LENOX -- Add another techno-nightmare to the list of frustrating mega-glitches plaguing the nation this Halloween season.
The Common Application, an online system widely used by more than 500 colleges and universities, is turning out to be a major stress producer for already-harried high school seniors. After 35 years as a helpful tool enabling students to apply to multiple campuses, the Common App website underwent a reboot this year.
Result: A promised technical upgrade has turned into what some admissions officers have dubbed an "Application Armageddon."
In response to an avalanche of complaints, the nonprofit College Application company based in Arlington, Va., issued a statement by Scott Anderson, senior director of policy: "We did test the system. But what we couldn’t test was tens of thousands of people hitting the system at the same time using multiple kinds of browsers."
According to Anderson, "many, many students have been able to submit just fine. But for those who can’t, it’s maddening. It’s frustrating. We are apologetic and regretful that they find themselves in this position."
Sound familiar? Seems similar to the snafu that has bedeviled folks trying to enroll for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act as well as the thousands who were caught in the snare of a flawed new system for handling unemployment-benefit applications in Massachusetts and California.
Some students using the Common App report it’s impossible to log in, others are logged off in the midst of the applications process while attached transcripts and other supporting documents disappear en route to the college admissions departments.
Required personal essays arrived without spaces, paragraphs or indentations because of format problems.
According to NPR, many frustrated applicants are venting their fury on Twitter. Samples: "I’m freaking out, the common app isn’t working;" "The common app is kind of the worst thing ever;" "The common app is broken ... so we’re all just not gonna go to college, OK?"
Some campuses have responded by extending deadlines and promising not to hold the glitches against applicants.
Columbia University, announcing a deadline reprieve, posted on its website: "We hope this announcement helps to relieve some of the stress and anxiety you might be feeling as the application deadline approaches."
With a Nov. 1 deadline looming -- now Nov. 15 for some schools -- high anxiety is being expressed by many seniors.
Fortunately, the Common App worked for the more than 100,000 students who have filed documents to an average of three campuses each so far. Anderson predicts more than 800,000 will navigate the site successfully by the end of the admissions cycle -- 10 percent more than last year’s total.
But that’s small comfort to those who have encountered frozen screens, have been billed several times for one application, or can’t even access their accounts. Guidance counselors also have reported numerous difficulties.
Some campuses have responded by agreeing to accept documents the old-fashioned way, on paper and by fax. Others are turning to a competing system, the Universal College Application.
The Common App’s season of discontent may soon fade as bugs are fixed. But the plethora of technical breakdowns experienced by too many Americans in recent weeks should offer some lessons for the future.
Before a new web-based system is rolled out to hundreds of thousands or millions of users, it must undergo rigorous testing under authentic, real-time conditions.
The Affordable Care Act web portal was built to handle about 60,000 users at one time. Instead, millions logged on during opening day on Oct. 1. This should have been anticipated.
Inevitably, we live in an age ruled by technology with its attendant glitch risks. But that doesn’t mean we should have to endure panic attacks when applying to college or seeking health insurance.
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