The College 'Common Application'

This post originally appeared December 30, 2010 on

I remember filling out my college admissions form, all four pages of it, thinking what a pain it was to hand write out the thing. Looking back on that now, given that I spent half of my day today creating a requirements document that was around 8 pages long, typed single-spaced, I laugh at my teenage self, not realizing how easy I had it.

When I saw this article from The New York Times, about the Common Application for college admission, I realized how far technology has come since that paper application I filled out 17 years ago. Once I actually read the article though, I realized exactly how far technology still needs to go. Let me quote you the section that really blew my mind:
As it turns out, applicants do not have, say, 150 words to discuss their most meaningful extracurricular activities; they have something closer to 1,000 characters (Max said he eventually figured this out). And because some letters may take up more space than others, one applicant’s 145-word essay may be too long, while another’s 157-word response may come up short, Mr. Killion said.
Frankly, that’s a requirements failure if I have ever seen one. Sure, counting actual characters is far easier than counting spaces, but neither of them are rocket science. The article comments on this:
Why can’t the Common Application be better, technologically, given the caliber of the institutions involved? And, at the very least, why can’t the nonprofit association of colleges that produces the form fix this particular problem?
The article states that, with so many colleges moving toward the Common Application, the nonprofit association that runs the site spent literally weeks to add a text box to the form to tell prospective students to make sure to do a ‘print preview’ before submission to make sure their work isn’t truncated.

Let me say that again… their fix, which took weeks to implement, is to suggest a print preview before submission. They didn’t force a print preview, just suggested it, and it took weeks to do it.

I’m not generally someone who is going to bash another project team’s work without at least some understanding of the process and technology involved, but this problem has existed for a decade and the 'fix’ was to put all the responsibility on the user whose only fault is to apply to schools that choose to use such a completely broken process. This simply screams unacceptable to me.

It makes me wonder why the associated institutions continue to put up with such failure. They must be supporting the initiative financially, and done correctly this could be such a wonderful boon for high school students looking for a college. yet it sounds more like a recipe for frustration. Punishing our users is one of the worst sins a project team can commit when building a process or application.

I implore you; don’t be like the Common Application. Be 'uncommon’.