Monday, October 5, 2015

Uncommon App

Since my now teenage daughter was a tiny little tyke, people — older, wiser, well-meaning people — have warned me that time was not just going to fly, but that it would accelerate, gaining speed and moving faster and faster, blurring by, each year after year, every milestone after milestone.

This past weekend was particularly fast-paced, blurry and milestone-ish.

On Thursday, the two of us said good-bye to the husband/father (and the puppy) and headed to the airport. Friday morning, we toured a college — not just any college, mind you, but one that is currently tied for first place on my daughter's short list (a little "too short," according to her guidance counselor). We were there for about three hours, sitting through a PowerPoint presentation, walking the campus with a student guide, and finally meeting with the director of the school's impressive equestrian facility and my daughter's potential coach.

This was not my daughter's first college visit or even her second or third. But, it was different. 

For example, as the group of us (four prospective students with more respective parents) set off across campus, my daughter was up near our guide not falling behind with me and my sprained ankle. When we went through the equestrian center, she walked ahead with the coach, answering and even asking questions. Our friend, my BFF and the already "been there, done that" mother of three college graduates herself (my Sherpa on this unnerving climb and much appreciated), hung back with me. This wasn't our show. And we knew it.

Back at the house, with remarkably little prompting, my daughter went online and started the "Common App."

The concept for the Common Application began forty years ago. Representatives of fifteen colleges met to explore the benefits of creating a single application that would be considered by multiple schools. Today, supported by online technology, the Common App is "common" indeed. It's used by nearly a million students to submit millions of applications to more than 500 participating institutions.

For seniors (and mothers thereof) it's also a bit of a boogeyman. I was thrilled that my daughter was starting the process, but wondered what she (with me hovering) would encounter.

Each college she's applying to has its own set of questions at the beginning. Most of these are straightforward (Do you have a parent or grandparent who attended? What do you plan to major in?), but some are open-ended and will require more thought and careful proofreading (What first attracted you to this school?).

The Common App itself compresses a lot of information into objective little character-count-limited bits and bytes. This is efficiently designed for this digital world of ours, but it is woefully inadequate if you're trying to stand out as an individual beyond "most this" and "best that." There is so much I wanted admissions officers to know about my utterly uncommon daughter that simply doesn't have a place on the Common App.

For example, she can click "Add Activity" and type in "Coaching younger riders at horse shows," but she runs out of space long before she can explain all that it entails. And there's certainly no opportunity for me to add what I think matters most. Like how much she cares, how kind she is or how much they admire her. Or the time my daughter was in first place (headed for a honkin' silver trophy too) and she was disqualified on a technicality. She was not only composed and respectful to the judges, but she stood on the sidelines and cheered a girl she had mentored on to victory.

There was also the time that she kept her head when a younger rider suffered a bad fall in the woods. Wouldn't that demonstrate her character, her wits and her compassion better than a maximum 100-character (including spaces) activity description?

She was able to add her annual community service work for a local organization that delivers school supplies and backpacks to needy kids. But, I longed to call someone (or all the someones) in Admissions and tell them about the time she contacted the head of the non-profit organization to suggest that they add "student's favorite color" to the information they provided backpack donors. She saw no reason why a girl who loved blue should be stuck with a pink backpack, no matter who was buying it for her.

I don't have an answer. The Common App saves everyone — students and institutions alike — time and money. But with so few schools requiring (or even offering) one-to-one interviews anymore, I feel like we're missing the heart of the matter. 

The hearts of our senior girls and boys.

Oh well, we can't stop to mourn the loss or even to reflect. 

You see, we're moving on to the essay.

If you enjoyed this post, I invite you to order a copy of my book  Lovin' the Alien at

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