Gas station without pumps

2013 December 15

Still more difficulties with the new Common Application

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 19:33
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In Difficulties with the new Common Application and More difficulties with the new Common Application I talked about how home school parents were supposed to become “counselors” to enter the school profile, counselor letter, and transcript and about problems uploading the transcript.

Today, we finally got all my son’s recommendation letters finally submitted.  Three of the four teachers had no trouble submitting the letters a month or more ago, but the 4th thought she was finished, while the Common App record still showed it as incomplete.  We finally sat down with her to try to find out what the problem was.  All the parts of the submission showed green checks, but the button to submit the recommendation letter wouldn’t let her submit.

It turns out that she had left blank one “required” field on her profile—the one that says what school she teaches for.  This particular question is one of the worst-implemented “features” of the new Common App.  Whoever designed it assumed that the list of schools they had was complete, so that teachers just had to select from the list—and then made it so that teachers could only select from the list.  How any sane, competent person could believe that any list of schools is complete is beyond me.  Of course, the list is far from complete, as it includes only full-service accredited high schools, not specialty schools like art schools, theater schools, after-school academies, foreign-language schools, home school co-ops, … .  The teacher had skipped this field, because they did not include her school.

It would take only a slight redesign of the form to allow teachers to check a box that says “my school is not on this list” and enter the name and address of their school (though it would take a slightly larger redesign of the back-end, since the list of schools would no longer be static).  The Common App folks had this bug pointed out to them months ago, and they’ve still not fixed it (or even acknowledged it in their newsletters to counselors).  Lack of forethought, incompetence of execution, lack of testing, slow responses to bug reports—it is no wonder that teachers, students, parents, guidance counselors, and admissions officers are all cursing the folds at the Common App.

What we ended up doing was entering a “white lie” for the teacher.  She marked that she teaches at a school where she has done a few classes on contract this year.  She’s not an employee of the school, but she does teach there, even if it is only about 5% of the teaching she does.

Update 2013 Dec 15:

In browsing other posts about the Common App, I finally found who to blame:

I did learn that Common App, which has a staff of just ten people, didn’t do any of the site programming. That is all handled by Hobsons, a 39-year-old for-profit company based in Cincinnati, that is owned by the British media company, Daily Mail and General Trust. Among other properties, Hobsons owns Naviance, which has had trouble working together with the new Common App. The two companies call themselves “partners,” and neither wants to apportion blame. [Susan Adams, The Common Application to College: Great Idea, Disastrous Execution]

So if you are looking to do a web site that needs to work for a large number of users, do not under any circumstances hire Hobsons. (Perhaps the name is because you’d only hire them if faced with “Hobson’s choice”?)

Second Update 2013 Dec 15:

I tried informing the Common App staff of the workaround we had found (they had been less than helpful in our initial attempts to find out why the teacher’s recommendation was not appearing in the student files), and got this “friendly” response:

Your request could not be processed because the ticket is already closed. To submit this as a new issue, please log into the recommendation and navigate to the help pages.

It seems that they follow the common help-desk practice of arbitrarily closing tickets when the problem has not been solved, so that supervisors can claim that they have very few unresolved problems.  Yet more evidence of incompetence.

Third Update 2013 Dec 16:

When I entered a new ticket, the Common App support staff replied:

The option to select ‘School Not on List’ should have been presented to you. Once you do a search, at the bottom of that list, is the option to select ‘School Not on List’.

We did not see any such option—perhaps it was on the 20th or 100th screenful of the list.  Once it was clear that the school was not there, we did not scroll through the extremely long list of schools presented.  The “School not found” option should be at the top level, not requiring scrolling through an unending list of irrelevant schools.

It’s nice that they have a workaround—it’s too bad that it is so thoroughly hidden as to be essentially useless.


  1. Sounds like they did not do any user testing! A big no-no in web site development.

    Comment by Bonnie — 2013 December 17 @ 07:09 | Reply

    • I think that they did do some testing, but that they had not-very-smart people designing their tests, and tested only the easy cases, not the difficult boundary conditions. Once you have over a million users, your edge cases start occurring fairly often.

      The problem is likely that they had only “big-picture” thinkers and not “detail-oriented” ones—or that their detail-oriented thinkers were given no scope to fix specs. According to the Forbes article, the Common App only had 10 employees (which seems too small for the amount of work that Common App used to do—had they laid off everyone who knew anything?), so they hired a company to do the web design, but company clearly had no clue what they were getting into. Contracting out to a company who does not understand your business at all is a very risky move.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2013 December 17 @ 09:31 | Reply

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