Kristi Phillips

Kristi Phillips
Education Account Manager

If you’ve spent any time in the presence of a prospective college student recently, you’ve probably heard of the Common Application (sometimes referred to informally as the Common App). What you may not know is how it has contributed to student selection policy and how it has shaped standards around the globe.

As the Common Application grows, it has also needed to find innovative system solutions that can manage burgeoning numbers of both member colleges and student applicants. Recently, we worked with them when they turned to the Salesforce platform to scale their technology.

Tim McGraw, the Common Application’s Director of IT Services, spoke with us about the organization’s history and their strategies for expansion while maintaining a high-quality user experience.

Leisurely beginnings to rapid growth

The Common Application is a nonprofit association of member colleges, most commonly experienced by student applicants as an online undergraduate college application website. McGraw noted, “The Common Application was founded by a group of 15 selective liberal arts institutions in 1975, and took off in the late ‘90s with the growth of the internet. There was also a policy change that brought public schools into the fold. Since then, the growth of membership has been rapid. We have 25-50 colleges joining every year.”

This year, the Common Application served more than 800,000 individual applicants, who submitted over 3.5 million applications! As of this July their member colleges and universities totaled 549 across eight countries: the United States, United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy, Austria, Singapore, and Belgium.

Equalizing the college application

The Common Application has a membership agreement for every college. “The [founding] membership made a philosophical assessment of how they wanted to standardize admissions,” McGraw explained. Each member college agrees to support a holistic policy of admission, ie. not admitting or denying based exclusively on numbers like test scores and GPA. As part of this policy, every member college agrees to accept an untimed writing sample and an academic recommendation as part of its application.

The rationale behind this is that the numbers don’t tell the whole story. Disadvantaged students, for example, may be able to explain hardships in their writing sample that would not be evident from a strictly numbers-based application. As colleges and universities join the Common Application in force, this policy helps the higher education sector at large to recruit a more diverse student base. “But this is evolving, too,” McGraw said, “because our membership has asked us to rededicate ourselves to access. We are considering ways to provide broader services to a range of institutions that may not be able to review holistically, because of their application base, or their own mission. This has vast implications to member management. I’m confident that Exponent Partners can help us meet that challenge as well.”

Scaling challenges

When Tim McGraw joined in 2008, he was the Common Application’s first director of information systems. McGraw recalled, “The Common App in 2008 had this wonderful application system, but nothing in terms of business IT. Almost 100% of membership administration was done with re-purposed web forms, over email directly, or with spreadsheets.”

The organization faces an interesting timeline challenge as well — their product needs to be live from August 1 through the following July 31. “This drives the way we handle IT,” said McGraw. “It also affects the way the membership has to be administered. We have a window between March and August [to implement]. There is an annual update process to prep for August 1, and we need to collect all college information and updates and build them into launching Common App. Colleges can’t update deadlines or other application logistics after a launch, to maintain consistency. That means we need to gather them correctly in advance of the first applicants to use the system each year.”

McGraw was tasked with identifying a platform and creating an architecture around the administrative needs of the membership association, as well as facilitating its rapid growth.

First he turned to an Association Management System, or AMS. This offered a unified platform, web portal, and database. However, it wasn’t as scalable for their growing complexity. He next selected Salesforce, a larger platform that presented greater integration capabilities. McGraw noted, “I’d grown the AMS organically over four years, but with Salesforce, we were able to recreate this in a single year and set the stage for future expansion.”

System best practices for scaling membership

1) Contacts, contacts, contacts. Tracking contact roles and communications is very important for member associations. Consider regular member reminders to update these contacts. “Colleges have frequent personnel turnover,” said McGraw. “We changed from one contact to four, and included role descriptions and subscription capabilities, and built in email reminders to check preferences. Our ability to track changes is critical to ensuring that members receive our communications.”

2) Make good use of “triggers”. The less manual your system needs to be for every small action, the better chance you have of making the most of your staff… and scaling. The Common Application now uses many custom-created triggers in Salesforce which perform such tasks as auto-saving associated emails to member records and updating certain fields based on a specific action.

3) Pay attention to the nuances of your members’ user experience as a whole. With Salesforce integration, the Common Application has decreased the number of member support requests about how to use the site, and have received praise about the look and feel. “It’s hard to anticipate every single contingency,” said McGraw, “But if your website doesn’t meet expectations, you have problems. The behavior needs to be consistent based on experience with a whole host of websites. Salesforce puts some constraints on us, which are valuable because they set standards and serve to make our web forms a more predictable experience.”

4) Gather data from your members about usage and other trends. The Common Application requires member associations to share statistics about adoption. For example, they ask for a snapshot of tech tools that admissions staff use, whether they read files on computer versus paper, or use imaging tools. This helps them to understand and improve on how members can best use the Common Application’s various member-facing tools and services.

5) See things from their perspective. The Common Application’s system allows staff to log in as a member and see exactly what members are seeing. This helps them more easily troubleshoot, help with updates, and understand the member’s point of view.

6) Find an implementation partner that understands the unique needs of your nonprofit (such as higher education). McGraw noted, “In order to make the work go smoothly, it was important that we had a partner with breadth of experience in higher ed, who understands college admissions and the more complex components of our system.”

The future of the Common Application

What’s next on the agenda for the Common Application? McGraw mentioned various tweaks to their system initially, such as single sign-on, a few additions to the membership profile, the ability to view invoices online, and data delivery scheduling.

In the bigger picture, the Common Application has a roadmap of staying ahead of the curve in areas such as user interface and back-end technology. They also have a goal of continually improving the accuracy of their data.

But they have a great foundation on which to build. “With Salesforce, staff adoption was accelerated,” said McGraw. “We’ve had more active involvement and the ability to license more people. Staff feel more invested in the data, because they are empowered and have some autonomy. They trust it more. In general, employees are very dedicated and they want to learn — and that level of authority and responsibility is important to making them feel like speaking up is a good idea. This establishes a positive feedback loop for development.”

Because of their system, the Common Application has also been able to derive value from a rich data set of college behavior, which helps them serve their members better. As for the future of college applications, the influential nonprofit has observed that many universities, even those who are not members, are adapting their applications to be more like the Common Application. McGraw concluded, “The Common Application is taking a deeper look at itself and its role as a citizen within higher ed, and Exponent Partners has provided a solid base within Salesforce to meet this new challenge and to ensure our data keeps pace with us.”