So the Common App and its technological challenges are still in the news this week. After reading a ton of articles on the topic, I realized many of them focused on how horrible this has been for applicants and how much stress it has added to an already stressful process. This got me thinking: are there things applicants can do to avoid or at least minimize stress when problems come up while completing college applications? After discussing with some colleagues and jotting down some notes, I realized that the answer is definitively yes – and the advice on how to do so is surprisingly simple. Read on for my take on how to avoid or at least effectively deal with surprise road blocks during the college application process!

Expect the unexpected.

Stuff happens in life, often without warning. This year, the Common App site is making like it’s caught the Y2K bug thirteen years late. Last year, we had Superstorm Sandy knocking out power to a huge swath of the east coast for weeks. You never know what will happen next year. It could be something massive, like the two events just mentioned, or something smaller and confined to you, such as an illness or family emergency. The point is that things don’t always go smoothly, so the more you can do to prepare for unforeseen bumps in the road, the better off you’ll be. And how, you may be asking, should I do that? Read on.

Deadlines are not supposed to be when you actually submit your application.

This is so, so, so important. Read it again. Heck, I’ll write it down again for you. Deadlines are not supposed to be when you actually submit your application. Rather, deadlines are the **last possible minute** that you are able to submit an application. Approaching the college application process with a mindset where you simply aim to have your app ready by a given deadline is, frankly, stupid. There’s a reason colleges start accepting applications on one date and stop accepting them on a later date, giving you a long span in which your application can be submitted. If they wanted all applications to be submitted at one time, they’d simply choose a day and require that all applications be sent in during that 24-hour period. But they don’t. So why do such a huge number of applicants wait until the last possible minute to actually finish and submit their applications?

I know that the vast majority of you are busy people, struggling to make time for classes, extracurriculars, social activities, and everything else while simultaneously completing the rigorous college application process. But even with that said, it’s not like college applications come as a surprise. You’ve known for years when you’ll be applying, you’ve seen others going through all the stresses, and general timelines remain fairly consistent from year to year. Use this to your advantage. Instead of planning to have an application done by the deadline, try to have it ready by the time applications open up! Or see how much earlier you can get it done than your peers. Or simply give yourself a full week buffer by moving the actual deadline up on all your calendars and treating that as the last minute for your submission.

Put another, simpler way: don’t procrastinate. Rules may be made to be broken but college application deadlines aren’t. And while a massive outage like the one plaguing the Common App this year may earn you some sort of extension or exception from your college of choice, that won’t always be the case. Plan ahead, work ahead, and submit your application as far ahead of the final deadline as possible.

Don’t trust technology.

Technology is great. It’s amazing. It allows me to sit here at my desk in my office and write this blog entry which I’ll then post, making it instantly available to practically any interested party with a web connection worldwide. It allows students to take in-depth virtual tours of campuses hundreds or thousands of miles away. It allows applicants to connect with other applicants in virtual forums, posing questions or just venting about the stress inherent to the application process. Technology has made the application process much smoother in many ways and connected students with schools like never before. At very least it’s saved applicants a ton of money in stamp costs.

But technology has a dark side. We’ve come to rely on it so much that when it doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to, big problems occur. To wit: the Common App fiasco that precipitated this entire blog post. Technological failings aren’t always so massive or public, though. Internet connections go down. Hard drives stop working. An essay copied from Word document to submission form ends up filled with garbled characters. And when this happens to you, particularly with a deadline looming, you’d better hope that you have a backup plan in place.

A basic backup plan: three easy steps all applicants should take.

1. Work as far in advance as possible. We just covered this above. If your computer dies when you’re working on your app a month before it’s due, no big deal. If your computer dies when you’re working on your app an hour before it’s due, big big deal. Easiest way to avoid this: start early.

2. Save as often as possible. Make it a habit and you’ll quickly forget you’re even doing it. I save my work, particularly writing, obsessively. Like, right there, after finishing that sentence, I hit Ctrl-S. After that one too. Super easy. If it’s not a habit for you, set milestones after which you always save. When writing, save after every paragraph or every three sentences. If you’re filling out an online application, save after every section or page. Whatever works for you, just save a lot – there’s no limit to the number of times you can do so and it will save you the grief of losing hours of work in the sad event of a crash.

3. Save in as many places as possible. This is huge. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve worked with who lose an essay or application or something else because even though it was saved, it was only saved in one place. Even if you save your work every 30 seconds, that won’t do you any good if the one place you save it suddenly and unexpectedly becomes unavailable. You should have copies in multiple places in case one goes down. Here’s my favorite, simple strategy:

  • First copy stays on your local machine.
  • Second copy goes on a backup hard drive or USB flash drive – you can even use your phone or MP3 player.
  • Third copy gets emailed to yourself on a regular basis – this a great way to not only store a backup of whatever you’re working on, but also always have an accessible copy no matter where you are.

To close this lengthy post, while the Common App problems this fall are unfortunate and a pain-in-the-butt for many of you, they’re also an opportunity to think about how unforeseen obstacles, whatever they may be, can be prepared for and even avoided in the admissions process. What do you think? Any other tips on how to stay on track even if something problematic comes up while applying? Let us know in the comments!