Issues With Common App Put Colleges Behind Schedule

With early admission deadlines looming for hundreds of thousands of students, the new version of the online Common Application shared by more than 500 colleges and universities has been plagued by numerous malfunctions, alarming students and parents and putting admissions offices weeks behind schedule.


“It’s been a nightmare,” Jason C. Locke, associate vice provost for enrollment at Cornell University. “I’ve been a supporter of the Common App, but in this case, they’ve really fallen down.”

Colleges around the country have posted notices on their admissions Web sites, warning of potential problems in processing applications. Some Minnesota colleges have created an optional partial application. The Georgia Institute of Technology has one of the earliest fall application deadlines, Oct. 15, but it was not able to start reviewing applications on a large scale until last week and has postponed the deadline for some supporting paperwork until Nov. 1.

The problems have sown worry among students like Lily Geiger, a 12th grader at the Rudolf Steiner School in Manhattan, increasing the stress level in an already stressful experience. When she entered her essays into the application, what appeared on her computer screen was a garbled mess. Some words were mashed together; others were split in two by random spaces; there were swaths of blank space where text should have been; paragraph indentations were missing.

“I was completely freaked out,” she said. “I spent the whole weekend trying to fix it, and I kept thinking, what if I can’t fix everything by the deadline, or what if I missed something?”

For the nonprofit company, also called the Common Application, that creates the form, it has been a summer and fall of frantic repair work, cataloged on its Web site, and frequent mea culpas.

In an interview, Rob Killion, the executive director, readily acknowledged a wide range of failings. But he said that they were being fixed and that the number of applications was up more than 20 percent from last year, indicating that students were successfully navigating the system.

Problems became evident as soon as the application was released in August, including some confusing wording that was later changed. Students who thought they had finished the application found that it was incomplete because questions had been added after its release. As changes were made, some who had started their applications early found themselves locked out of the system.

A function that allows students to preview applications and print them sometimes just shows blank pages — a problem that may be linked to which Web browsers they use. And, as Ms. Geiger discovered, the system often does not properly format essays that are copied and pasted from another program, like Microsoft Word.

When a user pays an application fee with a credit card, the system produces a “signature page,” where the card holder’s name must be typed to confirm the charge. But that page can take a day or more to show up, leading some users to try to pay multiple times. Worse yet, guidance and admissions counselors say that those who do not immediately see the signature page may be unaware of its existence and may never check back — in other words, they may think they have submitted college applications when they have not.

“This software needed beta testing and needed vetting, and it probably needed to wait a year,” said Nancy Griesemer, a college admissions consultant based in Fairfax, Va.

Hundreds of colleges use software from the Common Application that automatically delivers a daily batch of new applications directly to their computers. That software is usually delivered in mid-September, but this year’s version arrived at the start of October. Many colleges are still testing it and have not yet put it to use, and most of those schools have Nov. 1 or Nov. 15 early admission deadlines.

The Common Application also had trouble meshing with software called Naviance, which high schools use to send documents like transcripts, recommendations and early-admission agreements to colleges. Until this month, colleges could not view any of that material on their computers, and some forms are still not accessible to them.

The Common Application, which began in the 1970s, allows a student to fill out a single application for multiple colleges. The number of schools accepting it has more than doubled in the last decade and includes nearly all of the nation’s most prestigious institutions. The company now processes well over one million applications yearly.

This year’s application was an unusually big piece of engineering — the first in six years to be designed and built from scratch, in ways that were supposed to make it simpler to use, with a newly standardized supplemental form that can be adapted to each college.

The recent problems mean that college admission offices will have to work overtime to go through applications, and some plan to take on temporary extra staff. But they say they still intend to send out acceptance and rejection notices on time in mid-December.

With the kinks being worked out, they expect the larger regular round of applications — usually submitted by January deadlines, with replies sent in the spring — to go more smoothly.

“Any time you roll something out, there’s going to be glitches, but this is the worst year by far,” said Katy Murphy, the president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling and the director of college counseling at Bellarmine College Preparatory in San Jose, Calif.

“We’re still in the first half of October, so we’re trying to keep everyone calm,” she said. “I think it will all be fixed by Nov. 1, but if it’s not, we’re in a world of hurt.”

Click here to view the full article.

What’s new in the Common App?

The Common Application is a not-for-profit group that offers print and online versions of one college admission application that students can submit to any of the organization’s 488 member institutions.

The Common App is currently undergoing major changes and getting a fresh new look for the 2013-14 admissions season. So what’s new?

The Essay

This pressure-packed word alone can strike fear into the hearts of applicants. I encourage students to look at the essay as an opportunity to set yourself apart from the numbers that define you (GPA, class rank, test scores, etc.). Here’s what’s new for the 2013-14 essay:
Higher (but stricter) word counts. Essays now carry a 250-word minimum and a 650-word maximum, an increase of 500 from last year. Additionally, where in the past students would aim for somewhere around 500 words, the 650-word maximum is now enforced. The essay box will keep a running tally and cut off at the maximum. As a result, word choice and concision will be essential.
New prompts. CA4 is limited to only five prompts. Gone is the “topic of your choosing” option; however, there are a number of great options, which students can craft their essay to fit. Check out the new prompts here.
Copy and paste option. Previously, students crafted their essay in a Word document and uploaded it to the application. Now students can copy and paste their essay, adding bold, italic, or underlining for emphasis. (A note about uploading: In previous versions of the Common App, students could use the upload feature to add their résumé. Now they must copy and paste text versions of their documents while adhering to the strict 650-word limit.)

Activity Essay

As in years past, the new application lets students list and rank their activities in order of importance. Up until last year, students were then asked to write approximately 250 words describing one of their activities. This is no longer part of the main application shared by all colleges. If a college still desires to have the activity essay, it will now be found on the college’s supplemental application.

Test Scores

The Common App asks for self-reported scores, however most schools require scores to also be reported directly from the testing agency. In the past, students reported their highest individual scores across ACT, SAT and SAT Subject Tests. You now have the ability to customize which scores are reported to which schools based on that school’s requirements. For example, if a college doesn’t require or recommend SAT Subject Tests, the student would not have to provide that information to all schools.

The 2013-14 Common App will be released on August 1st. In the meantime, get started on those essays!



Changes to the Common App for 2013 Announced

The Common Application,which is a universal form that allows students to apply to multiple colleges and universities, will be implementing some surprising new changes to the essay rules. The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that the Common App will be going web-only in 2013, and also will eliminate the “topic of your choice” essay option. Students will be forced to choose a prompt from the ones presented on the form, and these four or five topics will change from year to year.

The new form will debut on Aug. 1, 2013.

The new Common App will also be a stickler for essay lengths. The 250-word minimum word count will be enforced, and students who exceed the 500-word maximum will receive an error message.

College applications continue to surge, while acceptance rates fall

More students are applying to an increasing number of colleges, while acceptance rates are slightly down, a report released by the National Association for College Admission Counseling today reveals.

The 2010 State of College Admission by the Arlington, Va.-based education association, finds that 73 percent of colleges reported an increase in applications for fall 2010 over the previous year. Even as the number of high school graduates declines, more nontraditional students are seeking higher education, the report found.

After remaining stable for three years, the average acceptance rate at four-year colleges and universities declined by 1 percentage point to 65.5 percent. The yield rate—the percentage of all admitted students that actually enroll—dropped from 43 percent to 41 percent. This is likely linked to the larger volume of applications, according to NACAC officials.

Of the freshman class of 2010, nearly 77 percent applied to three or more colleges; an increase of 16 percentage points over the last 20 years. Twenty-five percent submitted seven or more applications. The ease of applying electronically contributed to this rise, said NACAC’s Melissa Clinedinst, assistant director of research, in a webinar this afternoon. Four-year colleges received an average of 85 percent of their applications online, up from 80 percent in 2009 and 58 percent in 2006.

With this influx of applications, colleges are using various strategies to manage enrollment. One of the biggest surprises in this year’s report, said Clinedinst, was the increased use of wait lists—48 percent of NACAC survey respondents indicated using a wait list in 2010, up from 39 percent in 2009. Yet, just 28 percent of students were admitted off the wait lists on average last year while 34 percent were the previous year.

Concerns over wait lists as a strategy to deal with the uncertainty of freshman-class numbers prompted NACAC to appoint a committee earlier this year to study the timing, transparency, and financial considerations of using wait lists. The group is to report back with recommendations to the membership in 2012, said Clinedinst.

The number of students who accepted based on “early decision,” an early binding commitment to attend, was up at only 38 percent of colleges with ED policies, down from the previous three years when about half of colleges reported increases. The gap between ED and regular-decision acceptance narrowed considerably in this year’s survey. For the fall 2010 admission cycle, colleges with early-decision policies reported a 7 percentage-point gap in acceptance rates between ED applicants and the overall applicant pool (57 percent vs. 50 percent). For the fall 2009 admission cycles, the gap was 15 percentage points.

For “early action,” which is nonbinding, 72 percent of schools reported an increase in early-action applications; last year, 68 percent did.

The top factors for admissions remained stable, with grades in college-preparatory courses, strength of curriculum, standardized admission test scores, and overall high school grade point average as the most important. Admissions counselors said they were increasingly looking at students’ demonstrated interest in an institution, which may help them sort through applicants most likely to attend in the ever-growing pool.

By Caralee Adams, Education Week

Should you use the Common App?

Many students have heard of The Common Application but aren’t exactly sure what it is, or how to use it. Former and current members of The Common Application’s board of directors respond:

Q: What exactly is The Common Application and what are its advantages and disadvantages?

A: The Common App adds efficiency, but use it wisely.
Eric Furda, dean of admissions, University of Pennsylvania

This is an interesting question for me to answer since I was just elected to serve on The Common Application’s board of directors. I think of The Common Application as a “standard vehicle or instrument” for a student to apply to more than 400 colleges/universities. The benefit for students is that they fill out responses to questions that all of these institutions have in common but used to ask independently (and the student completed multiple times). Obviously, this is more efficient.

Colleges that utilize The Common Application and still have their own institutional application do not put students at a disadvantage. The University of Pennsylvania uses The Common Application exclusively, along with a Penn-specific supplement. The only disadvantage, which students can directly control themselves, is that they should not apply to schools that may not be the best match for their interests, simply because it is easy to add more schools to their list in The Common Application.

A: The Common App is a powerful tool, so use it!
Ralph Figueroa, director of college guidance, Albuquerque Academy

Full disclosure: I am a former member of the board of directors of The Common App and currently sit on the advisory committee of The Common Application Outreach Committee. The Common Application is a nonprofit organization of colleges dedicated to promoting college access through the use of holistic admissions. This means that the 456 member institutions will take the time to evaluate your application beyond just the numbers.

Even more helpful, you can fill out The Common Application once and send it to any of the 456 Common App schools. This is a huge time saver. Don’t be afraid that colleges will pay less attention to The Common App than their own application—they won’t. So if you have two or more Common App colleges on your list, use it!

A: The Common App facilitates the college application process.
Don Fraser Jr., director of education and training, National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC)

Competitive college admissions is a time-consuming process that has become increasingly intricate; therefore, students appreciate any effort that helps to facilitate completing and sending college applications. The Common Application offers students the ability to complete one application and essay and send it to multiple member schools, as opposed to having to complete each individual college’s application.

Furthermore, The Common Application can be done online, which helps students stay organized. Students need to keep in mind that many colleges have supplements that also need to be completed. This could mean writing additional short essays, so make sure to budget appropriately.

See the full article on the US News Education website.

Changes to the Common Application for 2011-2012

The Common Application is changing slightly for 2011-2012. This preview document highlights and explains the changes from this year’s application. The 2011-12 Common App Online will launch on August 1.

The Common App is being used by 463 institutions (including these 49 colleges and universities, which are new to the Common App):

  1. Caldwell College (NJ)
  2. Carroll University (WI)
  3. Castleton State College
  4. Centenary College
  5. Christian Brothers University
  6. Christopher Newport University
  7. Cogswell Polytechnical College
  8. DeSales University
  9. Drury University
  10. Eastern Connecticut State University
  11. Flagler College
  12. Franklin College Switzerland
  13. Goshen College
  14. Howard University
  15. John Cabot University
  16. John F. Kennedy University
  17. Lipscomb University
  18. Long Island University Brooklyn Campus
  19. Lyndon State College
  20. Ramapo College of New Jersey
  21. Rhode Island College
  22. Rockhurst University
  23. Saint Leo University
  24. Saint Martin’s University
  25. Salisbury University
  26. Samford University
  27. Seton Hill University
  28. Sierra Nevada College
  29. St. Joseph’s College – Brooklyn Campus
  30. St. Joseph’s College – Long Island Campus
  31. St. Mary’s College of Maryland
  32. SUNY College at Old Westbury
  33. SUNY Institute of Technology
  34. The American University of Paris
  35. The College of Saint Rose
  36. Towson University
  37. University of Evansville
  38. University of Hartford
  39. University of Kentucky
  40. University of Michigan – Flint
  41. University of New Orleans
  42. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  43. University of North Carolina at Wilmington
  44. University of Southern California
  45. University of St Andrews
  46. University of the Sciences in Philadelphia
  47. Wartburg College
  48. Wheeling Jesuit University
  49. Whitworth University