Problems plague the Common App

Colleges, students stymied by errors in online system

Lily Geiger, 17, experienced problems when uploading her college application using the online Common Application shared by more than 500 colleges and universities.

Hiroko Masuike/New York Times

Lily Geiger, 17, experienced problems when uploading her college application using the online Common Application shared by more than 500 colleges and universities.

NEW YORK — With early admission deadlines looming for hundreds of thousands of students, the new version of the online Common Application shared by more than 500 colleges and universities has been plagued by numerous malfunctions, alarming students and parents and putting admissions offices weeks behind schedule.

“It’s been a nightmare,” said Jason C. Locke, associate vice provost for enrollment at Cornell University. “I’ve been a supporter of the Common App, but in this case, they’ve really fallen down.”


Colleges around the country have posted notices on their admissions websites, warning of potential problems in processing applications. Some Minnesota colleges have created an optional partial application.

The Georgia Institute of Technology has one of the earliest fall application deadlines, Oct. 15, but it was not able to start reviewing applications on a large scale until last week and has postponed the deadline for some supporting paperwork until Nov. 1.

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The problems have sown worry among students like Lily Geiger, a 12th-grader at the Rudolf Steiner School in New York. When she entered her essays into the application, what appeared on her computer screen was a garbled mess.

“I was completely freaked out,” she said. “I spent the whole weekend trying to fix it, and I kept thinking, what if I can’t fix everything by the deadline, or what if I missed something?”

For the nonprofit company, also called the Common Application, that creates the form, it has been a summer and fall of frantic repair work, cataloged on its website, and frequent mea culpas.


Rob Killion, the executive director, acknowledged a wide range of failings. But he said they were being fixed and that the number of applications was up more than 20 percent from last year, indicating students were navigating the system.

Problems became evident as soon as the application was released in August, including some confusing wording that was later changed. Students who thought they had finished the application found that it was incomplete because questions had been added after its release. As changes were made, some who had started their applications early found themselves locked out of the system.

A function that allows students to preview applications and print them sometimes just shows blank pages — a problem that may be linked to which Web browsers they use. And, as Geiger discovered, the system often does not properly format essays that are copied and pasted from another program.

When a user pays an application fee with a credit card, the system produces a “signature page,” where the cardholder’s name must be typed to confirm the charge.

But that page can take a day or more to show up, leading some users to try to pay multiple times.

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