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A new year for the Common Application

With the Common Application’s 2014-15 debut on Aug. 1 came questions surrounding its ability to bounce back from a troubling year. As many colleges and universities evaluate their application process, some Common Application users consider alternatives.

Taylor Buscemi, a UNC freshman from Cary, was one of thousands of students affected by the 2013 Common App glitches that forced UNC and 45 other schools to extend their application deadlines.

“It would be loading, loading for hours, and it would never actually load,” Buscemi said of her application.

In 2013-14, more than 750,000 students used the Common Application, which allows them to submit one standard application to multiple schools. With 36 new member institutions this year, the nonprofit company expects that number to climb higher.

The coming application season will mark UNC’s fourth year on the application. Freshman applicant numbers have shot up since UNC began using the Common App. There were about 23,000 applicants for fall 2011 — the year before UNC adopted the Common App — and more than 31,000 applicants for this year’s incoming class.

Steve Farmer, vice provost of undergraduate admissions and enrollment, said he thinks the switch to the Common Application has been a good move for UNC, helping recruit out-of-state and international students.

In August 2013, the Common Application launched an updated version of its online system. But technological snags cropped up right after the application’s debut.

“It really hadn’t been fully alpha- and beta-tested,” said Cristiana Quinn, founder of College Admissions Advisors, a private consulting service.

Complicating the situation for the Common Application is the legal trouble that could soon shadow it: another educational services company, CollegeNET, filed suit in May on antitrust charges.

The complaint argues that the Common Application has quashed diversity and competition in the application marketplace.

“What was created was this monopoly within the application system, where many colleges were on the Common App and didn’t do anything else,” Quinn said.

The Common Application was subject to an outside review earlier this year, said Scott Anderson, the company’s senior director for policy. He said the application was found to be fundamentally sound and added that it has been more thoroughly tested this year prior to launch.

Farmer said he met several times with representatives from the Common Application during the summer, and he’s confident they’ve worked hard to resolve the bugs in their system.

Much of the reason last year’s Common Application set off such widespread anxiety, Quinn said, was because the company controls the vast majority of the application business.

Some schools, like UNC, are exclusive users, which is a less-expensive membership option and means the schools don’t offer their applicants another way to apply.

Farmer said this year, though the Common Application’s troubles have yet to repeat themselves, the University will have the College Foundation of North Carolina’s application as a backup.

Duke University, on the other hand, accepts both the Common Application and the Universal College Application, which is considered its primary national competitor.

The number of schools using the Universal College Application spiked slightly last year after frustrations with the Common Application swelled. The 43 member institutions include Duke and Princeton University.

Joshua Reiter, president of ApplicationsOnline, said his service is more flexible and more innovative than its rival. For example, it includes a multimedia question for students to attach videos and web content to their applications.

Buscemi, the rising UNC freshman, said she appreciated the simplicity of the Common Application when she applied to more than half a dozen schools in different states.

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But she said she would’ve liked to have more flexibility.

“I felt like, I wish there was some other way to apply,” she said.

And when it comes to the future of admissions, Farmer said, there is a longer-term challenge at stake.

“What is the Common App really trying to do, besides just presenting an online application? I hope they’ll spend some time thinking about what it wants to be.”