April 24, 2020
Ouch! You've hit on one of The Dean's many application-process sore spots. Yes, as you've noted the Common Application is barely common at all, especially for those students aiming at the more selective member institutions. College admission officials use the supplement essays and questions to make often hair-splitting distinctions among seemingly similar candidates. They also undoubtedly believe that, if they set out enough hoops for prospective students to jump through, the candidates with only minimal interest will walk away before the admission folks have to spend their Saturday nights reading about yet another orchestra recital or French Club trip to Montreal.
So when you ask if these extras are really “necessary," The Dean must say “No" and “Yes." The “No" is because I believe that the selection process could rock on just fine without them, but the “Yes" is because most supplement material is “Required." Students who don't address these essay prompts and questions will not be viewed as serious contenders and, in fact, won't even be able to submit their electronic applications without writing at least something in the empty space. A few essays and questions, however, do say “Optional." So your daughter will have to decode this. If, for instance, an “Optional" essay asks her why she wants to attend the college in question, she should absolutely answer it. Otherwise she may be sending a message that implies, “Well, come to think of it, I probably don't want to go there." If, on the other hand, an “Optional" essay asks her to describe some experience that does not pertain to her (e.g., a change in schools or interruption to her education; any extenuating circumstances that need to be considered when her credentials are reviewed) then she can respond with a brief “N/A" to show that she did see the question but it's not applicable to her.
ZeeMee is a relative newcomer to the admissions landscape. And it's a welcome addition for some (especially students) and an additional headache for others (probably mostly parents who view it as another confounding to-do list item to nag about). For many years—and especially as the admissions scene at some colleges went from competitive to cut-throat—students (and their parents) have complained that the standard application materials (transcript, test scores, résumé, even supplemental essays) don't truly show the person behind the profile. So ZeeMee allows applicants to use photos, video, text, and graphics to present a side of themselves that the rest of the application may not. Students also respond to questions via video in short bursts (26 seconds or fewer) in which they describe favorite books, teachers, family memories, etc. (Your daughter would only answer the questions she chooses, not every one.)
If your daughter has been active on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, etc. since before she gave up her Dora the Explorer lunch box, then creating a ZeeMee page may be fun for her and could feel very natural, even if it seems like building the Hoover Dam to you. Not all colleges will want it, but your daughter has already found at least one college that does. Indeed, some admission officers love the added dimension that ZeeMee provides while others see it as TMI, muddying waters that extend beyond the information that they need.
When considering ZeeMee, your daughter might begin by asking herself which of her interests, accomplishments, and personality traits could get lost in the application shuffle. These are the ones that she can present front-and-center on ZeeMee. The same is true for “One picture is worth a thousand words" situations. My own son, for example, fostered cats from our local shelter throughout high school. It was a bullet-item on his résumé, and not the kind of endeavor that would have paved the way for acceptance to every college on his roster. But, nonetheless, had ZeeMee been around when he was wading through the admissions quagmire, I certainly would have urged him to insert a photo—or a movie—on his ZeeMee page that showed the hulking 6'4' rower cradling a tiny sick kitten in his palm, revealing compassion and tenderness that no application could ever capture ... and which surely others besides his mother would find irresistible. ;-)
If your daughter is pleased with the way her ZeeMee page turns out, she can post the link in the “Additional Information" section of her Common App to make it available to colleges that don't provide a place for it on the supplement. And, conversely, if she isn't happy with the result ... or doesn't want to give it a shot in the first place ... she shouldn't feel that it will hurt her admission odds to skip ZeeMee altogether.
Since you'll probably be spending a bundle on your daughter's application fees (not to mention on college itself), I recommend that you shell out an additional $3.99 to purchase an extremely helpful eBook called Supplementing the Supplement. Written by college counselor and curriculum consultant Nina Berler (founder of UnCommon Apps), it provides clear, step-by-step suggestions on how to tackle essay prompts—especially those that turn up the most often—and on effectively using ZeeMee (despite confusing changes from last year's format to the current one, which are baffling many students this month).
Supplementing the Supplement also covers other popular social media (e.g., LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook), explaining how college-bound high school students can use these platforms to their advantage. Note, however, that, although “The Dean" finds this advice very valuable for those who seek it, it is definitely not necessary to make social media part of your daughter's admissions campaign ... beyond removing all photos of her with red Solo cups from Cyberspace!
You can buy Supplementing the Supplement on the Uncommon Apps Web site or through iBooks: https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/supplementing-the-supplement/id1238296551?mt=11
Although college applications are ultimately your daughter's job to do, if you're feeling anxious about the amount of work that they demand and yet you really do want to stay in the background as her “support system," one task you can take on yourself is to create an “Application Road Map" detailing all of the essays or other supplement questions that your daughter will need to address, once her college list is fairly firm. Your Road Map would include prompts, instructions (e.g., word count) and deadlines for each college. Of course, ask your daughter first if she wants this done for her. Most students will appreciate it, but a few could resent the meddling.
By putting these requirements on paper, you'll surely confirm your concerns that the Common App isn't common at all, but—hopefully—the mere act of gathering the information will make it seem less daunting. And if your Road Map turns out to be as long as a trek to Timbuktu, you might want to talk to your daughter about paring down her college list!