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Common Application glitches block students from applying

Commotion App
October 16, 2013

The initial early application deadline for campuses including the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Georgia Institute of Technology came and went yesterday, and hundreds of students missed it.

Not because they were procrastinating (at least, not on Monday night), but because system-crashing technical glitches in the online Common Application continued to plague students (and their parents) who’ve been struggling to apply to college.

The issues stem from a system relaunch that took place -- and first caused technical problems -- in August. As the Oct. 15 deadline approached, some applicants paid the fee, then didn’t get a submit button (then paid a second time, only to have the same problem). Others made it all the way to the “print preview” stage, then got the spinning wheel of death. Others had full portions of essays deleted or couldn't submit documents. Still others couldn’t even log on to the system.

UNC and Georgia Tech are two of just a small handful of colleges that both use the Common Application and enforce an October deadline, and they both decided to give students an extra week to submit once the extent of the problems became clear. (More than 500 institutions in all accept the Common App, which allows a student to fill out one application and send it to multiple campuses.) But that’s not doing much to ease the burden on families, college admissions officers and high school counselors.

“When it causes a high school boy to be concerned enough that they come in to see me right away, it’s got them concerned,” said Jake Talmage, director of college counseling at St. Paul’s School, in Maryland. “They and their parents have entered panic mode.”

And while the immediate (non-health-related) effects may be minimal, each day wasted is more time lost that admissions officers would be using to review applications and send acceptance or denial letters. (Also, November, when the next load of deadlines hits, is not that far away.)

“If there were only three schools with deadlines and they were saying it was a capacity issue,” said Christiana Quinn, founder of College Admission Advisors, “what’s it going to be like Nov. 1?”

Here are just a few of the issues people are dealing with, according to Common App:

--"In some instances, applicants are encountering errors getting a 'Green Check' signaling completion of various sections of their Common Application, despite having completed all required questions."

--"In rare instances, when attempting to change the e-mail address associated with the account, the page may occasionally timeout before the e-mail change completes. These are then no longer able to log in."

--"In some circumstances, the Applicant form status may not appear correctly in the Recommender system."

--"In rare instances, when clicking the “Submit” button to generate a preview of a form before submitting, recommender encounters an error message."

(Here are some other problems that Common App says have been fixed.)

Until those and all the other glitches are fixed, admissions offices pretty much have to take a wait-and-see approach, said Joyce Smith, chief executive officer of the National Association for College Admissions Counseling. (Not waiting idly, though – colleges with Nov. 1 and 15 deadlines are coming up with a potential Plan B.)

“If you apply early decision, normally you have until a certain date to accept, to withdraw other applications,” Smith said. “That assumes all the students are receiving their offers around the same time.”

And who knows how that will play out.

Common App is updating customers about once a day via Facebook, but users do not seem to find it very helpful. In a post Tuesday morning, Common App said its officials were investigating problems with the PDF preview function, but they were “not systemic.”

One person commented: “4 different computers. 4 different locations. 4 different browsers. None work. Hmmm. Not systemic?”

Quinn is not happy, to say the least, with Common App’s response to the issues. The only way to communicate with the system is to file a ticket -- nobody’s available by phone -- and the responses are either irrelevant or nonexistent, she said.

“They are totally minimizing this thing. To say that it’s not systemic,” she said, “is baloney.”

Nobody was expecting a perfect rollout of the application’s majorly overhauled, higher-capacity back-end system -- in fact, many admissions officers began complaining about formatting and input problems last month. (At that point, Common App Executive Director Rob Killion said the glitches would be fixed “in a week or so.”)

“As we approach the busy deadline season, we are fully committed to ensuring complete and timely review of applications for all Common Application members, particularly those with November 1 deadlines,” Common App said in an unsigned statement sent to Inside Higher Ed, which also notes that applications are up 25 percent over the same period last year. “None of these issues impacts all users, but each introduces a level of frustration for students.”

Talmage and Quinn have both received e-mails from students late into the night and early in the morning, detailing their horror stories. Both have stared at computer screens with college hopefuls for hours on end. Both have gotten calls from distraught parents. And both have been grateful for pushed deadlines.

As it happens, this was Georgia Tech’s first year using the Common App -- so admissions was already braced for last-minute adjustments and crises. But the problems are forcing staff to take a more manual approach to reading applications -- for example, they can’t just pull 400 PDF applications at once, because for some reason only 25 show up. Then they have to go in and figure out which ones were blocked and why.

“That’s where you do start getting concerned about volume and time,” said Rick Clark, director of undergraduate admission at Georgia Tech. “I’m not going to lie to you -- I mean, we’re a week behind and we have some concerns surrounding that. The biggest is that we really want to do a thorough job and also get decisions out in late December. And that’s questionable.”

There are alternatives to the Common App, including the Universal College Application, whose users have declined in number from 80 to 33 over about four years.

Universal College Application Founder Joshua J. Reiter said he did not know why so many institutions stopped using the system. But at the annual NACAC meeting last month, the application received a lot of interest, he said.

Princeton University became a UCA member on Oct. 10. Because of difficulties students and secondary schools experienced using the Common Application in recent weeks, the university decided to give students the option of using the Universal College Application, a university spokesman, Martin Mbugua, wrote in an e-mail.

“Truly, there are institutions that like what we do and how we do it and, literally, we’re here to help,” Reiter said. “As long as the industry wants us to be here, we’ll be here.”

Reiter's company managed the online infrastructure of the Common Application before creating the Universal College Application in 2007. The application asks a set of questions that every institution would find useful, but allows colleges and universities to craft any supplements they want. Colleges can choose whether to make essays or recommendations requirements, optional or not required.

The whole ordeal definitely speaks to a need for diverse options, Quinn said.

“Colleges, high school counselors have sort of accepted this idea that we should rely on one system. And I think that’s really dangerous,” she said. “I think that we do need more competitors in the marketplace and less of a monopoly.”

Megan Rogers contributed to this article.

 

 

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