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When it became clear that college applications were headed online, a group of colleges got together to try to simplify the process. Thus, the Common Application (Common App -- www.commonapp.org), which allows students to apply to participating schools was created.

It launched in 1975 with 15 private colleges. Its popularity has mushroomed, and today it counts 463 public and private institutions as members. The 2010-11 application cycle saw dramatic increases -- 578,000 unique applicants and 2.4 million applications, up 18 percent and 24 percent respectively from last year.

What's new about the Common App this year? The essay instructions specify a length: 250-500 words; previously just a minimum of 250 words was stated. Without a maximum number of words, essays were getting very long, and providing a minimum and maximum word length levels the playing field.

This year's application has a few new questions about marital status and children in response to the growing number of nontraditional students and veterans enrolling in colleges and universities.

The question on language proficiency also was revised to provide more context for admissions officers. Applicants are now prompted to check any of five categories that apply to their knowledge of a particular language: "speak," "read," "write," "first language" and "spoken at home."

Supporters of the Common App say it is very user friendly, that it allows students to maximize their time by not having to input demographic and school data on each individual application and that it is easy to work on an application, come back to it, make edits, move items around, etc.

Common App's popularity has its critics as well. Many think it is in fact "too common" -- that part of the problem with increased competition in the college admissions process comes from it being too easy to apply to too many colleges. After all, once a student has completed the Common App (with the short activity essay and the long essay), nothing more is required to apply to more than 200 member colleges and universities. It is as easy as point, click, submit and pay.

Others think colleges have tried too hard to set themselves apart in their supplements and require too much work for students. The Wake Forest Common App Supplement contains eight short answer responses/essays, and the school encourages students to "Be creative and enjoy the process." An application like that is a lot of work and weeds out the less interested applicants.

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Lee Bierer is an independent college adviser based in Charlotte, N.C. For more information, visit www.collegeadmissionsstrategies.com.