Common App Responds to Glitches with "Statement of Commitment"


Since its eagerly anticipated "CA4" relaunch in August, the Common Application, an online application service used by more than 400 colleges and universities, has gotten off to a rocky start. Student applicants and member institutions have reported problems with logging in to the system and processing fees, as well as uploading and receiving transcripts, essays, letters of recommendation, and other documents vital to the admissions process.

The Common App has been responding to the myriad errors and complaints on its website and Twitter feed, but has not been able to eliminate the frustration and panic felt by many students facing early application deadlines.

Some schools, including Northwestern and Columbia, have extended their Early Decision and Early Action deadlines in response to the Common App's technical glitches. Other schools such as Penn, have chosen to hold fast to their November 1 deadlines, offering to address student issues on an individual level.

What to Do if You're Having Common App Problems

  • Check the Common App's System Requirements to make sure your browser and browser settings are compatible
  • Students applying Early Decision should check the appropriate admissions websites or contact their admissions offices about possible deadline extensions
  • Students applying regular decision may consider waiting to submit their applications until the Common App corrects its problems. Regular application deadlines are typically in January or later, giving students some breathing room

The Common App's Statement of Commitment

Last Friday, October 18, the Common Application emailed a lengthy Statement of Commitment to counselors via its School Officials Mailing List (you can subscribe to the list here). The message candidly and effectively addresses the issues faced by many school officials and students, so we're posting the email below in its entirety:

The last few days have comprised the most difficult period in The Common Application's nearly 40 years of service to the education community. You have no doubt read news stories and social media conversations about the challenges facing applicants, recommenders, and member colleges.  As an organization, we have been too slow to respond. That ends today. We have written this communication to highlight three core values of our mission, explain how we have fallen short in realizing them, and provide details about how we pledge to do better.

Reliability. For many users, the new Common Application has not been a reliable service. We have tried to be transparent in other communications regarding the various issues users have experienced since the August 1 launch. Many have been solved for all users, and others have been solved for most users. Nonetheless, individual applicants and recommenders are still encountering problems related to account logins, application submission, and document uploads. In some instances, our support team can easily solve these problems for users who contact us through the Help Center. In others, we continue to research patterns among the individuals affected to ascertain where the root cause lies. Further details about support volume and response efforts appear below. 

Beginning next week, we will be using our School Officials newsletter list to send daily updates to the counseling community, and we encourage you to subscribe if you have not already done so. Counselors, we ask for your help in sharing these updates with your students and families. As much as we would like to communicate this same information directly to applicants, messaging 800,000 registered users would create too big a strain on the system, exacerbating the very problems we are trying to solve.

Our member colleges have faced similar disruptions in reliability, which have adversely impacted their internal processes. Members rely on us for the transmission of the documents and data needed to evaluate candidates, and each college has its own unique process and needs. We are in constant communication with these colleges to ensure they are prepared to receive and process applications and school forms, and we are confident that members will be able to do so successfully as major deadlines approach. To help you understand the complete landscape, we want to reinforce the following points:

  • Students are successfully submitting applications in record numbers.
  • Counselors and teachers using the Common App Recommender System are successfully submitting all school forms.
  • Counselors and teachers using Naviance are successfully submitting School Reports, Teacher Evaluations, and Early Decision Agreements. Implementation of Fee Waiver forms and Optional Reports is imminent for this group.
  • Final integration for Parchment users is imminent.
  • All member colleges have access to every single application document that has been submitted to them, though some are not yet able to import application data into their internal information systems, which is a critical processing step.

By highlighting these successful processes, we do not wish to minimize the challenges and frustrations of individual users and colleges, nor do we wish to paint a picture of a flawless system. Rather, we hope to convey in a responsible manner how the Common Application is functioning for the majority of users.

Service. Our online Help Center for applicants and recommenders has been operating 24/7 since October 1. Historically, our average response time has been well under one hour. In the past few weeks, our response time for many users has exceeded this average by an unacceptable level. This increase is due to the complexity of some of the issues mentioned above. The time-intensive research required to investigate certain payment and login problems has created a backlog that has extended to all users seeking assistance.

In the past 48 hours, we have released fixes that have resolved two of our most complex issues involving payment and the Chrome browser. The payment problem required intense collaboration with our third-party vendor.  The browser challenges, which resulted from the unexpected release of a new version, prompted immediate collaboration with Chrome support. The solutions we implemented to address these issues resulted in a steep and immediate decline in new support requests. From Tuesday to Wednesday, applicant requests declined 73%, and recommender requests declined 43%. Also, prior to the payment fix, we were researching and reconciling thousands of payment records on a daily basis. On Thursday, that number was 6. This significant progress will assist us in addressing the backlog and return us to a more normal response time.

Many applicants, parents, counselors, and teachers continue to call for phone support, and we understand why. Speaking directly to a support representative is an assurance that one's problems and frustrations are being heard and addressed. Unfortunately, given the volume of users who interact with our system, phone support would immediately become unsustainable. In addition, the system information that is transmitted when a user submits a request through our Help Center is often critical in helping us identify and solve the problem.

We assure you that every message submitted through our Help Center is evaluated by an individual member of our support team. These professionals work diligently to provide the most accurate and efficient assistance possible. There are times when the complexity of issues prevents them from responding as quickly as they or you would like, but they strive to provide the timeliest responses possible.

Accuracy is also a central component of service. To that end, our member services team will work closely with any colleges who wish to adjust their deadlines to ensure that the new dates are reflected within our system.

Integrity. If we lose sight of this value, the others cease to matter. Despite all the challenges we have faced, we have not forgotten the principles that guide us, even as we have struggled to attain them. We are unshakably committed to the mission of this association, and we pledge transparency and diligence as we work to fulfill it. 

Many of you have grown weary of our continued pleas for patience and our assurances that we are working as quickly as we can to resolve outstanding issues. Your requests for precise timelines are understandable, and we would provide such details if we could. To do so, however, would be to make commitments that we might not be able to honor. With that in mind, we pledge to communicate as openly as possible regarding the challenges we face and our progress in addressing them. Moving forward, should we observe a widespread problem, we will inform you immediately using social media, even if the only information we can provide is an acknowledgement of the issue and a promise to share updates as they become available. For those of you who do not regularly follow social media, you can view our live Facebook and Twitter feeds directly on our website.

All of us who work with and for The Common Application--from the Board of Directors to the staff to our technology partners at Hobsons--understand the significance of this moment, both for the college application process and for the reputation of the association itself. To those of you who have offered words of support and encouragement, we thank you. To those of you who have lost faith in our ability to adequately meet the needs of you and your students, we understand. We need to regain your trust, and we know that the burden is on us to make that happen. We are confident that we will.

Aba Blankson, Director of Communications

The Common Application, Inc.

Posted on October 21, 2013 and filed under College Application.