Sep 22, 2013

The Common App Fesses Up

TORONTO—In the most highly-anticipated Saturday session of the 2013 National Association of College Admissions Counseling (NACAC) annual convention, officials from the beleaguered Common Application faced down a standing-room-only crowd of school and independent counselors, college deans, and assorted others with vested interest in the college admissions industry.

With a few apologies for a product launch that fell well short of industry expectations, Common Application executive director Rob Killion, senior director for policy Scott Anderson, and board president Thyra Briggs staunchly defended their product as “extraordinary” while conceding that “we know we can do better” when looking back on the problems and miscommunications that have plagued the new software for the past eight weeks.

“People are using the system in ways we did not anticipate,” explained Anderson.  “We’re moving forward to have fixes released on a regular basis for issues we have identified as well as those issues that have yet to be identified.”

And preparations are being made with ongoing tests to see how well the new software will react in “peak periods,” with a 24/7 support staff available for applicants and recommenders starting October 1.

In her defense of the new application, Thyra Briggs, also Harvey Mudd’s vice president for admission and financial aid, made clear her view that the CA4 is an “amazing system” which will allow students “to present themselves in as strong a way as possible” using a form and format reflective of input provided by a board of directors composed of nine admissions deans and four school-based counselors three of whom serve high schools enrolling under 600 students.

“There is nothing we are more excited about than the design and implementation of the new application,” added Ms. Briggs.

But according to Anderson, development delays early in the process resulted in a "ripple effect" that delayed the integration of key components into the system such as Writing Supplements and the Naviance connection, none of which were disclosed until several days after launch.

While ten colleges still don’t have Writing Supplements available, Naviance is now testing the counselor recommendation system and hopes to have it available by the end of the week.  No specific date, however, was provided for the teacher recommendation component to be up and running for Naviance users.

On the college side, key components of the system were provided last week to member colleges which should enable admissions offices to access data and completed applications in the near future—hopefully by October 1.  For now, thousands of completed applications remain submitted and exist somewhere in the cybersphere, but are currently unavailable to colleges for downloading or reading online.

As for “beta testing” of the new software prior to launch, the NACAC audience was assured that colleges, a technical review subcommittee, and the Common App board were very involved throughout the process in both design and development of the new application.  

In addition, a focus group of high school students was assembled for developers to see how applicants worked with the previous version of the Common Application.

And once the application went live, developers were confounded by the fact that students took an “idiosyncratic path” through the application and effectively gummed up key components of the system.

But according to Anderson, the launch of the new Common Application has been a "learning curve for all."  

"If you read blogs, you would think nothing is working," Anderson commented.  And he went on to assure the audience that "was not the case."

This is Part One of a three-part series.

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