Don't Freak Out: Ways Around, Over, and Through Common App Problems

Problems with the Common App have been big news, and applicants and parents all over the world are freaking out. We want to give you the same advice we're giving our clients: there is no reason to freak out.

The media are reporting that everyone (applicants, counselors, recommenders, and colleges) is encountering real and frustrating problems with the new Common App. Those reports are absolutely accurate, but Common App colleges KNOW that the problems reside with the Common App (not you), and they are not going to punish applicants for problems you did not cause and cannot fix. Colleges will respond to the Common App situation the same way they have responded to other situations (Hurricane Sandy in 2012, revolutions in the Mideast in 2010, University of California server crashes in 2009). They will do exactly what they have already done — extend deadlines or offer alternatives. 

That being said, you can save yourself a lot of unnecessary stress if you will follow our tips for navigating around, over, and through the problems with the Common App.

1. Get your applications DONE and SUBMITTED well before the submission deadlines.

Because we know that “things happen” (big things like the Common App problems and little things like applicants getting sick), we always advise that applicants complete and submit their applications well before the deadline, preferably 2 weeks before, but no later than 4 days before.

That way, even if you encounter problems, you will be able to solve them before the deadline. Want proof that this works? Applicants we are working with this year have successfully submitted early applications to Common App colleges.

2. Use the Common App's online help before you send a request to technical support for help.

The Common App has a lot of online help for you. They have instructions within the application, “help topics” on the right-hand side of each page, an online Applicant Help Center, a Facebook page, and a Twitter feed (@commonapp) that include notices of known issues and workarounds. Most of your questions can be answered and many of your problems can be solved if you make use of this online help.

Consult the online help before you fire off a request to technical support — you’ll get your solution faster, and you’ll reduce the volume of technical support requests, which in turn will enable them to respond more quickly to those people with questions that can’t be handled using the online help.

However, if these online help resources don’t resolve things for you, then by all means do send a request for help to technical support. You do that through the "Ask A Question" page in the Help Center. They will reply (although the reply time can be several days when big things go wrong, as was the case a week ago).

3. Stay in touch with and offer help to your school counselor and recommenders.

Some of the most significant issues with the Common App have been those encountered by school counselors and recommenders. Check in with your school counselor and recommenders to see if they have had any problems. If they have, ask them to explain the problems to you and see if there is any way you can help them (like show them how to use a different browser!). 

4. Give the colleges the time they need to do their work.

Once you, your school counselor, and your recommenders have submitted things to the Common App, the college has to download all that material from the Common App into their systems. That always takes a certain amount of time, but it is taking longer this year because the interface between the Common App and many colleges’ systems is buggy. The colleges and the Common App are figuring it out, and you can rest assured that the colleges WILL find a way to get your application materials, and they WILL read them. But every minute that the college has to spend talking to you or emailing you is a minute that the college can’t spend processing your application. So don’t call or email to check the status of your application until a FULL TWO WEEKS have passed from the time you submitted it. Likewise, don’t overburden an already stressed college admissions office by sending them a duplicate paper copy of your application materials. That just doubles their work unnecessarily.

5. Check your email and respond promptly if you get an email from a college.

Colleges are keeping applicants up-to-date through emails. So read them and do what they ask! (And check your spam folders to make sure none of them went there.)

6. Keep records.

Anytime you submit something to a college, you should keep a copy of what you submit (preferably both electronic and paper) and keep a copy of the documentation you receive that confirms you did indeed submit it. In the case of the Common App, you can download the PDF of your submitted application and save it outside the Common App. You can also take a screen shot of the Common App screen that shows you have a green checkmark and date indicating submission.

If you discover that the college has not received your application (#4) or you get an email requesting documentation of submission (#5), then you have the records you need to resolve the problem. If you can show that you did submit your application by the deadline, then the college will accept your application as having been timely submitted, even if they didn't get it by the deadline. 

7. Be as kind as possible to everyone involved, including yourself.

Kindness is not usually the first response in situations like these. Instead, tempers flare, meltdowns come, finger-pointing begins, and harsh words are exchanged. As understandable as that may be, kindness really is the better way.

The Common App 4.0 system is new; it has problems. Handling those problems relies on all the people involved finding solutions. Kindness yields solutions more easily, more quickly, and better than meanness does. Really. You won’t feel better if you are testy with someone in an admissions office or post a nasty-gram to some poor help desk person on the Common App’s Facebook page. However, you might feel better if you take yourself for a walk or a run. Likewise, no one on the Common App tech staff is going to more motivated or better equipped to figure out why Chrome won’t generate a preview of your application just because they are hammered on the front page of USA Today or maligned on blogs and social media. However, they might be more motivated or better equipped if they receive good information from Chrome users about the nature of their problems, a bit of time to work on it, and an encouraging word along the way.

That's our advice and reassurance based on our years of experience. We hope it helps.


About the Authors:

Alison Cooper Chisolm heads the college admissions consulting practice at Ivey Consulting. She came to private consulting after working in admissions for more than 10 years at three selective universities (Southern Methodist University, University of Chicago, and Dartmouth College).

Anna Ivey is the former Dean of Admissions at the University of Chicago Law School and founded Ivey Consulting to help college, law school, and MBA applicants navigate the admissions process and make smart choices about higher education.

You can find more college admissions tips in their book How to Prepare a Standout College Application (Wiley 2013), and follow them on Twitter and Facebook