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Common Application Revs Up Again

The 2014-15 Common Application will go live at 8 a.m. on Friday, which means this nation of eager-beaver college applicants can start their apps before breakfast. As many as 50,000 high-school students are expected to create accounts over the next few days.

Following  a difficult cycle for the Common App, admissions officers and college counselors will be watching the online system closely over the coming months. Last year a series of technical problems complicated the admissions process for applicants, high schools, and colleges. The glitches caused coast-to-coast frustrations, and some members expressed concerns about the direction of the organization that runs the online system.

Later the Common Application’s Board of Directors hired a consulting firm to review the organization’s structure and technology. The plan for rolling out the Common Application’s new platform last summer, the consultants concluded, was “not realistic in scope or timing,” leaving too little time for colleges to test the system.

The consultants recommended that the Common Application review its mission and pricing strategies, as well as the composition of its board, which consists of admissions officials and college counselors—but no technology experts. A summary of the firm’s findings described a “long-running tension” within the Common Application, which is both a nonprofit membership organization and a global technology provider that generates a ton of revenue.

I was reminded of that duality on Thursday, when I spoke with Paul Mott, the Common Application’s interim chief executive officer. He described the Common App as “a tech company” but also as an “organization with a mission” (promoting college access).

Mr. Mott, a former college counselor who has also worked in admissions, said the organization was following through on many of the consultants’ recommendations. One: improving how it solicits feedback from members. ”Previously, we  had no formal way for them to participate,” he said.

Recently, the Common Application held a gathering for senior-level admissions officials, who were asked to weigh in on various questions about technology, pricing, and services they would like to see. The organization sought input from high-school students about the “My Colleges” screen, which indicates an applicant’s progress for each college to which they are applying (their responses informed some changes users will see on the screen this year).

Mr. Mott expressed confidence in the system that an estimated 800,000 students will use to send 3.5 million applications this year. The 2014-15 Common App, he said, includes many back-end changes that will improve the system’s reliability. Those include an enhanced PDF-generation process and updated integration with Higher One, a payment vendor.

“This is a seminal ritual, a rite of passage,” he said of the application process. “We don’t just want to be a reliable service. We want to be truly outstanding.”

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