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As Common App Announces Fixes, Admissions Offices Preach Calm

The Common Application announced on Thursday that it had fixed two of the major technical glitches that college applicants encountered this week.

One fix pertained to delays in receiving payment confirmations. “If you have been charged more than once for a single application fee,” a message from the Common Application said, “we have this information from our payment vendor, and we are in the process of issuing refunds.”

Another fix apparently resolved problems some users ran into when using a Chrome browser. The Common Application, the nonprofit organization that runs the online application of the same name, said it was still working to solve other problems, which initially cropped up over the summer.

The announcement calmed everyone down, right? Well, not quite.

Most news articles about college admissions contain one or more of the following key words: anxiety, stress, panic, frenzy. This week each of those terms got a workout as a slew of reporters wrote articles (like this one, by me) about the Common Application’s continuing technical problems, which have prevented some students from sending applications, college counselors from submitting transcripts and recommendations, and admissions officers from receiving all of the above.

As the week rolled on, though, I’ve heard from many people at high schools and colleges who want students to relax, breathe, and, in the case of one student in Connecticut, just stop crying.

As Jeannine C. Lalonde, senior assistant dean of admissions at the University of Virginia, tweeted on Wednesday, “Admissions folks are pretty understanding around deadline time.” As an example, she cited the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, when many colleges gave students affected by the storm more time to submit their applications.

Throughout the land, admissions offices are telling students that this, too, shall pass. “We want to assure students that these technical difficulties will in no way affect our comprehensive review of applications,” said a message on the Web page of Boston College’s admissions office. “If we need to extend our deadline, we would adjust our timetable for evaluating applications, and we would communicate decisions in a timely manner. Your application will receive the thoughtful consideration it deserves.”

That’s what colleges are supposed to say, of course. Admissions has a public-relations dimension, and sometimes that means reassuring the public that your process is sound. Even if you are, in fact, deeply frustrated by continuing technical problems, a description that fits many of the admissions officers I interviewed this week.

Still, nobody’s calling this the end of the world, at least not yet. Instead, colleges are adjusting their plans on the fly.

Several institutions have pushed back application deadlines. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the Georgia Institute of Technology, for instance, extended their early-action deadlines—originally October 15—to October 21. Columbia and Northwestern Universities extended their November 1 early-decision deadlines by a week, and the University of Chicago did the same for its early-action deadline.

Several colleges are allowing students to e-mail copies of essays if they have experienced formatting problems on the Common Application (just to make things interesting, some colleges want students to send the essays as attachments, but others want the essays cut-and-pasted into messages). Duke University, Beloit College, and several other institutions have told counselors they could mail paper copies of applicants’ transcripts and recommendations instead of uploading them.

Karin W. Mormando, director of admissions at Temple University, said her staff had been staying late to help process—by hand—the 50 or so applications that arrive each day.

At Temple, as at many colleges, the Common Application hasn’t been automatically uploading all applications into the admissions office’s information system. So Ms. Mormando’s colleagues have gone back to the 20th century: Each day, they print out the applications. Then, she said, “we do old-school data entry,” so that everything gets into the system.

The task is time consuming, and her office is a day and a half behind schedule. “What this has forced us to do is be very flexible, so we’re able to process apps and respond to students in a timely way, Ms. Mormando said. “For us, it’s just about keeping parents and students calm.”

Next week Temple plans to announce whether it will push back its November 1 early-action deadline. Ms. Mormando has wondered whether a lot of applicants at the beginning of the month might cause the Common Application to crash, as it did earlier this week. Either way, she said, “we’ll just make it work.”

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