Aug 2, 2013

The Common Application launches with a Whimper

Yesterday’s launch of the new Common Application, referred to in its development stage as CA4, offered a classic lesson in bad public relations.

Instead of taking a more modest approach, officials at the Common Application (CA) spent the past months hyping a product that wasn’t quite ready for prime time.

“After 2 years of anticipation, CA4 is now…(drumroll)…The Common Application,” trumpeted the CA Facebook page at midnight on August 1.  “Make yourself at home.”

The tireless Common App promoters promised much but delivered somewhat less. 

And complaints could be heard from across the world as literally thousands of applicants and others simultaneously logged in at midnight on August 1.

“The Common App is so slow that I’ll get wrinkles waiting for a response!” grumbled a counselor trying to work with the new form.

“System crashed at 1:05 [a.m.] and has not come back on,” complained another.

When I restarted Common App and reviewed my personal statement, I realized that some of my words had gotten lost, despite cutting and pasting them in, and similarly for the paragraphing. Tabs also seemed to be problematic. So I deleted my essay and recopied it again -- and POOF! Up in smoke: the error message appeared!” commented another. 

Wait till you see the ungodly small size of the area into which you type your personal statement! And you need to know in advance how many more times you plan to take the SAT or ACT.”

“I can’t find any way to do a print preview,” added a counselor concerned that the whole thing would crash and lose unsaved information.

Others found that various browsers and operating systems either slowed down or totally jammed the Common Application software.

It was an inauspicious start for a much ballyhooed improvement to an electronic application system depended on by hundreds of thousands of college applicants both here and abroad.

The fact that new technology has bugs isn’t surprising to anyone who works with programmers and software development.  It happens.

And the fact that the Common Application is buggy is equally unsurprising, as much of its multi-million dollar development was cloaked in secrecy with only a few insiders gaining the privilege of early access to the workings of the new technology.

“We haven’t heard much from the Common Application,” confessed one anxious admissions dean about two weeks before launch. “I’m not sleeping at night.”

Clues that everything wasn’t going exactly to plan began to appear about a week before the August 1st launch.

A newsletter notice appeared warning, “Completion and submission of individual school forms will roll out on August 19. We hope this brief delay--though unexpected--will give you a bit of breathing room...”  
The delay wasn’t particularly alarming as most counselors are more concerned with schedules than recommendations during the first weeks of schools.  Nevertheless, speculation percolated through the industry that maybe the uncomfortable marriage with Naviance was producing problems on the recommendation side.

Then two days before launch, a notice showed up on Facebook stating, “To make sure their individual Questions and Writing Supplements work as they should, we're providing additional testing time for any college that needs it…College pages that are still in testing will display a message requesting students to check back later. Thank you in advance for your patience as we help our member colleges to put the finishing touches on their good work.  No fault here on the part of the Common Application, only the colleges that were slow to get their acts together.

But this resulted in a flurry of communications among counselors and others concerned that something truly was not right with the new Common Application.

And more alarming than the curious Facebook warning was feedback from Common App colleges during the weeks immediately preceding launch.

Conversations with admissions staff over the past month indicated little knowledge of how the new software would work and what their role should be in providing information to the Common App.

When queried about Writing Supplement requirements, more than one dean simply shrugged and said, “I’m leaving that to my IT people.”

And the Common Application steadfastly refused to ask for help or deal in a community of advisors who would have gladly assisted in beta testing or vetting language for the new application.

They also ignored what would have been a powerful base of support from within various communities of experts who would be logically invested in their success, including the Higher Education Consultants Association (HECA) and the Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA).

And the whole thing exploded on August 1, in a volley of criticism with frustrated applicants unable to find the login page ( as of this writing periodically produces a warning page) and counselors, who might have known better, dealing with tightly scheduled appointments to go over new technology that dragged and hiccupped its way through its first 24 hours online.

Working in damage control mode, Common App eventually posted requests for patience as technical staff fought through a series of problems causing crashes and upset.

The day ended with a few self-congratulatory messages and votes of support for the troubled new software, which most agree should represent a significant improvement over the old—provided that problems are resolved.

On a side note, not much has been heard from the Common Application membership as they process what all this means for them, especially those that proposes to use information from the member pages and writing supplements to complete their reviews of applicants.

Hopefully colleges will update their websites and make their requirements extremely clear on webpages dedicated to admissions—if for no other reason but that we have no idea how long these kinds problems will persist.
And at a minimum, this experience should have taught officials at the Common App a little about managing expectations.  It’s far far better to understate and have your audience pleasantly surprised.

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