October 22, 2013

Glitches plague online Common Application for college

Software problems in the retooled program frustrate students and force some schools to alter early admission deadlines.

The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — A cascade of glitches in a major online college application program has frustrated prospective students across the country and prompted several universities to push back their fall deadlines, exposing vulnerabilities in the nation’s college admissions system.

More than 515 colleges and universities, including the entire Ivy League, use the Common Application to help choose their incoming classes. The program, which handles millions of applications annually, was retooled this year in an attempt to make an inherently stressful teenage ritual a little easier. But the fourth online version of the Common App, which went live Aug. 1, has compounded the angst of many college-bound students.

Software troubles and other technical difficulties have left students staring at frozen screens or led them to pay multiple fees for a single application. Others reported being shut out of their accounts entirely.

High school senior Arjun Iyer, 17, of Herndon, Va., said he tried to log in about 10 times on the eve of a deadline to apply to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. At one point, the computer told him that his user name and password didn’t exist.

“Of course I was freaking out a little bit,” he said.

Some counselors said they were having trouble uploading recommendations and other required documents.

“A lot of us are pulling our hair out,” said Marisha Wright, a counselor at Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Prince George’s County, Md. Like many of her peers and students nationwide, Wright struggled last week to overcome technical difficulties in filing materials for UNC and Georgia Tech until those two schools extended early application deadlines.

Leaders of the Common App, a nonprofit organization based in Arlington, Va., acknowledged shortcomings in serving students nationwide, but there was no estimate of the number of students who experienced problems.

“For many users, the new Common Application has not been a reliable service,” they said in a statement Friday, pledging improvement.

A key deadline looms Nov. 1 for students who are seeking early admission to many prestigious schools. Reports of Common App struggles led the University of Chicago and Columbia, Duke and Northwestern universities to extend their deadlines one week, to Nov. 8. Princeton University, a Common App user since 2004, announced it would give students a second option: an online form called the Universal College Application.

The lesser-known UCA is seeking to capitalize on the Common App’s stumbles.

“The conversation now is, we do need multiple vendors,” said Joshua Reiter, president of ApplicationsOnline, based in Baltimore, which runs the UCA. “There are alternatives.”

Common App officials say they are racing to troubleshoot their software and are confident it will meet challenges coming with application deadlines in November and January. Scott Anderson, senior director for policy for the Common App, said more than 229,000 applications had been filed successfully as of Friday, up 19 percent from the previous year’s total at that date.

“Many, many students have been able to submit just fine,” Anderson said. “But for those who can’t, it’s maddening. It’s frustrating. . . . We are apologetic and regretful that they find themselves in this position.”

Nathan Myers of Gaithersburg, Md., found the experience of applying to UNC-Chapel Hill surreal.

Myers, 17 and a senior, logged into his Common App account Oct. 10, five days ahead of UNC’s early-action deadline. He had finished his application and was ready to submit it, but he couldn’t get the document to load.

For three more days, he tried various computers and various Internet browsers. Each time, the screen showed a “little dial spinning, for about 60 minutes,” Myers said.

The document finally loaded Oxt. 14. Nathan Myers paid his $80 fee and filed. Then, for a day, the payment didn’t register. “It kept asking me to pay again,” he said.

Common App officials say they are working to ensure that any students who overpay get refunds.

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