The early decision deadlines of many colleges this fall grew confusing and chaotic -- to applicants and colleges alike -- when glitches in a new version of the Common Application  resulted in system crashes that made it impossible for many to complete applications. Many colleges pushed back their deadlines and college counselors tried to calm anxious applicants and parents.
Many competitive colleges have January 1 or 2 as their regular decision deadline, and many receive a very large share of their applications in the last 48 hours before the deadline. So this week, the question will be: Is the Common App up to the task?
There are reasons to think so. Inside Higher Ed contacted college counselors, who generally reported that in the last few weeks they have encountered either no problems at all or just a few that were resolved promptly. The admissions discussion boards that in October were about as sympathetic to the Common App's problems as the Tea Party was to the Obamacare website rollout are now pretty quiet. And the Common Application has statistics suggesting that record number of applications are being processed and sent to colleges, right on time.
At the same time, a few colleges are either moving back regular decision deadlines or announcing new options for those who have difficulty with the Common App. And others are starting to think about such options for next year.
Data from the Common Application suggest increased usage. Since the launch of the new system in August and through December 1, the number of applicants is up 19 percent (to 479,268), the number of applications is up 18 percent (to 1,462,938), and the number of recommender forms submitted is up 26 percent (to 5,439,560).
Scott Anderson, senior director for policy at the Common Application, said Friday via email that the organization was "cautiously confident" that all would go well this week. The Common Application is expecting 900,000 applications and related documents to be submitted in the next three weeks, but the volume is historically the highest on December 31. Anderson said that the Common Application has stepped up testing, and that it has three times the number of support team members on staff as was the case a year ago, and that they will be available 24/7.
Not everyone is as confident that all will go well. Cornell University, citing concerns of some applicants, has moved its application deadline from Jan. 2 to Jan. 9. Lehigh University moved its deadline from Jan. 1 to Jan. 10.
J. Leon Washington, dean of admissions and financial aid at Lehigh, said that applicants report a much smoother experience with the Common App now than was the case a few months ago, but he said that many applicants and parents remain anxious, so the university decided it was best to give them a few extra days. "The biggest issue students appear to be running into involve slowness of the system at times, causing them to be anxious," Washington said.
Columbia University this month announced it was introducing its own application form that could be used as an alternative to the Common App. Many colleges that had their own forms when they joined Common App stopped maintaining them years ago, and now Columbia's is back. Officials there said that they are encouraging students who started their applications on the Common App and who aren't having difficulties to stick with it, but that it was important to provide an alternative.
A spokeswoman for Columbia said that the number of applicants reporting difficulty with the Common App is way down from early in the fall, but that the university continues to hear from high school teachers and guidance counselors who are having trouble submitting materials on behalf of some applicants.
Several colleges and universities this year have joined Universal College Application, a competitor to the Common App. And for many college admissions leaders, the question now is whether this fall's problems demonstrated a level of reliance on the Common Application that left institutions vulnerable to a "single point of failure" situation where they had no ready alternative.
Seth Allen, vice president and dean of admissions and financial aid at Pomona College, is among those who will be watching to see what happens this week. Pomona applicants had lots of problems early in the fall, and the college extended its deadline for early decision. Of late, there have been no reported problems, and the deadline for regular decision remains Jan. 1. On Friday, Allen said that Pomona would (based on past years) receive 65 percent of its applications between that day and Jan. 1.
Allen said via email that, even assuming things go well this week, the experience of the fall has raised important questions. The main issue, he said, is "whether it is prudent for institutions to rely on just one application."
"I am talking about the Common Application but this could apply to institutions that only offer their own application as well.
"In an age of bits and bytes, where we no longer have a paper application, we need redundancy. While we have it in the hard drives and switch-over systems of the Common Application in case of hardware malfunction, we don't have it in the application service itself, which became so apparent this year. It will be a question each individual member institution will have to wrestle with as they plan for the future."
A positive sign that the system was at least working last week was that private counselors reported that they were getting complaints about essay length limits on the Common Application, not software glitches. The Common Application recently started enforcing length limits -- to the frustration of many applicants -- but this suggests that the system is performing as it was programmed to (even if some people don't like it).
Nancy Griesemer, a private college counselor in Virginia who was among those saying she wasn't hearing of frustrations last week, said she can vouch that one portion of the application system is working exceptionally well. Like many counselors, she registers as a potential applicant to see what her students are experiencing. Griesemer does so in the name of her cat, making clear along the way that the cat is not a real applicant. One service the Common Application allows its member colleges to use sends reminders to those (human) applicants who have completed some but not all of their applications.
That part of the service is working perfectly, Griesemer said, because her cat is "getting bombarded with mailings asking her to complete her application."