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Colleges offer application alternatives amid ‘Common App’ bugs

With the U.S. college application season in full swing, some universities are informing panicked high school seniors about alternate ways to apply as technical issues affect a system used by more than 500 institutions.

Glitches in the Common Application propelled Princeton University to offer the Universal College Application. Southern Methodist University emailed thousands of potential applicants about its own online form and another through a group of Texas schools. Gustavus Adolphus College is informing visitors that the Minnesota school has an online tool.

Students and colleges alike have experienced problems using the Common Application, with only weeks before the deadline for early applicants. The website, which lets students apply to multiple colleges with one form, rolled out new software Aug. 1. The site has been down at various points and students may not know whether their materials are being received. Colleges’ reliance on one application company has exposed a flaw, said Jeff McLaughlin, dean of admissions at St. Olaf College.

“We do not have a strong Plan B,” McLaughlin said in an interview from the Northfield, Minn.-based school. “That’s not good planning on our part. We had gotten complacent because there had not been problems with the Common Application” in the past, he said.

St. Olaf has been encouraging students to fill out Part One of the application on the school’s website so it can at least communicate with them, even though they must still use the Common Application.

“We’re not in a competitive position that lets me sleep well at night,” McLaughlin said.

The Common Application, a nonprofit membership organization based in Arlington, Va., has existed for more than 35 years. In the 2012-2013 school year, 723,576 applications were submitted, an increase of 75 percent from the 2008-2009 year, according to its website. Last year, almost 300,000 teachers submitted online recommendations.

The company has posted updates on social media, including Twitter and Facebook, saying it is investigating the glitches. In a statement Tuesday, it said the most frequently reported problems involved errors when attempting to log in, credit card payments that take a day or more to register and the resulting delay in submitting an application.

“None of these issues impacts all users, but each introduces a level of frustration for students, which adds anxiety to an already stressful process,” the company said. “These issues also have the potential to impact processes and deadlines for our member colleges, and we are especially appreciative of colleges that have taken steps to reassure students and parents.”

Colleges are looking for solutions. Princeton added the second application portal to offer another option to students, said Martin Mbugua, a spokesman for the Ivy League school in New Jersey.

“It became necessary because the students and secondary schools have been facing challenges with the system, and we needed a functional online application,” he said in an email.

Students visiting Gustavus Adolphus in St. Peter, Minn., are being told they have another option, said Richard Aune, dean of admissions. The school has rolling, early admissions, and students don’t have to commit until May.

“If you want to hear before Jan. 1, it would behoove you to use our application,” Aune said in an interview. The school last year received about 4,900 requests for admission.

Southern Methodist in Dallas emailed more than 37,000 students to say they can opt to use the school’s application, Wes Waggoner, dean of undergraduate admission, said in an interview. About half of last year’s 14,000 applications came from either the Texas application portal or the school’s website.

Rebecca Joseph, an associate professor of education at California State University in Los Angeles, who helps low-income students apply to college and counsels students privately, said she’s had clients use schools’ own websites, including SMU and Wake Forest University in North Carolina.

“You can’t tell a 17-year-old whose future is riding on this to be patient,” Joseph said. “That’s why they are taking another route. It’s affecting parents, kids, high schools and colleges all at the same time.”

Colleges are also posting information to let applicants know of difficulties they are having on the receiving end.

Chapman University in Orange, Calif., is telling applicants that because of processing delays with the Common Application, the admissions office is taking longer than usual, sometimes several weeks, to update students about the status of their application.

“Please be assured that Chapman is aware of these issues and we will work with you to make sure your application materials are received and evaluated appropriately,” the school said on its website.

Some colleges with Oct. 15 deadlines for early applications have extended them, including University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Georgia Tech University, according to their websites. Students who apply early typically hear whether they have been accepted before the end of the year. The regular decision application deadline for many schools is Jan. 1.

Max Duff, 17, of Louisville, Ky., hadn’t been able to submit an application from a print preview screen to Georgia Tech and feared missing the deadline before the announced postponement.

He finally succeeded at 6:45 a.m. Monday.

“It made me a little anxious,” said Duff, who plays basketball and wants to study electrical engineering or computer science. He said he feels for the technicians at the Common App. “They are trying to deal with it the best they can.”

Christoph Guttentag, Duke University’s dean of undergraduate admissions, said while the process of applying will be more difficult than in years past, he’s confident the problems will be fixed.

“In the end, it will all work out,” Gutttentag said.

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