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Common Application’s Leaders Get an Earful

Toronto — The Common Application has become the big bus of college admissions: Everyone’s hopping aboard. But right now the bus is running late, and nobody’s happy about it.

On Thursday morning I attended the Common Application’s membership meeting here at the National Association for College Admission Counseling’s annual conference. During the 90-minute gathering, several admissions officers described their frustration with the nonprofit organization that oversees the online application, used by more than 500 colleges.

For weeks, technical difficulties have prevented many institutions from processing the applications they have received through the Common Application. Further delays, some deans said, would keep their staffs from getting decisions back to applicants on time.

Some background: An overhauled Common Application, years in the making, went live on August 1. The new platform, built to handle an ever-increasing volume of applications from around the world, included various enhancements, many of which college counselors and admissions officers liked. Within the first 20 minutes, 1,000 students in a dozen countries had registered, and within six weeks, nearly 600,000 students had created profiles.

While applicants were typing away, however, an array of problems emerged. In short, some components of the new Common Application didn’t get up and running all at once. As of late August, some institutions, including the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, still did not have live supplements, which include additional questions and essay prompts. Without completing those supplements, an applicant can’t submit an application to a given college.

At Thursday’s session, admissions officers described another problem: The inability to import all the data they receive via the Common Application into their own information systems, so they can start reviewing applications. ”They’re coming in,” said one dean, “but we can’t get to them.” Another dean said his technology staff had offered a diagnosis: “It was a botched implementation.”

My understanding of the complex issue: The construction of the massive new platform got behind schedule, colleges had little or no time to test it before applications started rolling in, and larger-than-anticipated problems arose when colleges tried to get the Common Application’s system to “talk” to their own student-information templates. Solutions to those problems are still being hammered out.

On Thursday, Rob Killion, the Common Application’s executive director, acknowledged members’ concerns. Delays in the development process, he said, had “big ripple effects down the road.” The organization should have relayed those problems to member colleges more quickly, he said: “We fell down on communication in many respects.” Mr. Killion vowed that the organization would resolve the problems so that all member colleges, even those with November 1 deadlines, would be able to process all of their applications on time.

That message didn’t seem to convince some people in the audience. One dean complained that she had waited more than two months for Common Application officials to answer her questions about the technical problems her office had experienced. “This goes beyond substandard communication,” she said. “The core issue, at least in my opinion, is responsiveness.”

Clark Brigger, senior associate director for undergraduate admissions at Michigan, used a vehicular metaphor. The new Common Application “purported to have a great engine, it looked good on the outside,” he said. “It rolled off the assembly line without the wheels, and didn’t even have the axles to put the wheels on.”

If nothing else, this saga reveals just how much colleges have come to depend on those wheels.

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