Winning the Battle of CommonApp ’13


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Image: “Asleep”, courtesy of graur razvan ionut / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

If you’re a high school senior, the last few weeks might have been more fraught than you’d anticipated, even taking into account that college application season is never a relaxed time.

Halloween party planning or watching the Red Sox’ march to victory in the World Series could have taken a back seat while, instead, you spent your evenings in front of the computer, watching the Spinning Beach Ball of Death on the screen and hoping that – this time, please, please, please – the CommonApp would cooperate and accept your college application before the deadline. Or before you hurled your computer, Spinning Beach Ball and all, out of the window.

Although it’s probably not much comfort to know you aren’t alone, a quick #CommonApp search on Twitter reveals that many others across the country are equally frustrated:

@Jimmbo_Slice_: Hey guys the common app is broken and telling everyone their password is wrong so we’re all just not gonna go to college OK

Some thwarted students at least had a backup plan:

@sophiaronga: IM NOT GOING TO GET INTO COLLEGE BECAUSE COMMON APP REFUSES TO WORK OKAY FINE MCDONALD’S EMPLOYEE HERE I COME

As deadlines loomed, however, flippancy faded and anxiety levels soared:

@lillian_kritler: the words “common app” and “trauma” are synonymous at this point

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The new online version of the Common Application rolled out in August this year, and glitches appeared immediately. The New York Times reported:

“Problems became evident as soon as the application was released…including some confusing wording that was later changed. Students who thought they had finished the application found that it was incomplete because questions had been added after its release. As changes were made, some who had started their applications early found themselves locked out of the system.”

Still, any new application is bound to have a few teething problems. It would be more than two months until the first round of Early Action deadlines. Plenty of time to iron out those bugs. Right?

Apparently it wasn’t.

According to Cristiana Quinn, founder of College Admission Advisors LLC:

“…it was obvious that sufficient alpha and beta testing had not been done…October of 2013 has proven to be the worst month in the history of the Common App.”

Of course, it wasn’t just students who suffered. Take it from me, the mother of a college junior, that those weeks of college applications, of essay writing, of recommendation seeking – they’re almost as tense for the parents as they are for the students. However, three years ago when my college junior was submitting her applications via the CommonApp, it was relatively straightforward. I wasn’t reduced to seeking other parents’ advice in an online forum, as this desperate mother did:

“My daughter pushed the CommonApp submit button on Sept. 20th to six schools. (Regular decision, not early action. She’s an in-season athlete and wanted the process done. She sent her non-CommonApp school applications in late August.) Lehigh received it right away; Northeastern told us after we inquired that they could not reach her application but know that she applied; Delaware said the same; College of NJ just finally acknowledged a few days ago. Two other very important schools have not been heard from. Just don’t know what to do.”

With my second child currently a high school junior, I’m a) thanking my lucky stars he wasn’t born a few months earlier, and b) wishing on those same lucky stars that the CommonApp troubles are properly fixed by this time next year. c) grateful he can avail himself of CollegePrepExpress’s expertise 😉

Another parent, who is also a software developer, had this to say in the comments section of an NBC news article:

“I’ve been doing development work for 16 years and this never should have been rolled out like this. My daughter has missed her early admission deadline and the school just keeps telling her to contact common app but she can’t because it won’t accept her login. My advice to companies looking for an IT vendor – NEVER, EVER work with a technology company that does not provide a support phone number. That has been my standard for 10 years and it is the best way to go. If an IT company is not willing to provide a phone number then I just don’t do business with them. As we are unable to reach the Common App support team now, this is a prime example of why I have stuck to this rule in my own business dealings.”

On October 18, Common Application released a statement in which it apologized for being “too slow to respond” to the technical problems, and promising an improvement in service for the 800,000 registered users. A page on its own website, however, goes to some lengths to explain why that improved service cannot include a telephone helpline:

“Unfortunately, given the volume of users who will interact with our system this year–well over one million, not including parents–phone support would immediately become unsustainable.”

(Loosely translated as: “Our phone system would be jammed.”)

Instead of a telephone helpline, the CommonApp offers a system of email help, where applicants receive an immediate automated response, followed by a personal answer within 90 minutes. However, according to this Forbes article:

“….numerous Facebook commenters attest that they have waited much longer. One applicant, Lori Ellefsen Abel, was having trouble formatting and had waited 10 hours with no response from Common App. Another applicant, Daina Zachary Scully, wrote that she had sent 10 email queries and gotten no response.”

Meanwhile, colleges have been improving the application service in their own way, with many of them extending their deadlines for early action or early decision.

Others colleges are going further and finding alternate ways of dealing with applications, particularly those who previously were Exclusive Common Application members, who could have a potential drop in freshmen-entry numbers because of the CommonApp ’13 debacle.

Prestigious colleges such as Princeton, Trinity, and Tufts are now accepting applications via the Universal College Application.

“ ‘Trinity decided to partner with the Universal College Application, in part, to help relieve stress among students applying to college. We were very impressed by the fast and easy set up, as well as the accessibility and responsiveness of the UCA staff.’ said Reggie Kennedy, Senior Associate Dean of Admissions and Director of Operations at Trinity.”

Commercial competition is clearly a good thing, even when it comes to college applications. Certainly, UCA must be very happy with its change in fortune last month.

As the old saying goes: It’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good.

Let’s hope that this year’s winds of change will help those in years to come.

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We’ll be discussing the problems of and solutions to the CommonApp ’13 on “Prep Talk” at 6:30PM on Monday, November 11, in “Working and Fighting with the CommonApp.” Join us then, live, or catch the show later on iTunes!

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