High Anxiety

11.01.13

Crash of the Common App

Healthcare.gov isn’t the only glitchy website—thousands of seniors are in a panic because of glitches on the Common App, and 46 schools have been forced to move back their early-application deadlines.

There are precious few hours to go before your early decision college application is due. You log into the Common Application—known as the Common App, the only way to apply for hundreds of schools—but the website is giving you timeouts. You can’t copy and paste from Microsoft Word. You have no idea whether your school has an essay supplement, and it’s not accepting your form of payment. And if you’re thinking of just throwing in the towel and mailing your application the old-fashioned way, don’t even bother—most schools don’t even accept paper applications anymore.

Sound awful? It’s reality for thousands of high school seniors who are applying to college this year after the Common App rolled out a new version, which has caused hair-raising problems for students applying to the 517 member universities that use the application. The new and improved site has become so famous for timing out that it’s rumored that the only time applicants can log on is 4:30 am, or first thing on a Saturday morning.

“If anyone has experience with the common app for college and/or applying to the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, could you please help me,” read one Tumblr post. “I’m so confused I wanna lie down in a hole and never go to college ever.”

“The Common App is just a nightmare this year,” said Bev Taylor, the president of the The Ivy Coach, a private college consulting practice. “It’s just a horrific problem.”

In fact, the Common App’s glitches have become so widespread that 46 universities have pushed back their early decision or early action deadline, which is usually November 1 (UNC Chapel Hill and Georgia Institute of Technology both had an October 15 deadline, and pushed theirs back to October 21). Among the schools to extend their deadlines are Columbia University, Duke University, Boston University, Emory College, and the University of Pennsylvania—which made students sweat out the Common App’s disasters until Wednesday, when it announced it was pushing back the deadline. Further, some schools such as Tufts University, Princeton University, and Hampshire College are allowing students to sign on with the Common App’s lesser-known competitor, the Universal College Application.

“We were very, very concerned about it and we were in regular communications with the Common App,” said Alice Memory, UNC Chapel Hill senior assistant director for admissions. UNC Chapel Hill had an October 15 early action deadline, and Memory said the day before they decided to push it back, they had received 1,200 calls from concerned applicants and their families. “We were most concerned for our students,” Memory said.

Since pushing the deadline back, Memory said they still had around 100 other applicants who could not submit their applications on time, and they have been dealing with those applicants on a case-by-case basis. Memory said UNC Chapel Hill is still committed to making sure Early Action applicants will know if they are accepted by the end of January, as usual. And she said she is “confident” the Common App will have moved past its “major issues” by the regular decision deadline in January.

The glitches range from things as small as not being able to copy and paste your essay from Microsoft Word (the Common App now recommends you write it ahead of time in either TextEdit or Notepad, although neither of those programs have word counts) to as major as applicants not knowing for days if their application has been completed. Another reported problem involves the supplement essay—nicknamed the “Stealth Essay” now—for Cornell University: many students missed the prompt that included instructions to keep it under 500 words. Which begs the question: if you see the instructions to keep it at 500 words, do you ignore it like everyone else and make it 650 (the length of the other essays) to compete? Or do you follow the instructions?

Read one Tumblr post: “I’m so confused I wanna lie down in a hole and never go to college ever.”

It’s questions like this that have seniors—and their parents and schools—so frustrated. “My night: crying over how screwed up the Common App site is eating candy” wrote on Twitter user on Thursday. Another: “The submission page on common app has been loading for 10 minutes now and I haven’t cried yet. #bestrong.”

Scott Anderson, the senior director for policy at The Common Application, said the site has been improving each day. As of Tuesday, 67,000 application submissions and 150,000 school form submissions in a single day.

“This week we have put some solutions in place that have dramatically cut down on the number of people experiencing these issues,” Anderson said.

Additionally, the Common App has begun staffing the help line 24 hours a day, seven days a week, according to its Facebook page, where the company has been updating daily about the status of the Common App. The daily updates get hundreds of comments. But one of the key problems is that the issues are pretty dynamic, and not the same for every applicant—resulting in thousands of stressed-out of kids.

“It’s a really stressful for them,” said Nat Smitobol, a college admissions counselor with Ivy Wise, an educational consulting company based in New York. “It’s really made me appreciate how simple the Common App was last year, although I think students for the most part now accept it … There’s no need for this class—the graduating class of 2014—to be guinea pigs of this new Common App.”

Smitobol said beyond the major technical problems of not being able to correctly hit submit, he saw some troubling mistakes within the Common App itself. For instance, students are asked about their ethnicity, and asked an optional question about classifying their race—but Hispanic is not included in there. As a result, nervous high school seniors are answering white just to classify themselves as something, meaning their applications could be processed differently.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this with the Common App. The Common Application is a not-for-profit company developed in 1975 with the idea of making applying for college easier by streamlining applications. Therefore, high school seniors could use just application for as many schools as they wanted (or could afford to apply to). As for the 2013, The Common Application has 517 member schools, one-third of which do not even have their own applications anymore and solely use the Common App. Schools that use only the Common App pay less for their membership than schools that have a different level of membership.

While some kids, who come from a high socioeconomic background, are navigating the Common App's perils with the help of college counselors, there are plenty of kids without those privileges. “I really worry about the kids who don’t have the support,” Smitobol said. Although the Common App has insisted it is working on solving the glitches before the regular admissions deadlines at the beginning of 2014, Smitobol said applicants—and their families and schools—can’t assume the problems will be solved by then.

This year, “students have to plan ahead, and they cannot think they can just submit right before the deadline.”

At Georgia Institute of Technology, this is the first year they have used the Common App—and they ended up fielding calls from legislators saying their constituents were affected. They did receive more applicants this year because they’re on the Common App, but Director of Admissions Richard Clarke said the school always reviews its application process from year-to-year—and this year will obviously require some review. Georgia Institute of Technology pushed back its application deadline to the following Monday, and they said they hope to still notify students on time if they have been admitted early.

“It’s one to just have the pressure of meeting the deadline, and then when you have the technology in there—it definitely raises the blood pressure a little bit,” Clarke said. As for notifying students before the holidays, Clarke said he’s “still hopeful that it’s going to work out—but we’ve made it clear that we’re going to have to wait and see on that and as soon as we know, we’re going to let others know.”