The Common App Won’t Be Fixed Anytime Soon. Here’s Why.

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Nov. 25 2013 11:08 AM

“The System Never Stopped Functioning”

The people behind the Common App say it’s fixed. It’s not—far from it.

Frustrated would-be college student on her computer.
A "working" Common App?

Photo by iStock

Common App users, I feel your pain. Trying to discover why this year’s Common App software failed has proven about as difficult as using the software itself, which has vexed the applicants to the 517 colleges employing it. Recently I attempted to reach Common App President Thyra Briggs; instead, I was referred to a handler from PR crisis-management firm Media & Communications Strategies. The handler told me that Briggs would only answer a single question from me. I considered, “What is the best question I could ask and what is its answer?” before realizing it was two questions.

David Auerbach David Auerbach

David Auerbach is a writer and software engineer based in New York. His website is http://davidauerba.ch.

Attempts to contact Hobsons, the contractor responsible for the Common App software, were diverted to a representative from their PR firm, the Brunswick Group. So whatever action is or is not being taken on the software, their PR efforts have definitely ramped up.

Ultimately, I was directed back to Common App’s senior director of policy Scott Anderson, with whom I’d previously spoken. I can’t say I gained more insight into the process behind the Common App’s failure. But over the course of our second conversation, we did go through the Five Stages of Project Management Spin, which I’ll lay out below, along with the risks of each stage.

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1. Denial. “All of the major hurdles are behind us,” Anderson told me. “We have resolved them. We don’t have issues that are affecting large numbers of users.”

Risk: People won’t believe you. Especially if the Common App mutilates the formatting on applicant essays and you say there’s no way to fix it.

2. Bargaining. “It was a brownout, not a blackout,” said Anderson of the failures that occurred after launching on Aug. 1. “Things were working on Aug. 1 and Aug. 2 and every day after. The system never stopped functioning.” The standard he used for “working” is the same that was used for healthcare.gov: As long as at least one person was able to use any part of the system, the system was “functioning.”

Risk: Unconvincing—basically a variant of Chico Marx’s “Who you gonna believe, me or your own eyes?” Changing the definition of “working” did not serve the Obama administration well and seems unlikely to satisfy in this case, either.

3. Cherry-Picking. Hobsons, the contractor responsible for the software, only gave me statistics that were meaningless as far as gauging the Common App’s functionality, as with this answer from an unknown Hobsons rep in response to one of my written queries:

Q: What percentage of applications are getting through the system successfully?
A: Application submissions are up 20 percent over last year.

Anderson also offered several numbers of how many applications and recommendations had been submitted. Tantalized by this data, I greedily asked him what percentage of users were successfully submitting applications versus those that ran into trouble. “Those are not statistics that we track,” Anderson told me.

Risk: Inconsistency. If you don’t know the success percentage, then how do you know that there are no “issues that are affecting large numbers of users”?

4. Stonewalling. Anderson admitted to one ongoing problem with the system, which is that many colleges still can’t access a great number of submitted applications and recommendations through Common App’s “automated retrieval process,” causing colleges to tell students wrongly that their applications are incomplete. The Common App is now working around this by manually providing those colleges with the documents on an application-by-application basis. I asked Anderson if this constituted a “major hurdle.” He did not give a clear answer either way. Three times I asked. Three times I was denied.

Risk: It makes you look very desperate and at a loss.

5. Denial. The day after our conversation, I received this statement from Anderson via the PR firm: “My comment that we have addressed all of the major hurdles is absolutely correct.” If at first you don’t succeed ...

Risk: No greater than Denial, Round 1. Lather, rinse, and repeat until you wear down your interviewer.

Ultimately, I see little cause for confidence in the Common App—not because of the spin itself, but because of the sheer lack of data. The Obama administration is now offering rough statistics of success and failure rates on healthcare.gov, because that’s how you know how well a site is working. Common App doesn’t have those numbers and has no plans to provide them. When I asked if a success percentage would be made available, Anderson answered, “We don’t have a plan to do that, because we don’t have a mechanism for teasing those numbers out.” If they haven’t figured out that they needed that mechanism yesterday, they’re doomed.