Crap, I told them I could do this, and now I can't.
December 9, 2011 11:41 AM   Subscribe

How can I create a .pdf form that a) is able to be filled out, and b) will tally a running total of the "score" as it is filled in? The problem: I need a free program.

I'm a student worker for a university department that is attempting to do away with its paper files for its masters-level students. It's a social work department, and they have no money. They'd like to stop keeping paper admissions files. The problem is, they have a worksheet that gives points to an applicant for various attributes, such as number of undergrad courses taken in specific areas, GPA, references, etc. This form is used to admit students. I told them I could create such a form that would be able to be filled out by admissions.

I thought that, on campus, students would have access to Adobe Professional/Acrobat/what-have-you, which seems to be the standard for this kind of thing, but we don't. The file needs to be uploadable to and downloadable from a drive that's in the campus cloud, so I can't use an online survey-type thing. Is there any free program that will allow me to create this kind of file? It doesn't necessarily have to be a .pdf.
posted by woodvine to Technology (18 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I'm not 100% certain, but I think scribus can do this. Though you'll need to know some javascript.

Here is the scribus wiki page on creating forms.

I've never used it to create forms so I can't guarantee that it will do what you need it to do. But it's a place to start.
posted by Mister_Sleight_of_Hand at 11:58 AM on December 9, 2011

Have you looked at using the forms feature in google docs? Even though the input is done through a browser, you could output the responses to a spreadsheet on the cloud drive if needed.
posted by dosterm at 12:02 PM on December 9, 2011

Response by poster: It's now looking as though I can do everything I need to do in Microsoft Word, which I do thankfully have access to, except that I need the data to add together. For example, if I have four radio button choices, with the values 0, 1, 2, and 3, I need this information to add itself to a running tally at the bottom of the form.
posted by woodvine at 12:37 PM on December 9, 2011

As you're evaluating a solution, I also recommend talking to your IT security person / group because your campus may have special requirements for how applicant data is stored.

Personally, I would do a Google Docs form which has an additional column with a formula that calculates based on the response. You could download as Excel and upload to the shared drive.
posted by beyond_pink at 12:40 PM on December 9, 2011

I don't use Word for forms, but I do know you can do some basic calculations with them. Not sure whether your radio buttons would produce the necessary output to add up, but generally a radio button choice is associated with a value. So it should work.

Check out this MS help page - "Use a formula in a Word table". It will give you the basics for calculations in Word.

I am sure with some searching you can find an existing form somewhere that you can tailor to your needs that will have a lot of the calculations already in place as well.
posted by lampshade at 12:51 PM on December 9, 2011

Also, regarding Acrobat vs other PDF creation programs - while there are PDF creators out there, not all do forms or do them well. So the caution is to make sure you are not locking yourself into a PDF situation that won't work in the end.

OTOH, you can can try to make the form in a free PDF app and then have someone else put in the formulas via Acro Pro. Part of the PITA with making a form is the general layout and such and going through the editing process. Putting in the formulas is rather easy once the fields and questions have been finalized. If you do the annoying stuff, it makes it a bit easier to beg for the rest.
posted by lampshade at 12:57 PM on December 9, 2011

Are you a state institution? You need to be careful about what data you're accepting and putting on external sources like Google Docs or other externally stored services. Here at *redacted* we have a sensitive data policy which governs things like this, and under FERPA you need to be careful with personally identifiable non-directory information as the term goes.

This sort of thing is what I do here at *redacted* so if you want to talk to someone else in education about what you're trying to do and what, exactly, sort of information you're taking in I'm glad to tell you about my experiences; mefi mail me and I'll give you my office number, we can talk next week.

On the tech side - I don't think Acrobat is going to do what you want; while you can create fillable forms if you have Pro the people who open those forms can't SAVE WHAT THEY FILL IN on their machines without Pro; Reader will let them print it but not save the electronic version.

Now, many machines now have ways to print to PDF, which they could email in, but it might not be a slam dunk or universal.
posted by phearlez at 1:25 PM on December 9, 2011

A running tally for that one form, or across all forms?
posted by rhizome at 1:34 PM on December 9, 2011

Response by poster: I can't use Google Docs for the reasons phearlez mentioned.

A running tally for the specific form. It will be duplicated - there will be a form for each application.
posted by woodvine at 1:36 PM on December 9, 2011

>> people who open those forms can't SAVE
>> WHAT THEY FILL IN on their machines without
>> Pro; Reader will let them print it but not save
>> the electronic version.

Actually it will let them save the form and such, but is has to be setup that way intentionally.

In the Pro version there is an option to make a form savable to a person with just the reader. But the form has to be made with Acro Pro, you cannot use the reader to make a form.

Also, some of the other PDF making apps won't do it either. If you use their app to create and read the form, then yes, it works as a savable form. But a form made in a non-Acro Pro app may not be savable by just the Acro reader. You have to use that alternative PDF app to create and save the form if that is what it was made in.
posted by lampshade at 2:06 PM on December 9, 2011

Unless you've actually done this yourself recently, lampshade, and this is new-ish, I am pretty sure you're not correct. You can create forms that will submit data somewhere but what it creates is a file that isn't an openable PDF; it's a file that can be merged with a PDF to essentially re-fill the form but it doesn't create an independent form with the fields filled in.
posted by phearlez at 2:23 PM on December 9, 2011

I use Lime Survey to do this sort of thing.
posted by mecran01 at 2:25 PM on December 9, 2011


I make savable/editable/emailable PDF forms for part of my living. I use Acro Pro along with other softwares to get the gig done. I am sure it works. I did one last night actually.

You can also export the data, calculate and even do mail merges with PDFs (if you have the right add-in). Acrobat is no replacement for a word processor or a spreadsheet, but for limited tasks, it works just fine.

Here is the Acrobat X that outlines some of the features.
posted by lampshade at 2:53 PM on December 9, 2011

er...Acrobat X page> that...
posted by lampshade at 2:54 PM on December 9, 2011

(but I don't do web stuff obviously)
posted by lampshade at 2:55 PM on December 9, 2011

You're right lampshade, I'm sorry for doubting you; I just walked through the process myself. Clearly the ones I'd received from others in the past didn't have a submission method set up so they simply showed me the warning that I could fill stuff in but I couldn't save it.

It looks like you can create this app in Adobe Pro and assign it an address to be mailed to. That's easy enough (assuming your uni's sensitive data policy allows you to collect the fields via email) and it does email the form correctly.

However when I opened the form in Apple Preview, which I suspect any Mac users will be using to read the form, I didn't get the text field in my sample or the submit button. In Chrome, which now displays PDFs natively, I get the text field and the submit button but the button does nothing.

So you'd have to mandate that people use the actual Acrobat Reader to fill out the form. Maybe that wouldn't be a big deal; it doesn't strike me as an unreasonable step towards being paperless, though clearly an online form and database storage is the more sensible way to go.

I don't know which university you're at there but is there no possibility of working with your IT department to collect this stuff in your current admissions software? You're presumably either a PeopleSoft or a Banner school and have some admissions system in place already. Banner's survey module can be used for this sort of thing. Presumably PeopleSoft has similar support.
posted by phearlez at 7:10 AM on December 10, 2011

No prob is a common misconception. Even before I got into doing PDF forms, I thought the same thing.

Your note about Apple Preview is relevant too. Even though there is a certain bit of commonality between PDFs created by differing softwares, there are still issues with one software opening a PDF that another cannot deal with.

For example, I also use NitroPDF for various tasks. It can create forms too, but the only open in Nitro as a fillable form. Also, any Java in the back end that works with NitroPDF is not always guaranteed to work with other PDF creators whether it be Acrobat, Nuance, Sumatra or others. The PDF format is sort of a clusterfudgesicle on so many levels.

For my part, I deal with Acro Pro only as the final output software even though I use other software for various tasks. For the forms I create, unless a person is really stuck on a certain PDF software, they are going to get an Acrobat compatible PDF and that is it.
posted by lampshade at 9:04 AM on December 10, 2011

"The problem: I need a free program."

Oh....after all this junk about this program and that program, to answer your actual question....

You can download a 30 day, fully functional demo version of Acro Pro X to learn the app and create the form. No watermarks or save limitations, just the 30 day trial period.

Acrobat X Download - Eng Win 465mb
posted by lampshade at 11:00 AM on December 10, 2011

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