Technical glitches plague college application process

jstancill@newsobserver.comOctober 21, 2013 

Applying to college is even more tense than usual for high school seniors this fall.

For weeks, students have experienced technical glitches with the new Common Application, a standardized online application used by more than 500 colleges and universities.

Complaints include students not being able to log on and teachers not being able to upload recommendation letters. Some families’ credit cards have been charged more than once after they hit the “submit” button several times in frustration.

The situation got so bad that some campuses, including UNC-Chapel Hill and Duke University, delayed their early application deadlines for a week. UNC-CH extended its Oct. 15 deadline until midnight Monday. Duke moved its Nov. 1 early decision deadline to Nov. 8.

Add to that that public schools in North Carolina are dealing with the delayed rollout of PowerSchool, the new system for grades and transcripts. It has not been available for electronic transfer of transcripts to colleges, but school officials say it should be operational soon.

The Common Application has been around for years but has become more widely used in the past decade. It is designed to allow students to complete one application to submit to multiple colleges, making the process easier for students and universities. A new digital-only version has been plagued with problems.

Parker Burrus, 18, a senior at Broughton High in Raleigh, has used the Common App to apply to five schools so far. At first, she had trouble logging on. When she tried to attach her essay, it didn’t show up. At one point she thought she had submitted her application, only to find out it didn’t go through. Finally on Monday, she was able to finish the UNC-CH application hours before the deadline.

“When the server was having problems,” Burrus said, “it was, like, 20 times more stressful.”

A spokeswoman for the Common Application company that operates the service said in an email that the company has completed fixes for two of the problems users have experienced. As of Oct. 18, she said, more than 229,000 applications had been submitted -- a 19 percent increase over the same period last year.

Steve Farmer, UNC-CH’s vice provost for enrollment and undergraduate admissions, said his office received 1,200 calls from frazzled students and parents just before the original Oct. 15 deadline.

“It’s just another frustration and another headache for nervous, anxious students and their parents,” Farmer said,. “We really wish we could make this go away. We wish we could take this away from kids and their families, because it’s a tough time to be experiencing things like this.”

UNC reassurances

Farmer said his office had reassured students that if they encountered more glitches while submitting Monday, exceptions to the deadline would be granted.

“We’re not going to let any student be harmed because of a problem with the Common Application,” he said.

He said students should get in touch with the university if they have not received confirmation that their application arrived at UNC-CH.

The problems may be ironed out by the time regular admissions deadlines roll around next year.

Delayed deadlines could have an impact on the timing of admissions decisions. UNC-CH last year received 31,000 applications for the freshman class and 3,000 from transfer students. Evaluating the materials takes months.

High school guidance counselors, too, are overwhelmed.

Crystal Reardon, director of school counseling for Wake County schools, said the staff had anticipated the delay with the state’s PowerSchool database, but not the Common App meltdown.

“We have a few growing pains,” she said, “and unfortunately growing pains are occurring during our high-traffic time.”

At the private Durham Academy, a school directive to seniors to complete a draft of their Common Application in the summer turned out to be a stroke of genius. Students had breathing room to work through the problems.

‘Smartest thing’

“Even though they were whining and complaining about it in August, to a student, they have said, ‘Wow, this is the smartest thing we could have done,’” said Kathy Cleaver, co-director of college counseling at the Durham school, which has 101 seniors this year.

Cleaver said she worries about students who are the first in their family to go to college or whose parents do not speak English as their primary language.

“I don’t want them to be discouraged from applying to college,” she said.

Christoph Guttentag, dean of undergraduate admissions at Duke, said his staff noticed about the same number of students as last year had electronic Common Applications under way, but fewer had finished the process. That was enough to persuade him to delay Duke’s deadline for a week.

“There’s been an unusual amount of stress and an unusual amount of anxiety on the part of families and school personnel about the process,” he said.

Guttentag said he doesn’t expect the change to affect the notification target, which is mid-December.

“They’ll have an extra week, it’ll give them a little extra time, it’ll take off some of the pressure,” he said, “and I think in the end, everything will work out just fine.”

Stancill: 919-829-4559

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