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Describe an environment in which you feel content. Recount a moment of failure in your life and explain what you learned from it. Share something about your background or family that you feel is central to your identity.
Most students at Harvard—or at over 500 other schools across the country—began the road to college with a prompt like these. The essay is the centerpiece of the Common Application, the product of a membership organization that seeks to simplify the college application process by providing a uniform platform for students to share their accomplishments and ambitions. But Harvard and many peers—calling themselves the “Coalition”—are questioning the Common App’s success. They have proposed a new application, one that in their eyes will promote fairer review of students from a wider range of backgrounds.
The goals underlying the alternative application are noble ones.
For one thing, this call for change follows the Common Application’s decision to open its doors to universities that do not conduct a holistic review of applicants. But the best, most just way to make admissions decisions is to consider all aspects of an applicant, the "holistic" approach. The Common App’s questions were originally designed to facilitate that full, fair review—and the application no longer serves that purpose if it abandons that ambition.
The Coalition is also right to take issue with technological issues with the Common App that have complicated the application. The Coalition seeks to make it easier for students to upload aspects of their portfolios like sound and video clips, and to add and save information before submission. A functional technological interface is essential in an age when many students, some with less than perfect Internet access, apply to college exclusively online. What’s more, increased opportunity to upload content online contributes to the concept of a holistic review by allowing applicants to share their strong suits—besides test scores and grades—with admissions committees.
Finally, the Coalition plans only to include among its ranks institutions that have committed to providing substantial financial aid and to conducting equally substantial outreach to lower-income students. This vision—which will encourage schools that seek entrance to the Coalition to amp up aid and outreach—will aid in cultivating truly diverse communities in schools nationwide.
Of course, this proposal is in its early stages, and we look forward to more specificity around how these schools will achieve their worthy goals. If the concrete steps fall short of their aims, adding this application might result in an unwelcome burden, with some students filling out the same information in different places. Still, because Harvard and its peers will still accept the original Common Application, it will remain up to students which application to complete. For Harvard at least, students will be able to select the form they feel best communicates their abilities and identities. The goal of more choice and comfort for more students is one worth seeking.
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