I applied to college well before applications went online but news of a truncation glitch in the The Common Application submission form frustrates me.

I was led to this news via a recent re-tweet by Mark Greenfield (@markgr) highlighting Sarai Koo’s (@maps4college) tweet “A Common Glitch in the Common Application: Some college applicants wrestle with a technological quirk, in whi… http://awe.sm/5Ek1z #fb”

The initial link introduces the issue and directs the reader to a link for the full article reported by Jacques Steinberg in the New York Times. I’ll save you a hassle of the first summary by giving you my own, and implore you to just go to the full article link.

The Common Application is an online college application program that allows high schoolers to fill out an application once and submit it to multiple colleges. According to the NY Times article over 400 colleges and universities use Common Application.

There appears to be a glitch in the short essay section of the form. Applicants are asked to give a 150 word essay and when they preview the essay they may find words and sentences truncated. We’re not talking at the end, apparently we’re talking anywhere in the middle of the essay one could find words truncated.

What further frustrates me is that it is reported the program doesn’t actually check word count. It is even accused of not checking character count as “W”s take up more space and therefore if you use a “W” you lose more space than if you didn’t. How do you code for that? Are they counting pixels?

As a developer, I’m upset that such a glitch exists and there should be no excuse. As a decent human-being I want to believe there are competent developers behind the program and there is a reasonable explanation. However, I can’t think of any and eagerly await one.

From the NY Times article:

Mr. Killion said the issue of “truncation,” as it is known within the Common Application offices, is not new, and had been a reality of the process for more than a decade, causing barely a ripple.

And yet, enough students, parents and counselors complained about the problem this fall that the organization has scrambled in recent weeks to embed a link to a warning box within the form.

It reads, in part, “It is critical that you preview your Common App and check for truncated information. If you preview the Common App and find some of your text is missing, you should attempt to shorten your response to fit within the available space.”

Rule #1 in programming: Don’t leave it up to the user! Fix user errors by checking for errors, not telling the user what to enter and then accepting anything. Validate all data! In Quicken there is not a message that says, “Only enter a number with no more than two decimal spaces in your payment column.” If I were to enter “A.BB” it would pop up and say something like, “Sorry, I cannot accept that. Please try again” instead of randomly choosing numbers and continuing on as if there were no problem.

By the way, for any budding developers out there, here is another free piece of advice: if you want to have a form field check how many words are in a text string just do a Google search for “word count script.” I found some code from the site JavaScript Kit and adapted it to be a short function:

However, there are limitations and this isn’t perfect. Any double spaces (two spaces next to each other) does add an extra word to the count. This can be fixed by removing all empty strings from the split result. There are a few other things to consider like spaces around a hyphen, what to count as a word, etc, but even the code above seems to be better than what is currently used in The Common Application.

In all, the script above reports that this post is 746 words long, Microsoft Word reports 726 words, and WordPress, my blogging program, reports 716 words in its built in counter. I’m sure WordPress and Word have more advanced algorithms than just 2 lines of code. This isn’t a problem that hasn’t already been solved in some fashion.

About Chad Leigh Kluck

I enjoy technology development and management by following new trends, change and disruption, and security. I have a Master of Science in Software Engineering and my hobbies include railroads, history, do-it-yourself projects, writing, and ham radio (K0RRX). More...

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