Common Application frustrates seniors with uncommon errors

February 5, 2011 — by Vijay Menon

2010 was a big year for the Common Application.

The online application, designed to make it easier for high school seniors to apply for undergraduate admission, currently boasts 415 member universities and has received over 1.8 million submitted applications.

As the trend toward universal implementation of the Common App continues, even traditional holdouts such as the University of Chicago and Columbia University gave in, leaving only a handful of selective colleges off the bandwagon. Indeed, as the general Jan. 1 deadline approached, you would be more likely to find seniors on commonapp.org than on Facebook or YouTube—the website processed more than 127,000 applications on Dec. 31.

In theory, the Common App should have been a boon for students. With an emphasis on easing stress during perhaps the most stressful time of a young student’s life, one would imagine that its interface would be simple and seamless.

Yet most students would describe the Common App with one word: frustration.

There were a variety of issues that students encountered regarding the Common App, but the most common problem was that of word limits. The Common App noted a strict limit of 150 words for the required “short answer” essay section. However, even students who met this limit risked having their answers cut short and truncated. On the flip side, some answers remained viewable even if they exceeded the limit.

The form that students saw when they filled out their Common App was not the same form that admissions officers downloaded and viewed when assessing their applications. To view this screen, students were required to “Print Preview” their applications. However, many students unintentionally overlooked this critical step.

For several weeks, this problem was not duly noted on the website. Only after a series of complaints—from students who had viewed their applications after submission, only to realize their responses had been cut short—were steps taken to address the flaw. During the finals months of 2010, the site finally added a warning box, urging students to print preview before submitting.

Nonetheless, this issue created a host of problems. First, the warning came too late for several applicants, who flooded admissions offices with nervous calls. Even for those who heeded the warning, the interface was a pain to deal with because even minor changes in the application could cause truncation and necessitated constant double checking. This problem did not only apply to the essay section but also to other sections of the Common App such as the “resume” and “awards” pages.

While the Common App should not be held at fault for the carelessness of students, it must still take ultimate responsibility for the sheer technical ineptitude of its product. According to the New York Times, the issue of “truncation” has dogged the Common App for the better part of a decade.

The flaws of the Common App are magnified when compared against the technical brilliance of the University of California (UC) application. Despite fielding significantly fewer applicants, the UC application received no complaints about unintended truncation. Strict character limits were imposed, and a warning box popped up preventing users from submitting applications unless they met the word requirements.

Beyond the major issue of truncation, the Common App also facilitated student stress with its timestamp system. When applications are submitted to the Common App, users are given a timestamp and a date that constitutes the official time of submission. However, the Common App runs exclusively on Eastern Standard Time (EST)—its member colleges do not.

Take, for example, a student submitting an application to Stanford University at 9:01 p.m. on Jan. 1, 2011. Since the university functions on Pacific Standard Time, the application is timely. However, on the Common Application, the student’s official timestamp would read: January 2, 2011 at 12:01 a.m. This is because the Common App is not reflective of the time zones of its individual member universities, and only displays EST.

Again, this situation created unnecessary stress for applicants. Admissions offices were flooded with calls about being late, and online forums such as College Confidential were inundated with horror stories. The situation was such that schools such as the University of Chicago issued reassurances that applications would be considered, even if submitted after the Common App deadline.

Unlike the issue of truncation, the timestamp problem ended up being largely inconsequential. Apart from the worries it created, most colleges were fairly lenient with regards to deadlines. Nonetheless, this unnecessary stress could—and quite frankly, should—have been avoided.
It is disappointing that a system designed to limit student stress has accomplished precisely the opposite of what it intended to do. Ironic would be an understatement to describe the situation.

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