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An Uncommon App: Yale’s New, More Accessible College Application

Ask a current undergraduate student about how they applied to Yale, and their answer will probably be “the Common App.” In fact, almost one million students use the Common Application to apply to over six hundred schools every year. This year, Yale has added a new alternative to the existing Common and QuestBridge Applications. It’s called the Coalition for Access, Affordability, and Success, and, with its free, integrated “Locker” tool, it encourages high school students to start thinking about college as early as freshman year. Yale College’s addition of the Coalition Application, as well as its updated Common App supplement, are an attempt to increase diversity and civic engagement in the student body.

Established in 1975, the Common App has been acclaimed for allowing students to streamline the college application process by entering personal information and a common essay once to share with many colleges. Other platforms, such as the Universal College Application, offer alternatives in case technical problems occur within the Common App. Current college juniors will remember the Common App glitch in 2013, which drove 46 schools to push back their early decision deadlines. Despite its shortcomings, the Common App continues to be the most popular choice for college applicants.

Students using the Common App to apply to Yale must complete the Yale-specific application supplement in addition to the common essay that is shared between all colleges. Like in the past, this year’s supplement includes a few short answer questions, but the essay prompt has changed.

The previous essay prompt asked, “Please reflect on something you would like us to know about you that we might not learn from the rest of your application, or on something about which you would like to say more. You may write about anything—from personal experiences or interests to intellectual pursuits.” Applicants were to respond to this open-ended prompt in 500 words or less.

This year, however, applicants are asked to answer two of three questions in 200 words or fewer. One of the questions asks: “What is a community to which you belong? Reflect on the footprint that you have left.” Another asks: “Reflect on a time in the last few years when you felt genuine excitement learning about something.” The last asks: “Write about something that you love to do.”

The new essay prompts allow applicants to showcase their civic engagement and individual passions, qualities that the Office of Undergraduate Admissions seeks in Yale students. In a recent Yale News article, Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Jeremiah Quinlan remarked, “We want to send a message to our applicants that Yale expects its students to be engaged citizens in our diverse community and to pursue their academic ambitions with genuine enthusiasm and a love of learning.” In an interview with Quartz, Quinlan further explained, “We’ve been looking for [passion and civic engagement] for a long time, but we haven’t been explicitly been asking them. The previous essay question was a missed opportunity, in my opinion. We wanted to make specific prompts [this year] so we can be reviewing for these types of attributes.”

The new direction of the application stems from Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway’s new vision for Yale College, which includes students who will contribute to the college community and learn from other students of different backgrounds. Director of Undergraduate Admissions Margit Dahl explained that the new prompts were a way “to help students reflect on the communities, activities, and ideas that have shaped their experiences thus far…which will shape how they engage with the colleges they attend.”

Furthermore, Quinlan stated, “We hope that this small change has the potential to help the Admissions Committee select highly-qualified students from all backgrounds with the greatest potential to contribute to and engage with the Yale College experience.” The focus on an applicant’s community represents not only an effort by Yale to find students who will continue to engage with their community in college, but also an effort to increase diversity and inclusion.

The new supplement is one of the steps that the Office of Undergraduate Admissions is taking to respond to recent debates about race and class at Yale and on college campuses across America. From the protests in Silliman that received national attention to the ongoing debate on renaming Calhoun, we’ve seen a disconnect between Yale students, faculty, and the administration on how to treat race, speech, and inclusion. Additionally, students have been focusing on issues surrounding financial aid, including whether Yale should get rid of its student income contribution, and why Yale does not plan to increase the number of student jobs on campus, even with the greater influx of students next year. Though the Office of Undergraduate Admissions hopes to make the admissions process and financial aid as inclusive as possible, Yale must still make great strides to create an inclusive space for students when they arrive on campus.

The Questbridge National College Match Application is another way Yale tries to make itself accessible to low-income students. As an alternative to the Common App, applicants may use the free QuestBridge Application, accepted by 39 of the best colleges and universities in the nation. QuestBridge is a nonprofit organization that matches low-income students to colleges and scholarship opportunities. Applicants must first apply to the QuestBridge National College Match and be chosen as Finalists before they can be considered for Yale admission.

But there’s a new application platform this year. In 2015, Yale teamed up with top public and private colleges and universities to create the Coalition for Access, Affordability, and Success, which opened its unique planning tools to applicants in January of 2016. Like the common app, the Coalition Application includes an Application Portal where students create a personal information profile and application. What is most unique about the Coalition Application is its “Locker” tool, an online storage space for students to securely upload their work, such as writings, projects, or videos, throughout high school, starting in ninth grade. The Locker also allows students to keep track of their extracurricular activities and collect letters from teachers or coaches. Only the students has access to the items in their Locker, unless they share certain items in the “Collaboration Space.” Here, mentors, such as a student’s teachers or parents, can view and comment on the documents to provide guidance.

For example, a student may upload an essay that they want to include in their college applications to their Locker. If they decide they would like a mentor to provide feedback, they could share this item in the Collaboration Space, which the mentor accesses through their own account. Mentors may comment on, but not edit, the student’s work. Mentors may also write letters of recommendation for students, which the student may choose to send to colleges, though the students are not able to read the letters. When the student is ready to apply, they may choose items from their Locker to include in their application. The goal of the Locker is to motivate students to start thinking about college early and to keep them on track, steps that are important in communities where students have historically had less access to college education. The Locker and Collaboration Space allow students in underserved communities, likely without substantive college counseling programs, to familiarize themselves with the college and financial aid applications, giving them a greater advantage.

Ninety-six schools are a part of the growing Coalition, though only around fifty are using the platform for the 2016-2017 year. For colleges to join the Coalition, they must graduate at least 70% of their students within six years, demonstrating a commitment to student success. Private colleges must have a financial aid program that will meet the needs of students, and public universities must have reduced in-state tuition. Current Coalition members include all eight Ivy League schools, Stanford, public universities such as the University of Connecticut and Florida State University, and small, private liberal arts colleges such as Amherst College and Pomona College. The Coalition allows students to waive application fees more easily than with the Common App.

To apply to a college using the Coalition Application, students must respond to one of five general essay prompts in approximately 300-500 words. The general essay will then be shared with the any college that requests to see the essay. The prompts are similar to those of the Common App: one asks, “Tell a story from your life, describing an experience that either demonstrates your character or helped to shape it,” and another asks, “What is the hardest part of being a teenager now?”

The Yale supplement for the Coalition Application requests that students upload a document, video, image, or audio file from their high school careers that relates to one of the following two topics: “a community to which [the student belongs] and the footprint [they] have left,” or, “a time in the last few years when [they] felt genuine excitement learning about something.” In fewer than 250 words, students are to reflect on their work and how it relates to the topic. This new style of supplement allows students to showcase passions that extend beyond writing.

The Coalition Application is a step in the right direction to make Yale College more accessible to low-income, underserved communities. But the policies of the Office of Undergraduate Admissions don’t solve all the issues surrounding the lack of inclusivity on campus. The office’s work in increasing the diversity of the student body doesn’t ensure that students from different backgrounds will feel safe, comfortable, and at home at Yale. There’s a big gap between Dean Holloway’s vision for Yale College and the institution’s policies that promote (or don’t promote) the acceptance and inclusion of students of different races and socioeconomic statuses. And even though in theory, the Coalition Application should level the playing field for all applicants, we still do not know if the Locker and Collaboration Space tools will actually help underserved students feel more comfortable with the college application and financial aid processes. On the other hand, will encouraging students to think about college as early as their freshman years create a lot of unnecessary pressure? We have yet to see.