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Trouble At The Common Application Website

In Common Application 2013-2014, Common Application Glitches, Problems Uploading to the Common Application, Problems with the New Common Application, Uploading the Common Application Essay on October 13, 2013 at 12:33 pm

Problems at the Common App, from Scary to Simply Irritating, With a Few Suggestions on How to Deal With It.

For an 11/7/13 update on conditions, read the whole post or just scroll right down to the bottom.

So by now you’ve probably heard that the so-called Obamacare rollout has been a bit of a catastrophe due to the website failures.  The reasons are many of course, and many of those are political–poor funding, the late release of some important rules (timed to miss the last election) the incredible decision by Health and Human Services to try to coordinate the contractors and to ensure that all the software works together themselves, etc.  A large part of the problem is that phenomenon called “managing up,”  which may also explain the dumb decision by HHS to attempt to manage the program so directly:  Sure, Boss, we can do it! The other big problem is the number of politicians and states who want to destroy the program, or at least hinder it as much as possible.

What a mess, bordering on a catastrophe, but I would cut them some slack as they have more or less been trying to run their insurance exchanges in enemy territory, politically.  This is not true of the Common Application, which has no known enemies, which makes their own failures  even less excusable.  You could  say that the new Common App website is a bit of a mess as well, but it won’t become a catastrophe until November 1st;  if they don’t work it out by then, it’s going to look like a five alarm fire meeting a flood of the ages at the hundreds of admissions offices served by the Common App, and if  that continued through November, it could be curtains for the Common App itself–they do have competitors, like the Universal Application, and you could expect other folks to take an interest in this “market” as well.  The Common App  may be a nonprofit, but their people are decently to very well paid, and others will take notice.

So what are the problems students are having with the Common App site?  You could have a look here at the Common App’s own ongoing list of problems, fixes and apologies here, or you could simply read on below for the, uh, lowlights, as well as a few suggestion on how to deal with them.  If you do click the Common App link to have a look, I would suggest that you take some phrases like “in rare instances problem x has occurred” with a shaker of salt–it’s not looking so rare to my clients, and I am asking everybody to give their deadlines a bit more leeway.  Just in case.

Let’s start with the scary and move to the frustrating.

Scary:  The Signature Page that confirms payment may not show up for as much as a day or may prompt repeated payments.  When you pay by credit card, you will get a signature page on which you must type the name to confirm payment.  You MUST type in this confirmation, or you have not paid.  The problem is that this page may not show up right away–in fact, it has taken as much as a day to pop up, and in that case, you have to check back to do it.  It won’t prompt you at this point.  So if you made a payment and didn’t have to respond to a prompt to type the name to confirm it, go back and look.  You may also find that you are prompted to pay multiple times–if you’ve paid, typed the name in the signature page and successfully submitted it, you should be done.  On the other hand, I’d rather pay twice and deal with getting the money back later than not be sure I paid.  I like to prioritize my headaches by their threat level.

Frustrating (And Time Consuming):  

Uploading Essays Has Been A Royal Pain In the Keister.  Formatting is scrambled or lost, including paragraphing, and my clients, along with, it seems, many other folks, are having to painstakingly go over their essays once again to correct formatting, et al.  This seems to be resulting from both problems that various operating systems are having in interfacing with the Common App site, as well as some specific problems with word processing programs–in other words, despite its ubiquity, the Common App people don’t seem to have done an adequate job of vetting their site’s interactions with Microsoft Word.  One work-around to try is to save your doc as a text doc, double check it in text edit, then upload it.  It may not work, especially if your browser or operating system has trouble with the Common App portal, but it’s worth a try to avoid reading, correcting and rereading what you have already perfected–try multiple browsers before moving on to a different computer.

Naviance was not meshing well with the Common App, as of the beginning of October, and while things are improving, not everything is available even now.  Be patient, but if you have an app  soon (I am writing on Sunday, October 13th and some apps are due by Tuesday, the 15th–Yes, I’m talking to you folks, especially) show up early to school and politely insist on an appointment with your counselor, asap.  And again–be polite.  This has really created a nightmare for you average high school counselor, in your average understaffed and overworked high school counseling office.  Be compassionately persistent.

The Preview Function is not working well or is balky.  Some of my clients are reporting blank pages when they try to preview.  This seems to be affected by web browsers, so try a different browser, then try a different computer.  Do not wait until the last minute to submit.  That advice applies all the time but even more now.

And Finally, Be Aware of This:  To my knowledge thus far, only Georgia Tech has pushed back some paperwork.  And even in that case, GT, like all the rest of the universities in the Common App, plan to issue all their decisions on the same timetable, with no extensions–they are busy hiring people to handle the extra workload now.  Don’t count on a break if you are doing things late.  Submit ahead of time.  Getting a break after a deadline that you missed is unlikely to a high degree, and you’ll be left with only this:  Bummer.

I say be proactive instead and leave the bummers to The Dude.   Good luck and contact me if you need any editing or advice–though rush jobs come at a premium, just like at Fed Ex.  Oh, and on a different topic, if you see an ad below, I did not put it there.  Wordpress did, and the proceeds go to supporting them, and I myself am all for supporting WordPress, though I do not choose nor am I advised ahead of time about  any ads that may appear below.

11/7/13 Update:  In many cases, my clients are finding that they if they log on then log off again, whatever function was stalled will be complete.  Others have used text edit, et al, to ease copying and pasting essays into the Common App.  Naviance now seems to working better as it interacts with the Common App, but it’s still balky at times.  Overall assessment:  Not great, but you can work with it, with patience.  If you are lucky, it will work as it is supposed to.  If not, log on and off, etc.

What Is Wrong With The New Common Application Essay Prompts and What To Do About It: Part I

In Common Application 2013-2014, Common Application Essay Prompt Three on July 10, 2013 at 10:41 am

Howdy reader.  This is an update for 2015-2016: The Common App has once again changed its prompts, but this time they have largely tinkered with them, and the results are an improvement.  To see this year’s prompts, look here: Application prompts 2015-2016.

What follows below remains here as a historical artifact that covers the politics and nature of changes to the Common App between 2012-2013.  If that interests you, read on.  If not, stick with my posts on this year’s prompts and look at my posts on topics of general interest, like how college applications are evaluated or how to write about a book

This was my original subtitle for this post:  How The Education Wars and Bureaucracy Wrecked a Pretty Good Thing.

The Old Common App prompts weren’t perfect, but they did offer a variety of choices, some of which were meant to look outward as much as inward, and the open choice prompt was a great way to inject some creativity.  

But, as Heraclitus said, All is Change.  Or Change is All.  Either way, it’s time to start dealing with reality:  in this post I will review the political forces behind the changes to the Common App essay prompts and begin my examination of the new prompts at the end of this post, with a discussion  of the prompt on “a time you challenged a belief or idea,” with links to examples of this kind of essay, both in a long form journalistic style and in a short form, edited example  on this topic, in the 500-word range.  

I am already finding that my clients tend to dismiss this essay out of hand, because they have an image of people climbing up on the barricades and waving a flag or staging a peaceful takeover of the principal’s office as a protest.  Not so, my friends.  You don’t have to protest to challenge an idea.  Read on through this post, to the end, to see what I mean.

In the natural world, variety is a good thing, generating both complexity and unpredictability.  But in the world of the bureaucrat, unpredictability is a curse and  monotony is a  virtue.

Enter the new Common App prompts, which represent a massive die-off in variety both of subjects and skills explored in college  application essays.  These prompts are going to drive up the number of memoir-style, Woe is me, Look what I have overcome, My Life Lesson, Aren’t I a moral person kind of essays.  At least this is the takeaway that many critics are offering, and I agree with it, for the most part.  To understand the criticism, you should turn now to  the new Common App Essay prompts, which, if you have not yet seen them,  I have posted in this discussion: The Common Application:  What’s New For 2013-2014.

As you can see, the topic choices may be summed up thusly:  my identity; I failed (but learned from it); I rebelled (or at least resisted); I’m happy here (or there); I succeeded (and how).  There is no more option six, which was basically to make up your own prompt and which, obviously, allowed for a lot of creative license.  There is some good news in the midst of this, starting with the increase in word length, to 650, but keep in mind that this is a firm length–the process will be entirely electronic, and if your essay is 651 words, you will have to cut it down to submit it–just like all those corporate autofill forms that give an error message when you go over the character count.  In addition, you must write at least 250 words–not much of a problem for most applicants.

Before I examine in more detail the  bad aspects of the new Common App prompts, I’d like to put them in perspective and perhaps even offer them a word or two of praise–for their intent.  In my view, this change in the prompts is not just to simplify essay evaluations .

Of course, it is a bureaucratic nightmare to evaluate and process anywhere from a few thousand to a couple of hundred thousand essays, and with fewer essay topics, theoretically it will be simpler to process the essays.  But this is not the only motivation for the change in prompts.  There is a political struggle  going on as we speak, over what students should learn and how it should be tested.  And the current trend is against both reading fiction and writing autobiography.

The first thing I would say for the  Common App is that they do seem to be making a statement about the value of writing on personal experience, and I have a lot of sympathy for that position.  We call works like those that will be elicited by the new Common App prompts “autobiography” or “autobiographical incident” or “memoir.”

But these are forms of writing that are held in very low regard by two of the other colossuses of the education landscape:  The College Board and the Common Core movement.  Or should I say they are held in low regard by the Common Core movement, led by David Coleman, and by the new president of the College Board, who is also David Coleman.  Until last year, Coleman was primarily known as an educational consultant and entrepreneur and also as  the primary architect of the new Common Core standards. But  Coleman’s “reform” efforts  denigrate the teaching of fiction in high schools and the writing of 1st person narratives in high schools.  His dislike of autobiographical writing and of fiction in our classrooms has a common thread–I will address the value of fiction when I deal with supplemental prompts on books,  focusing in this post on writing.

Here is what Coleman himself has said about autobiographical writing in high schools, quoted from an interview here:

David Coleman, president of the College Board, who helped design and promote the Common Core, says English classes today focus too much on self-expression. “It is rare in a working environment,” he’s argued, “that someone says, ‘Johnson, I need a market analysis by Friday but before that I need a compelling account of your childhood.’ ”

I happen to think this is kind of dumb and reductionist–first of all in assuming that education is purely vocational, and secondly in assuming that everybody is going to be writing reports for a living.  I add to that the fact that 1st person writing is a superb and respected way to process and analyze experience, dating all the way back through Augustine’s Meditations to Julius Caesar’s account of his military campaigns, and it can make you both more thoughtful and better at analysis.  It can be narcissistic and trite, but that’s where the good teacher should be stepping in.

On the other hand, the Common App’s new and entirely 1st person topics, which are pretty much a rasberry in Coleman’s direction,  are also a dumb move, a narrowing of the field that was not necessary and that, rather than making the processing of essays easier, will actually make it harder as so many essays will be both undistinguished and nearly indistinguishable.  The trick for you in this situation, Dear Reader, is to avoid the narrow lanes that most application writers will take as they pour out their souls, (or perhaps make something up and pretend to pour out their souls).  Try to think outside the cage they have created for you with these prompts.

So in that spirit, let’s start by looking at option three, A time when you challenged a belief or idea.  This seems like a topic only suitable for rebels with a cause, but I disagree.  As with any kind of essay, it is a good idea to have a look at some examples before attempting to write the essay–so I think  we should turn first to an essay I linked last year, about a (mostly internal) dispute with a rabbinical teacher over the meaning and value of cartoon superheroes.  It’s clear the author resisted the teacher’s condemnation of comic books and their heroes, but the protest is registered as a thought process.  It’s an indirect form of resistance, in which he is showing how his world view was shaped, but he wasn’t  standing up and calling somebody out publicly. You can, indeed, show yourself working through an idea and taking a stance against it without having to go out and pick up  a protest sign for the sake of an essay (But hey, if you do want to go to a protest in order to write about it, go for it.  Hemingway went off to war pretty much for the same reason.  Just be sure you do have a preexisting commitment to the cause or it will show in your essay).

Have a look at the  essay to see what I mean about indirect resistance.  This is far longer than what you would write, but I discuss and analyze this and show how a long essay like this one can be cut down to fit the format you will deal with–See this:  Superheroes. (If you can’t open this link it’s because you do not have a subscription to my private blog, which costs 15 bucks for the full application season, from now through April.  Splice this address into an e-mail and contact me if you want a subscription and are willing to pay my minimal fee: wordguild@gmail.com )

Then read my edit of this  essay–I cut it down massively as an editing exercise in a way you will need to if you tend to write long essays:  An Exercise In Editing.  Notice how the author  sits through this class, but outside of it dons his batman cape, all the while sharpening his own thoughts and strengthening his own beliefs in a campaign of  unspoken resistance to his narrow-minded teacher.  No barricade, no protest sign, no organizing.  But a wonderful essay.

I will return to the Common App prompts and to this specific prompt again soon, with more advice and examples.

 

The Common Application: What’s New For 2013-2014

In Changes for the Common Application, common application, Common Application 2013-2014, Common Application Essay Prompts, personal statement, The Common Application Essay on March 8, 2013 at 9:59 am

The Common App folks are set to release Version 4.0 for the 2013-2014 application year.  They have promised to make things more user friendly, and they have changed the essay prompts.  Most important, from my point of view, is the increase in essay length–you have up to 650 words; you need to write at least 250. This is up from the 500 word limit of recent years, which is a great thing.

They have also dropped the prompts that I grouped together as the “intellectual development ” prompts–such as the prompt that asked you to talk about an intellectual experience or influence.  On the other hand, there are still ways to use the new prompts to discuss books and intellectual experiences. If you are bookish or  a fanatic when it comes to a particular author or genre of fiction or film, or have found an intellectual home somewhere in the world of books, you already have a large cache of material to draw on and there are ways to use these as topics for the new prompts.

Writing about an enthusiasm is particularly helpful in shaping your personal essay so that it looks out the window more than it looks into the mirror.  An essay about an intellectual or other passion is a good way to  write about something outside of yourself as a way to write about yourself.   Coming up with content may be much easier than for some other topics,  and you get the bonus of not  seeming self-absorbed (a real problem in a first-person essay about yourself).

I will offer more strategy on that soon and begin my discussion of potential topics for some of the new Common App prompts in upcoming posts.

I’ll close for now by giving you the new prompts:

The Common Application Essay for 2013-2014 Instructions.

The essay demonstrates your ability to write clearly and concisely on a selected topic and helps you distinguish yourself in your own voice. What do you want the readers of your application to know about you apart from courses, grades, and test scores? Choose the option that best helps you answer that question and write an essay of no more than 650 words, using the prompt to inspire and structure your response. Remember: 650 words is your limit, not your goal. Use the full range if you need it, but don’t feel obligated to do so. (The application won’t accept a response shorter than 250 words.)

  • Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
  • Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?
  • Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?
  • Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?
  • Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.