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U of C courts Common App

Photo: Juliana Pino/The Chicago Maroon
President Zimmer answered questions from students yesterday as part of his Fireside Chat, covering everything from academic programs to the strong possibility of switching from the Uncommon to the Common Application.

The University of Chicago may switch to the Common Application for undergraduate admissions in an effort to increase and diversify the College applicant pool.

The move to the Common Application would constitute a significant shift in admissions strategy for a university that prides itself on eccentricity. The Admissions Office currently uses the “Uncommon Application,” which defines itself by its opposition to the popular Common Application.

The U of C application is unique among other U.S. college applications, featuring offbeat questions that mock some of the information requested on the Common Application.

U of C President Robert Zimmer and other administrators argue the switch to the Common Application would make the University more accessible to more students, increasing and expanding the applicant pool. Such improvements might also help with College rankings, which take admissions statistics into account.

“I think that an issue with the Uncommon Application is that it’s asking you for routine information—where you went to high school, for example—that isn’t anything new, and so there is no reason that you can’t ask for common information in a common way,” Zimmer said at a student forum on Monday.

Zimmer first hinted at potential changes to the application in an interview with the University of Chicago Magazine last month. He spoke about trying to improve the size and diversity of the applicant pool by streamlining the admissions process, and he said some students choose not to apply to the U of C because of the Uncommon Application.

“There is, of course, something to self-selection,” Zimmer said in the Chicago Magazine interview. “Nevertheless, I believe strongly that there are more prospective candidates who would make wonderful students at Chicago who are not applying. The application we ask students to fill out should be as easy as possible in helping them provide routine information in a routine way—and as informative as possible in helping applicants to express themselves.”

Ted O’Neill, dean of College Admissions, said the issue is complicated and no final decision has been made.

“There would be definite plusses to changing to the Common Application, and definite minuses, and while I think there would be an increase in applicants—I wouldn’t characterize it as a jump, but an increase—the driving factor behind a change would be making the process more accessible to more students,” O’Neill said in a phone interview.

O’Neill has argued against the Common Application in the past, saying that a standard questionnaire fails to engage students in a unique dialogue with a university. Everything from the graphic design of an application to the paper it’s printed on affects how students approach the process, O’Neill has said.

“We care about your grades and scores but also about what you read and the movies you like,” he wrote in a message to future applicants on the admissions website. “Each of us (colleges as well as people) has something about us that is our own, not ‘common,’ and we want to hear your story.”

Michael Behnke, vice president and dean of Enrollment, said the U of C stands alone among peer institutions since Brown University, Columbia University, Northwestern University, and the University of Pennsylvania have accepted the Common Application. In total, nearly 300 colleges across the country use the Common Application.

“Before we were one among quite a few, but now we are one alone,” Behnke said. “The application has become an access issue, especially with a declining number of low-income students, and you want to decrease purely bureaucratic barriers to college admissions that are preventing qualified people from applying.”

Behnke said the admissions office is working with the nonprofit organization that runs the Common Application to ensure the U of C can include a supplement with its famed essay questions if it makes the switch.

“We need to make sure that we maintain what is unique about the application, and that would include all of the essay questions we now ask,” Behnke said.

Behnke said the College would not lose this part of its unique character by switching to the Common Application.

“The University has a distinct identity that has been built over a period much longer than the existence of the Uncommon Application, and is focused on the Core, the essay questions, and how we present ourselves in our materials,” Behnke said.

The administration will finalize its decision by April, in time to institute the changes for next year, Behnke said.