This Year’s Common App Will Make You Cry—As Usual

by / 5 Comments / 3440 View / August 1, 2014

Today, the Common Application for the high school graduating class of 2015 went live. The application, which is used as an all-inclusive tool for applying to colleges and universities across the world, is, in many ways, the bane of one’s senior year. Although not every college uses it, many do, especially in America.

It’s straightforward enough: supply the Common App with enough information that if they wanted to, they could steal your identity, then write a few essays, and click send. Easy enough.

Or so it seems.

The summer before my senior year of high school, I stayed up late on the night that the Common App was released. “Late” was an understatement. I stayed up till 3:00 A.M., frantically trying to get into the system so that I could see what I was up against.

Many of my friends did the same thing. None of us were able to properly log into the interface until one or two days later because of glitches. I walked into work the next morning at 8:00 A.M. exhausted from staying up and feeling defeated.

The Common App itself isn’t difficult; what’s difficult is just everything that it entails.

For some, the questions posed are difficult to answer: maybe because of a lack of information, or maybe because the questions strike an emotional chord. What should one write in the space for parental occupations if one’s parents are unemployed? For people of certain ethnicities, the question of whether to disclose that information can be tricky. Should you disclose your personal/professional affiliation with an LGBTQ related organization if you’re applying to a more conservative school?

Everything that is written down (or not written down) can have an effect on the colleges that accept you, which means that your entire future is riding on how well you can showcase yourself in a few pages.

Not only can the questions you answer be difficult, but the act of writing essay after essay can be as well.

I didn’t apply to smaller state schools or local private schools. I applied to mostly highly selective out-of-state institutions, many of which had three to five additional essay prompts. I applied to 15 schools; you can do the math.

The glitches that prevented me from logging into the Common App on its first night live didn’t go away. These problems continued up until my very last application. Essays were lost in formatting as I copied and pasted them into the online interface, and, on a few occasions, the Common App website would crash as I tried to submit my applications. Additionally, transcripts that were sent through the Common App didn’t make it to some of my schools on time.

Navigating a glitchy website wasn’t all that was required. From asking teachers to take the time out of their overly busy lives and write me a recommendation to staying on hold with admissions departments while I was on the bus on my way from high school to the university I took all my classes at, it was insanely time consuming.

It was also extremely emotionally difficult.

My entire social circle from my high school was filled with low-income inner-city students that had dreams of Case Western, Johns Hopkins, Harvard, Oberlin, Barnard, Smith, Carnegie Mellon, Pomona, and other similar schools. We all set a high bar for ourselves.

Our conversations revolved around the Common App nonstop. How many colleges did you apply to? How many supplements are for that school? Have you “demonstrated interest” yet? Do you need help with your essays?

We were all helpful to each other. But we also were living with toxic levels of stress, family issues, money problems, anxiety, depression, and the nagging feeling of the fear that we’d make one simple mistake with transcripts or an essay and ruin our chances forever.

We cried in the bathroom. Vented while on the bus. Whispered while we were at the university we all took classes at, so as to not let anyone know we were still technically in high school. We argued with parents who were not supportive of our decision to leave the city or leave for college in general. We haggled with family members over the money we needed in order to send our test scores. We curtly told each other to “pull yourself together” even when we were in the midst of breakdowns and insecurities.

And we fought, not only with each other, but also with ourselves.

It wasn’t all bad, though. In a way, the Common App was like a game. Survival of the fittest, except our lives weren’t on the line—our futures were. We didn’t find out whether we won the game until March. But even for the people who didn’t get into their top choice, they are still better off because of the process.

It requires a certain level of discipline to curb your wanton desire to compulsively read books (or browse Facebook, or watch Orange is the New Black) and sit down and write. To concentrate. Not only this, but the level of introspection and creative writing demanded by the Common App help people to improve their writing skills, which is crucial to college success.

Thousands of students will embark on the adventure of applying to college. The Common App will be one small but crucial piece of this puzzle. The Common App will make you cry. Eventually, it will. You’ll break down from the stress in a puddle of despair and crisp fall leaves, staring up in disbelief at some ominous email on your smartphone in October. And that’s what happens. Things like that happen to everyone. But remember: you will still be okay.

  • Mig Tom

    Let the stress begin

  • JF

    And if you’re low income, odds are you might have to face inexperienced teachers/counselors/etc who have no idea how to navigate the process, write lacking recommendation letters, and keep asking “why didn’t you just go to X state school?”

    I had to contact the admissions department at each of my schools to see if they would accept the ACT scores on my transcripts because I couldn’t afford to send the “official report.” I had to ask about noncustodial parent report waivers that didn’t actually exist in mere hope that they would help me blindly. As a result of this, I had to give up admission to Georgetown and Emory–they weren’t willing to compromise, and I had no way to get the information they wanted. Although it’s a common problem, there are very few resources for kids who can’t afford to send reports, don’t have contact with their noncustodial parents, and haven’t been able to demonstrate excessive extracurricular involvement because, well, the opportunities and time for such activities just didn’t exist. Sometimes, you have to make solutions up for yourself. You have to print your ACT.com student report, get your counselor to sign it, and mail it in to that stubborn LAC. You have to send reluctant emails to admissions offices telling them that you don’t have the resources to scan or fax this document over break, to tell your life story in a 300 word message begging for another option.

    And then there’s the Common App. The glitches kill you. You learn to save all essays on MS Word or some other place. The Common App would not submit my initial application to Barnard, and I was so frustrated at that point that I resigned to just give up; the next day, the deadline was (thankfully) extended, however, and I tried again. And again. And again. I didn’t know then that Barnard was my first choice. I didn’t know until a week before decisions were released and they called my school to ask for paper transcripts and copies of my ACT score report to be sent in–the Common App had failed again. But they were different than any other admissions office I’d worked with: they were helpful, they emailed me each day as I struggled to send my documents. They actually cared, and it shone through so brilliantly. That’s what convinced me.

    The Common App is, quite frankly, shit. It’s terrible and disappointing, it is difficult to show a real personality on, and the process is ten times harder when you don’t have the financial resources to support your application and very few people around you have actually been through the college application process (i.e, very few people can actually HELP). It’s a mess, it’s difficult, and it can feel completely degrading, but maybe the process will bring revelations re: your college choices.

    If I’m being honest, I never thought I’d end up at a women’s school (mostly because I didn’t understand what that really MEANT). The Barnard admissions office were able to win me over because they were more cooperative and caring than anyone else I worked with. I wish everyone else the same experience. I wouldn’t do it over again, but damn, it helped.

    Excellent article, Toni. It brought me right back through the process. Can’t wait to meet you at Barnard!

    • FKO

      JF: I completely relate to your comment and the article in general! Although I know a lot of people who only applied to a couple schools, or had a significant amount of help(in the form of people with the PhDs paid to write essays for them—-yeah, gross), I went through the same struggles. I applied to upwards of 15 schools, mostly all of them either Ivy League, or close, while on a shoestring budget. Both of my parents didn’t go to college and neither of them worked, so it(and everything else that the college application process required) was extremely difficult to navigate. Eventually, I got in somewhere where I’m happy to go, but the process was still completely unfair—especially for all of my lower income friends and friends who didn’t have steady contact with their parents. Although it’s not explicitly said anywhere in the article, it seems as though she’s one of the many high achieving low income students(maybe possibly first generation?) and I feel as though this article definitely does the issue justice! And even some more wealthier people, I’m sure, could relate.

      • Maria K

        “Should you disclose your personal/professional affiliation with an LGBTQ related organization if you’re applying to a more conservative school?” —that was basically one of the biggest dilemmas I had with the Common App

        The anxiety I had while going through that whole process was enough to need bottles of benzos. I’m so glad it’s over and I won’t have to deal with any more university apps until grad school comes around

  • Noam

    this article literally sums up my entire experience with the common app. as a lower income trans* person, the common app(and the fafsa and the css profile) were hell. Absolute hell