New Common App for college weathers storm

December 23, 2013

A revised version of the online Common Application for colleges, once plagued by technical glitches, is showing signs of normalcy as students approach crucial deadlines in January for applying to selective schools.

As of Dec. 1, the Common App had processed 1.46 million applications for the admissions cycle that began in August. That is up 19 percent from the year before. The online portal, overseen by a nonprofit organization of the same name, based in Arlington, handles applications for 517 member schools, including the entire Ivy League.

In October, students, counselors and colleges were bewildered and upset over malfunctioning software in the new Common App. Many teachers and students reported that their screens would lock up at the worst possible time, as they were scrambling to meet early application deadlines. Dozens of colleges pushed back their first deadlines to help ease students’ fears.

Now complaints appear to have abated somewhat.

“At this point in time, it is basically ‘business as usual’ for us,” Dale Bittinger, director of undergraduate admissions for the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, told The Washington Post recently. “Initially, there were some challenges, but all of those involved were able to address these. Our applicant numbers continue to be up, and we are scheduled to release our first round of decisions as scheduled — the same as last year.”

Gripes from stressed-out users, however, haven’t totally vanished. “How long does it take to get an answer?” one person asked on the Common App’s Facebook page. “We have submitted a question 2 weeks ago!!” Said another: “My teacher can’t log onto his account!!”

The Common App, founded in 1975, added about 30 member schools this year. But even if those are subtracted, the growth in total volume of applications filed through November would be up about 10 percent.

“We are feeling good about how things are going,” said Scott Anderson, senior director for policy for the Common App. “We are seeing decreases in the number of support requests for assistance that are coming in. Some of that is attributable to fixes that we have made within the system.”

He added: “We would never go so far as to say that everything is fixed for every person in all circumstances because we’re dealing with a very complex piece of technology. . . . There will be users who have questions or need assistance. We’re ready to address those.”

Anderson said the organization is keenly aware that its image took a beating because of the flawed rollout of the fourth online version of the Common App.

“We’ve been very forthright with everybody, and particularly our members, that we have caused frustration for them,” Anderson said. “We have asked for more patience than we should have a right to. Everybody experienced that.”

A rival Web site, the Universal College Application, benefited from the Common App’s stumbles. Princeton University and several other schools affiliated with the Common App signed up with the UCA this fall to give applicants a backup option. The UCA, run by a company based in Baltimore, now has 43 members.

More than 30 schools in the District, Maryland and Virginia use the Common App. Among them are the University of Virginia, American University, Catholic University, Howard University, George Washington University, the College of William & Mary and St. Mary’s College of Maryland.

Georgetown University and the University of Maryland at College Park are not Common App members.

The Common App, with nine employees, expects to grow to a staff size of about 65 in the summer as it absorbs a team that supports the site through a contract.

Everyone involved with the Web site is bracing for the next big wave of applications to hit in the days after Christmas. New Year’s Eve is always a big day for students rushing to file applications just before January deadlines.

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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