Common App glitches lead to deadline extensions for applicants to 43 colleges

October 30, 2013

At least 42 colleges and universities have pushed back their first application deadlines for the class entering next fall — a highly unusual reprieve as a crucial date in the admissions cycle approaches Friday.

But college-bound students are hardly rejoicing.

The reason for the deadline extensions? Students and counselors have found technical problems with a new version of the online Common Application. Many have spent hours trying to follow the final steps for filing the application because documents would not load or accounts were temporarily frozen. Officials who oversee the program say they are making progress in troubleshooting glitches that emerged after the fourth version of the Common App debuted Aug. 1.

The Common App serves 517 colleges and universities, including most of the selective schools that are the focus of the annual fall frenzy for high school seniors seeking early admission. For more than 175 schools, the Common App is the only way to apply.

Among them are the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va., and George Washington University in the District. Both originally set Friday as the deadline for applicants who would commit to the school if admitted early. William and Mary extended its timetable to Nov. 8 and GWU to Nov. 11.

“We wanted to ease the anxiety of students, counselors and teachers,” Laurie Koehler, GWU’s senior associate provost for enrollment management, said Wednesday. “We know they’re still experiencing technical challenges.”

Koehler recently ended a term on the board of directors of the nonprofit Common Application Inc., based in Arlington County, Va., which administers the program.

Scott Anderson, the organization’s senior director for policy, said that the Common App’s member colleges and universities were “in a very thoughtful and responsible way responding to tremendous anxiety that students are feeling about the possibility that problems we have been having might prevent them from submitting their applications on time.”

The number of applications filed through Tuesday is up 20 percent compared with this same time last year, Anderson said. He added that technical problems have diminished since a chaotic period in mid-October but that some persist. This week, the Common App organization acknowledged that counselors have had trouble using an online tool to verify that colleges have received all parts of a submitted application. Monday night, there also was a repeat of a document-loading problem that caused many students to stare at images of endlessly spinning wheels on their computer monitors.

In the hyper-competitive arena of early admissions to elite colleges, every question mark is magnified. One harried mother wrote on the Common App’s Facebook page Tuesday night: “My daughter submitted a few apps the other day with no problem but tonight we are unable to submit any.” Another person wrote Wednesday: “Time to call in a white knight. . . . Google, Bill Gates, Apple, etc; tech geniuses would probably love to pitch in.”

With two months until regular deadlines arrive in January, this is a critical time for colleges as students file for binding “early decision” admissions or the nonbinding alternative known as “early action.” These students, typically organized and motivated, are often among the strongest prospects in an applicant pool. Colleges try to seal the deal with as many as possible well before spring.

Henry R. Broaddus, associate provost for enrollment and dean of admission at William and Mary, said the college enrolled 37 percent of its latest entering class through early decision.

A Washington Post analysis of data on the Web sites of the Common App and its members showed that as of this week, at least 42 schools had extended early deadlines. Stanford and Emory universities pushed back to Monday. In the Ivy League, Columbia and Cornell universities and Dartmouth College extended to Nov. 8. So did Brandeis, Butler, Duke, Fordham, Johns Hopkins, Southern Methodist, Tufts and Villanova universities, among others.

“It is very safe to say that I’m surprised and frustrated with the process this year,” said Andrew Flagel, senior vice president for students and enrollment at Brandeis. “We hoped it would go more smoothly.”

Flagel said he believes that technical troubles will be ironed out but that at some point soon, the university is likely to open another online application portal. Ian Newbould, interim president of St. Mary’s College of Maryland, where the early-application deadline is Friday, said his school also is exploring alternatives.

“It’s a real mess,” Newbould said. “It’s got to be sorted out.”

St. Mary’s, which joined the Common App in 2011, has had two straight disappointing recruiting cycles and is urgently seeking to increase enrollment.

This fall, Common App members Princeton University, Washington University in St. Louis, Tufts, Trinity College and Hampshire College all have turned to the Universal College Application, a rival but lesser-known Web site, to give prospective students a backup.

The vast majority of Common App schools are expressing little to no public criticism of the program. Dozens have not extended their early deadlines. A check of admissions Web sites this week showed that Friday remained the due date for early applications to Washington and Lee University, Boston College, California Institute of Technology, Howard University, Harvard University, the University of Virginia, the University of Maryland at Baltimore County and many others.

Some of those holding firm indicated that they would also be lenient.

“If you are having problems related to the Common Application we will be flexible,” Middlebury College said in a statement. “You do not need to e-mail the admissions office to request an extension.”

In the Washington area, prominent schools that do not use the Common App include Georgetown and George Mason universities and the University of Maryland at College Park.

For many counselors and students, meeting deadlines on the Common App means riding a technological roller coaster.

“I’ve been trying to get onto the Common App all day and can’t even get it to open,” Marta Schley, a counselor at the Washington Waldorf School in Bethesda, wrote Tuesday on an electronic bulletin board. “The beach ball has been rolling for hours. Sigh . . .

Wednesday was another story. “One student came in this morning and submitted in my office successfully,” Schley said. “That was really nice.”

A former Post education editor, Nick writes about college from the perspective of a father of three who will soon be buried in tuition bills.
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