusiastic email exchange with a physics prof at one of his target colleges whose name he’d culled from the college catalog and who shared his passion for nanotechnology. But had he ever mentioned to the admission committee that he’d found a new BFF in the science complex? No! So perhaps this boy’s significant “demonstrated interest” never registered on their important radar screens. Thus, even though it goes against my grain to do so, I warn prospective students that it’s not only showing interest that counts but also showing it to the right people.

So, anyway, back to your original question. In spite of some evidence that not all colleges fully honor their sacred vow to give equal treatment to the Common App, I typically don’t encourage students to use a college-specific application when the option exists. However, I do encourage them to go beyond the application at least in some small way to indicate their interest. Yet, whenever there is a school-specific application, it can’t hurt to check it out. It may end up being easier to complete than the Common App or it may ask different questions that are more fun to answer or which might be more likely to show off the candidate’s strongest side.

(posted 5/20/2011)