Online glitches delay medical school apps.

by Ithan Peltan | 7/11/01 5:00am

Applicants to medical schools across the country this year have had one more source of stress during an already stressful time -- problems with the introduction of Internet-based applications, which have stubbornly resisted designers' attempts at fixes, have delayed the normally rigid process by a month.

Both of Dartmouth's pre-medical advisers called the ongoing problems with the new online application designed by the American Medical College Application System (AMCAS) "a nightmare" for everyone involved.

"It hasn't gone smoothly since really the introduction back in March," Nathan Smith Pre-Medical Society adviser and medicine Professor Lee Witters said. "Since then it's been one glitch after another, and they're still not out of the woods."

AMCAS serves as a centralized distributor for applications to medical schools nationwide. Prospective medical students send their applications, essays and transcripts to AMCAS, which then forwards the required materials to the medical schools that the applicant selects.

In the past two months, student complaints have ranged from staggeringly slow connection speeds to problems with credit card billing to the application's incompatibility with many versions of the two most common Internet browsers, Netscape Navigator and Internet Explorer. Despite using a high-speed Internet connection, sections of the actual application and even the AMCAS homepage can take more than 10 minutes to load and sometimes do not load at all.

However, there may be some light at the end of the tunnel. AMCAS -- which is a program of the Association of American Medical Colleges, the AAMC --recently added two additional servers to handle the volume of users. (37,000 applicants were processed last year.)

Site performance has improved significantly since the new servers were added, according to AAMC associate vice president Pamela Cranston.

"I think we really turned a corner," Cranston said, noting that the only known outstanding bug in the application will be fixed today by another update.

Career Services pre-medical adviser Ursula Hibbert-Oldender said problems with the application on the students' end are becoming both more rare and less serious over time.

Nevertheless, the application process has been delayed across the boards, Cranston said, with everything from applications reviews to interviews being completed about one month behind schedule.

In the past, AMCAS functioned mainly to shuffle the massive quantities of paper generated by the tens of thousands of applicants to medical schools. While the prospective doctors have recently had the option of submitting application materials on computer diskette, both paper and disk systems were dismantled this year as AMCAS moved to the web applications.

Students first began submitting their applications June 21, three weeks later than the initial target date. The submissions should have begun on June 18, but Power outages and continuous attempts to fix problems in the application itself further prevented application submission process.

Thomas Dewland '02 recently managed to complete his online application and called the process "incredibly frustrating."

"It was so slow you didn't know if it was working or not," said Dewland, who spent "an hour here and an hour there" over the course of two weeks filling out the online forms.

But, Dewland added, "Since everyone's in the same boat, I'm not really worried about it."

Hibbert-Olender noted that the new application format has potential, including an "intuitive" overall design that gives applicants a chance to present a more in depth portrait of themselves, a sentiment Dewland echoed.

Yet while the application's issues are slowly being worked out on the student end of the process, AMCAS still has to fix some bugs in the system that will be used to distribute application materials to the various medical schools, a process set to begin July 15.

Cranston was confident that the remaining known glitches will be ironed out in time for distribution, but added, "That is not to say that there will not be any more bumps in the road."

Yale School of Medicine has established alternative application procedures bypassing AMCAS at least in part. While applicants to Yale will still have to complete and submit the AMCAS forms, those who are having problems have been asked to submit paper versions of their various credentials directly to the Yale admissions office.

Thus far, no other medical schools have followed Yale's lead, yet that possibility is not being ruled out as glitches continue to surface.

"It's getting towards D-Day here," Witters said. "Nothing in [AMCAS'] track record to date justifies optimism."

In the end, though, this year's medical school applications will go through and each applicant will receive his or her fair chance, all involved said.

"It will work ... one way or another," Witters said.