Common App Melts Down, CT High School Seniors Panic

Snafus with the online Common Application for college admission have high school seniors frustrated across Connecticut. Guidance counselors, parents, and even college admissions officers share their pain.

College pennants adorn the ceiling and walls of Zumbach's Gourmet Coffee in New Canaan. Credit: Leslie Yager
College pennants adorn the ceiling and walls of Zumbach's Gourmet Coffee in New Canaan. Credit: Leslie Yager
Written by Leslie Yager
The college application process was stressful enough before the meltdown. And that is not a reference to a teenage hissy fit. This time, the Common App has had the meltdown, and students, guidance counselors and parents are all in a dither.

According to the Common App website, the membership association was established in 1975 by 15 private colleges, and now, 38 years later, serves over a million students and school officials annually. Common App is accepted by 517 public and private colleges and universities, including international schools.

This year, the Common App launched its fourth online version. And that's where the problems began.

Henry DelAngelo, an 18-year guidance counselor at Joel Barlow High School in Redding who writes a popular college admissions blog on Patch said, "This was supposed to be a new, updated, user-friendly Common App, with all the bells and whistles."

According to DelAngelo, who lives in Fairfield, there's more anxiety in this roll out than the first time. "It's very disappointing," he said, adding that although right now the glitches are mostly impacting the small portion of students applying early decision, "their panic spreads like wildfire. We have kids applying to very competitive schools who are just freaking out.  We're telling them, it's not your fault. But when they come into our office and ask for help, we don't know any more than them. We tell them to call the admissions reps themselves."

In Danbury, Natalie Langlois, a 12th grader applying to college for fall 2014 had been working on her Common App with the expectation of applying "Early Action," which results in a non-binding decision. Langlois indicated she has heard the buzz about the Common App problems and said, "My guidance counselor told us to just hold off for a week until it gets sorted out."
Right now the biggest glitch happens when an essay is pasted into the blank text field and paragraphs become jumbled. "It's a disaster," said Anne Beaty, who has been helping college applicants for two decades in Fairfield County, New York and overseas.

"The blank spaces, juxtaposition of sentences, no paragraph breaks, no indents... It's crazy," said Beaty. "You can do some editing once the text is pasted in the box, but it's still not going to look pretty. I feel bad for the readers at the schools. Without the formatting, the essays are just difficult to read."

The jumbled essays are the tip of the iceberg. Common App also published incorrect application deadlines, often indicating dates beyond the actual deadlines. 

A New York Times feature on Sunday, Oct. 13, chronicled the stress of Lily Geiger a 12th grader in Manhattan who is in the throes of the application process. The article reported Common App failures that include glitches with paying fees online, and "meshing" with Naviance. 

Naviance is a popular software used by high schools to facilitate a paperless application process. With Naviance, teachers submit recommendations online to be funneled through the Common App.

"The Naviance teacher recs didn't work weeks ago. They (Common App) kept pushing it back, saying try again, but we kept getting error messages. It has really been a source of angst for the kids, counselors and the parents," said DelAngelo.

Also, with Naviance, students and parents can view scattergrams that plot the SAT scores and GPAs of the current student as compared to his or her predecessors who applied to a particular school. The scattergrams are color coded to indicate whether or not predecessors were accepted, rejected or deferred. The scattergrams are helpful, but stressful, especially for parents who may have applied to college when the stakes weren't so high.

On Monday, the Common App Facebook page was a hive of activity, but the comments posted were not too happy. One commenter reminded Common App of their mission statement.

"Dan Bowen: The Mission statement of the Common Appication: Promoting integrity, equity, reliability, access and service in undergraduate applications since 1975."

DelAngelo, who also runs Your Key to College, has some specific advice for students frustrated with the Common App.

"Try using a different browser. If you're using Safari, try Firefox or Chrome," said DelAngelo. "If that doesn't help, contact the Common App support desk," he added, though he said it is difficult to find the "Report Error" link on the site.

The good news, if there is any, is that one of DelAngelo's students received an email back from Common App on Sunday saying they are aware of the issue and would address it shortly.

"That was yesterday," DelAngelo said. "A student's idea of shortly may not be the same as theirs, but the email validates the problem and it's good he can refer back to it."

DelAngelo is able to put the unfortunate Common App situation into perspective, describing a recent breakfast forum he attended with representatives from Brown, Rice, Cornell, Columbia and University of Chicago.

"The Common App was a definite topic they rolled their eyes at," said DelAngelo, indicating the admissions officers were as frustrated as guidance counselors and students. "Remember, these admissions officers want to admit students. They want to give them as much leeway as possible."

"Last year we were dealing with Superstorm Sandy and kids couldn't submit their applications because they had no power. The schools allowed them to send in applications late. This is like Super Storm Sandy II: The Common App Version," DelAngelo joked. "We got through that and we will get through this too."

Have you or your teenager encountered glitches with the Common App? Tell us in the comments. 


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