A not-for-profit online application form used to help millions of Americans apply for something really, really important is failing. No, not that one. We're talking about the many woes of the nearly universal (and now nearly universally loathed) Common Application for high school kids trying to get into college, of course.

Now in use by more than 500 colleges and universities—including longtime holdout The University of Chicago and a handful of schools outside the country—the Common Application unveiled its "new and improved" fourth online incarnation in August. The most significant changes involved the essay (or "Personal Statement"), which must now fall between 250 and 650 words and no longer gives the option of choosing a personalized topic.

But what wasn't made clear in August were the myriad glitches and headaches the new version has delivered to the latest generation of feverishly stressed academic aspirants. In an eerie parallel to the problems with Healthcare.gov, the site has been regularly failing on students, potentially creating a more drastic threat to their futures than a lack of health insurance. Fueling parental grumblings that the process was better when it was done via snail mail, the chaos has been so widespread that several colleges have postponed their typically set-in-stone early deadlines to accommodate frustrated families, the The Washington Post reports

Reports of Common App struggles led the University of Chicago and Columbia, Duke and Northwestern universities to extend their deadlines one week, to Nov. 8. Princeton University, a Common App user since 2004, announced it would give students a second option: an online form called the Universal College Application.

A quick glimpse at CollegeConfidential's noxiously competitive "Help" forums hints at how high school seniors have been handling the dysfunction. (Hint: Not well.) "Parts of the commonapp do not work and my deadline is in 10 days. Help!!!" reads a subject line by "bunkstar123," who's unable to add his TOEFL scores to his application. An even more urgent missive, from "gck777," is still awaiting a reply: "Help me please! I can't sign in common application," the student writes. "It shows me only error pages!!!!!!!" Then there is the case of the poor mother who claims her daughter submitted an application on time—at 11:25 p.m. the night of the deadline—but the Common App says it was submitted the following morning.

So, to those 17-year-olds trembling at the mercy of Common Application purgatory, we offer several points of advice:

  • Take a deep breath.
  • Take another deep breath. And another.
  • Relax: if your application glitch is the fault of a Common Application error and not your own procrastinatory negligence, the office of admissions will almost certainly understand. They've dealt with this before, and you are clearly not the only one facing these hurdles. Just have your guidance counselor write a polite letter or email.
  • If you are filing your application at 11:25 the night of the deadline, you are doing it wrong. Staying ahead of deadlines will make this process quite a bit less excruciating.
  • If you are spending more time lurking on CollegeConfidential than working on your applications, you're also doing it wrong.
  • You don't need to apply anywhere for Early Decision. In fact, for financial aid reasons, many (smart, successful) students don't.
  • Safety schools are your friend. Find several you could actually see yourself attending.
  • If you are a parent, step away from the laptop. Let your student do the heavy lifting—they're going to college, not you.

Happy desperately clicking refresh applying!

Top photo by Joy Brown via Shutterstock.