Online application glitches foil students and colleges

  • Article by: MAURA LERNER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 17, 2013 - 2:20 PM

The temporary meltdown of the “Common App” has triggered frustrations among students, parents and college officials.

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Paige Erickson, a senior at Minnetonka High School, initially had problems when submitting her application for early admission at Stanford University, but she was well ahead of the Nov. 1 deadline.

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Paige Erickson, a senior at Minnetonka High School, thought her computer was on the fritz last week when she tried to submit her application to Stanford University. When she hit the send button, she kept getting a blank screen.

She had no idea that the same thing was happening all across the country to high school seniors using a popular online site called the Common Application, which processes applications for more than 500 colleges and universities. Last year, the site handled more than 3 million college applications.

The temporary meltdown of the “Common App” has triggered frustrations among students, parents and college officials alike, as well as a blast of negative publicity (“Mass Panic As Common App Crashes,” reported Forbes.com).

But many students, like Paige, seem to embrace the British war motto: Keep Calm and Carry On.

“I had trouble getting through it, but it was submitted,” said Paige, 18, who is applying for early admission at Stanford. “I’m 100 percent [sure] it will all be fine.”

This week, the Common Application issued a news release acknowledging the crisis. “We are committed to resolving these issues promptly,” said the nonprofit organization based in Virginia.

For schools like St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn., which relies entirely on the Common App, the glitches have delayed the first wave of applicants and left admissions staffers “sitting on their hands,” said Jeff McLaughlin, dean of admissions.

This year, for the first time, no paper version of the application form is available.

“It’s an ongoing roller coaster,” McLaughlin said Wednesday. In September, the admissions office sent a test application to itself to see if it got through. It took a month, he said. But he insists he’s optimistic all will be fixed before St. Olaf hits its first deadline, Nov. 15, for applications for early admission.

Victim of its success

In some ways, officials say, the Common App was the victim of its own success. It began in the 1970s as a way to simplify the application process and spare students from having to write the same information multiple times. It went online in the late 1990s and unveiled its latest version Aug. 1.

Since then, “the problems have been nonstop,” said Phil Trout, a college counselor at Minnetonka High School.

Everything that could go wrong, it seemed, did: Essays were garbled; applications arrived in fragments if at all. And students weren’t the only ones having trouble; school officials faced roadblocks trying to send letters of recommendation, transcripts and other supplemental material through the Common App.

By the middle of this week, though, many of the problems appeared to be easing, Trout said.

Collin Bhojwani, an 18-year-old Minnetonka senior, admits he was a little worried when he ran into trouble submitting his first Common App several days ago. “I was pretty nervous about it until I started reading online that it was happening to so many other students,” he said. It’s also reassuring, he noted, that his school of choice — the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill — postponed its Oct. 15 deadline. “Because I’m not the only one with this problem.”

Glitch added to the stress

Still, there’s no question that the glitches upped the stress levels for many families, said Trout, the college counselor.

“The phone calls have been borderline concerned to livid to flummoxed,” he said. “The ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ message resonates with teenagers. It doesn’t so much with parents.”

At Carleton College in Northfield, the admissions office is still waiting for the applications to start flowing. But Rod Oto, the associate dean of admissions, said there have been some encouraging signs in the past few days. “We’re very close to breaking through,” he said. “I think people need to be patient.”

Mary Hill, director of college counseling at St. Paul Academy and Summit School, agrees. She noted that the Common App has been growing in popularity, and that’s one reason it rolled out the new design: to handle more applications.

“It’s been bumpier than we would have hoped,” said Hill, who spent nine years on the board of directors of the Common App. “But I have total faith that it’s going to work.”

 

Maura Lerner • 612-673-7384

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