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Common App has a new challenger

Lee Bierer
Lee Bierer is an independent college adviser based in Charlotte.

For decades, the Common Application, with over 500 member colleges ( www.commonapp.org), has dominated the college application landscape. But after last fall’s fiasco with technical issues at Common App, an interesting variety of colleges has joined forces with its young rival, the Universal College Application ( www.universalcollegeapp.com).

Fewer than 50 colleges currently accept the UCA, including a variety of highly selective institutions such as Harvard, Cornell, Duke, Rice and Princeton. You can see the entire list on the website. At the moment, the program is still in its infancy, but the college world is paying close attention.

Both organizations allow students to apply to multiple colleges using a single application. Some differences:

1. UCA went “live” on July 1. Common App will not open until Aug. 1. For students who want to get a jump on their applications, UCA is ready.

2. The Common App requires an essay and letters of recommendation, but UCA does not. However, individual schools may require those additional materials.

3. UCA provides applicants with the opportunity for an electronic link to additional online information about themselves – such as a newspaper article, an art portfolio or an online video.

4. UCA offers enhanced functionality. The UCA website is compatible with tablets and mobile devices.

5. Customization is possible with UCA. Applicants are allowed to modify their personal statements and counselors can tailor their letters of recommendation to specific colleges as they see fit. You can even choose how you report test scores. Not being able to do this on the Common App is one of its biggest downsides.

6. Your “final” does not necessarily have to be your final. Students had to go through an arduous process to alter their Common App essay and/or demographic information. The UCA makes the editing process simple and user-friendly. Students can create different versions of their applications, which removes the angst associated with hitting the “submit” button and thinking they can never make changes.

7. The essay prompt is open-ended. “Please write an essay (500 words or fewer) that demonstrates your ability to develop and communicate your thoughts. Some ideas include: a person you admire; a life-changing experience; or your viewpoint on a particular current event.” Last year the Common App removed its Topic of Choice prompt; now students are required to respond to one of five more specific prompts.

8. The beauty of “autosave.” Many students using the Common App were preoccupied with constantly saving their work; the UCA prevents a loss of data with its automatic saving feature.

9. Truly supportive customer support. Last year, the Common App was plagued with a variety of technical snafus including system-wide crashes and jammed servers as well as untenable customer service issues. Students and families were frustrated and Common App got hammered due to ridiculous wait times and inaccessibility. UCA has fewer colleges, fewer applications and a knowledgeable customer support team.

10. The Common App has long been the biggest game in town. Choosing to use the UCA may just set your application apart.

Bierer is an independent college adviser based in Charlotte. Send questions to lee@collegeadmissionsstrategies.com; www.collegeadmissionsstrategies.com
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