More Angst For College Applicants: A Glitchy Common App Applying to college is stressful at the best of times. But technical flaws in the online Common Application, used by hundreds of colleges, have sparked panic among some high school seniors. With deadlines approaching, some schools are making backup plans — like a return to mail or even faxed applications.

More Angst For College Applicants: A Glitchy Common App

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


For many high school students, the college admissions process is stressful enough, balancing school work with looming application deadlines. But this year has brought an added layer of worry. The Common Application, used by hundreds of colleges and universities across the U.S., has been overwhelmed by serious technical problems.

As NPR's Eric Westervelt reports, kids and their parents are on edge and several schools are already extending early deadlines.

ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: The Common Application has long made the application process easier for students and schools. With one common form, students can apply to dozens of schools at once. But the number of schools using the form has grown a lot over the last decade. It's now accepted by more than 500 colleges and universities.

The nonprofit company that runs the form, also called Common Application, had touted a major upgrade of software and applications as a way to streamline the process even more. Instead, the digital makeover has been a big bust and a big mess for many students and officials in higher education.

Lisa Meyer is dean for enrollment at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Ore.

LISA MEYER: There have been issues with being able to import the application itself, with receiving the supplemental materials like the transcripts or letters of recommendations, those kinds of things.

WESTERVELT: Those are big things, Lisa.

MEYER: Those are very big things. It's very hard to read an application when you don't have a transcript to look at, hard to make a decision. So I think the colleges have been scrambling a bit.

WESTERVELT: Other serious technical problems with the Common Application include payments that take days to register. Other students complain they simply couldn't log in, while others were repeatedly logged off for inactivity after waiting hours and hours to submit their applications. Then there's the personal essay, a key part of the admissions process. A formatting glitch left many students' essays looking like a giant stream of consciousness blur with no spaces, paragraphs or indentations.

FREYA JAMES: No one likes applying to college anyway, and this is supposed to help and it's made it worse.

WESTERVELT: Seventeen-year-old Freya James is a high school senior in Atlanta applying to five schools, all early admissions. She says the Common App has been a nightmare.

JAMES: It's been stressful, to be honest 'cause I have spent a good number of hours just sitting there refreshing the page, doing nothing terribly productive except for trying to get this thing to work. And to be honest, it's not useful, it's not doing what it's meant to do.

WESTERVELT: Many other high schoolers ranted against the Common App on Twitter. Some of the kinder comments: "I'm freaking out, the common app isn't working." Another said, "The common app is kind of the worst thing ever." A third posted, "The common app is broken so we're all just not going to go to college, OK?"

Irena Smith, a college admissions consultant based in the San Francisco Bay area, says the problems are adding more stress for her student clients.

IRENA SMITH: It's starting to look like application Armageddon.

WESTERVELT: A growing list of colleges and universities is now rolling back early admissions deadlines. Schools are trying to reassure students that they won't be penalized for technical failures of the Common Application. In a statement, the company says it's "committed to resolving these issues promptly," but the problems persist.

An admissions consultant told me, there is a teaching moment in all this, some teenagers prone to procrastination may now be prodded into getting their applications done early. Eric Westervelt, NPR News.

Copyright © 2013 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.