Oct 8, 2013

8 Tips for Improving the Common Application ‘Experience’

It’s hard not to be frustrated by the ongoing software problems experienced by applicants forced to use the slightly buggy and somewhat unpredictable “new” Common Application.   

And it’s annoying to have colleges, students, recommenders, and counselors used as “beta” testers for software that should have been largely ready to go before being introduced to the market.

But that’s water over the dam.  For now, we have to play the cards we were dealt and come up with constructive ways to work around problems as they are uncovered.

While Common App software developers continue to eradicate bugs (and bless them for tirelessly working to address problems), here are eight simple tips for improving the Common Application ‘experience':

Avoid traffic jams. 
Try to work on your Common Application during less congested hours.  After-school and Sunday afternoons are the Common Application equivalent of rush hour.  The software grinds to a crawl and Print Previews are slow to emerge.  More importantly, the software sometimes experiences mini-crashes as it tries to deal with heavy loads of applicants.  Whatever you do, avoid the 24 hours immediately preceding major due dates (October 15, November 1, November 15, for early admission applications).

Conform to system requirements
The Common Application is very specific about system requirements, which are found in a nondescript, easy-to-miss link at the bottom of each page of the application website.  Most applicants have found that Firefox and Chrome work well, although problems have recently been reported because of changes in Chrome, which seem to affect some recommenders.  Your first line of attack for any recurring problems should be to restart your computer.  The second would be to review your system and change browsers if necessary.

Don’t touch the text boxes
Editing your personal statement from within the tiny little text box dedicated to this purpose is a very bad idea.  Your Word document should be prepared using a recognizable typeface (nothing fancy).  It should be single-spaced, double-space between paragraphs (two hard returns), and with no indents.  Any formatting (italics, bold, underline only) should be done on the document and not in the box.  Once you are satisfied with the document, then copy-and-paste it into the box.  Yes, it may look funny and a warning may appear.  Simply hit continue and work toward producing a Print Preview.

Invite your recommenders
Most Common App colleges either require or allow for you to have a number of recommendations submitted on your behalf.  Once you have agreed to the FERPA waiver, you will be prompted to enter information on your school counselor as well as any teachers or “others” who have agreed to write recommendations.  You can save yourself grief by asking your recommenders in advance if they will be submitting electronically or by paper.  If they indicate that they will be submitting by paper (and given all the problems recommenders have been experiencing, this is not a bad idea), enter only names and titles and NOT email addresses into the spaces provided.  You will then be provided with personalized offline forms you can download and hand to your counselor and/or recommenders (don’t forget stamped, addressed envelopes to go along with).  If you enter an email address, your recommender will have to respond and this can produce problems for you and for them (not always but sometimes).  Note that some problems with the Early Decision Agreements can be avoided if your counselor is submitting by paper, but you have to remember to print out the agreement, sign it, have your parent sign it, and deliver it to your school counselor for signature.  Note: If your school uses Naviance, you will not be able to assign recommendations using the Common App. All recommendations are being assigned through Naviance.

Carefully review Print Preview
The Print Preview is regrettably located toward the end of the process.  You must earn all your green checks before a button will appear allowing you to generate the preview.  This is where you can see how well your essay has survived the text box and if any of your information has been deleted from the application.  If information is mysteriously missing (problems have been reported in the “Activities” and the “Current Year Courses” sections) or if your essay doesn’t look right, go back and delete your previous entries and try reentering the essay or data.  If problems persist, restart your computer, check your system and change browsers if necessary.  If that doesn’t work, contact the Common Application Help Desk. Hint:  Print out and date your Print Preview just before submitting so that you have a hardcopy record of the document—just in case!

Do not pay twice
This is a known problem, and if you’ve already made the mistake of entering credit card information two times—you’re not alone and the Common App promises to arrange for refunds.  To avoid the issue, simply don’t pay twice.  Sometimes entering credit card information and receiving a receipt of payment will not uncover the “signature” page.  If you are not immediately directed to sign your application, be patient.  The Common App sternly warns that it may take 24 to 48 hours for a card to clear their system.  After a reasonable amount of time, return to the application and try to continue to the signature page. Do not wait a week. After 48 hours, go to the Help Desk, as this problem sometimes requires a little hands-on attention to unravel.

Sign your application
Your application is NOT submitted until you have typed your name into the signature space.  Because of the payment problem outlined above, it may not be evident that this is the next step in the process.  But it is and you must complete the process.  There is great fear among those of us working with students that because there are no reminders for this very important step, applicants will mistakenly think they are finished once the credit card goes through.  Please do not neglect to sign your application.  It will be obvious that this is something you have to do after you have done it the first time.  Once you have completed submission, a green check should appear.  If you are uncertain for any reason, send an email to the admissions office to make sure the application has been received.  They know there are problems with the Common Application and won’t think poorly of you for asking—really.

Don’t forget the Writing Supplement
Not every college has a Writing Supplement, but for those that do, this is an important element of your application.  And in some cases it takes answering college-specific questions in the “shared” part of the Common Application to uncover “stealth” essays.  Once you have paid, signed, submitted, and received your green check, you are free to submit part 2 of the application which is the Writing Supplement.  These are a bit quirky, so be sure to allow lots of time to complete them, particularly as colleges traditionally love this part of the application.  Once again, be sure to generate and print a Print Preview before hitting the submit button—just in case.

You can keep up with changes in the Common Application as well as efforts to address problems on Facebook, Twitter, or by subscribing to updates from the software development team.  And even though they are a little slow, the folks manning the Help Desk are now available 24-hours per day.

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