The case of the not-so-electronic application

There was an article in the New York Times today about the vexation students experience in using the online version of the Common Application:

So it was frustrating for Max Ladow, 17, a senior at the Riverdale Country School in the Bronx, to discover this fall that he could not get his short essay answers to fit in the allotted 150 words on the electronic version of the application, even when he was certain he was under the limit.

When he would follow the program’s instructions to execute a “print preview” of his answers — which would show him the actual version that an admissions officer would see, as opposed to the raw work-in-progress on his screen — his responses were invariably cut off at the margin, in midsentence or even midword.

I remember encountering this problem when applying to undergraduate programs a number of years ago, and even then I recall being astounded by the approach taken by the Common Application—the online application is actually only a web front-end which takes the applicant’s data and stuffs it into a tagged PDF version of the paper application. It’s like using TurboTax or similar software to prepare your tax return, then printing the forms out and mailing them in; there’s nothing inherently electronic about the process. You could have filled the forms out by hand, or with a typewriter, and gotten nearly the same result. Because the web front-end knows nothing about the PDF-generation process, it only enforces the word-count limits which apply to the paper version of the application. But there’s another, more insidious limit—that of space on the page. As the article explains, it’s easy to be well within the word-count limit, yet have run out of space on the printed page. In a real word processor, you might play with the font, or the font size, or the margins. But the Common Application provides no such features.

What is both stunning and alarming, though, is the response that the New York Times received when they asked the Common Application about the problem:

Asked why the problem had not been fixed, Mr. Killion said, “Believe me, if there’s a way to do it, we’d do it. Maybe there’s a way out there we don’t know about.”

It is really inconceivable to think that that is considered an acceptable response to the problem in 2010. The most appropriate response, of course, is to liberate the electronic version of the application from the constraints of the paper form. There is no reason that an applicant’s information cannot be sent to schools in a purely electronic format. There is already an EDI transaction set, defined by ASC X12, for admissions applications—number 189, “Application for Admission to Educational Institutions”. Considering that the 130 and 131 transaction sets are already routinely used by many schools to exchange transcripts electronically, this does not seem so unreasonable.

Given that I do not have a copy of the ASC X12 EDI transaction sets, I can’t say how well the 189 transaction set would do for the data the Common Application collects. Of course, there is also a general movement away from EDI, in favor of XML-based formats, so I suspect that the new XML Admission Application developed by PESC might be a better choice.

In short, there are a multitude of solutions available to the Common Application—from improving the process which generates PDFs so that text is scaled to fit the available space, to moving to a purely electronic, XML-based process which casts off the vestiges of the paper form. Claiming that the problem cannot be solved, while it continues to unfairly penalize students who seek only to have their application information conveyed with fidelity, is not an acceptable solution.