With most colleges and universities under increasing pressure to meet the bottom line and enroll enough of the right students to fill each year's entering class, and with families more stressed out than ever about finding and paying for the right colleges for them, what are IHEs to make of the maze of available application options? Reflecting on our ongoing experiences with students, parents, and admissions professionals, we offer some suggestions for institutions evaluating how they attract, admit, and enroll qualified applicants.
From the first to their final interactions with a college, families are highly attuned to the messages they receive, both intentional and unconscious on the part IHEs. We have written previously in this magazine about the importance of good communication with families. The application process itself can be an essential element in that communication process. What application or applications a college chooses to use, and how the student is able to apply, can mean a lot in terms of whether a student will complete the application and what he or she will learn about the college in the process.
Students are utilizing a diverse array of application options, from the traditional paper application sent by snail mail to electronic applications submitted in various ways. Though there is still wariness and concern on the part of many families about pushing the button on the keyboard and hoping an application transmits successfully to a college, more students are heading in this direction confidently. What survey and single-case data we have seen suggests a trend toward online application usage.
Given the ongoing generational shift toward those raised in the computer and internet age, this is hardly surprising. It also follows the trend toward online filing of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (www.fafsa.ed.gov), the online registration and score reporting for the SAT (www.collegeboard.com) and the ACT (www.actstudent.org), the most important standardized testing programs. In the case of the Test of English as a Foreign Language, even the exam is computer-based (www.toefl.ets.org).
According to CollegeBound's annual survey of colleges and universities, many institutions are receiving upwards of a third of their applications online. For example, for the class entering in 2003, Brown University (R.I.) and St. Louis University (Mo.) received 30 percent of its applications electronically, more than in the previous year. CollegeBound notes that, of the schools it surveyed, 74 percent used electronic applications, up from 62 percent in 2002. One hundred percent of these institutions reported an increase in online applications in 2003.
Anyone with a collegebound child, or who has recently survived the process, will acknowledge the level of complexity associated with all these tasks. This complexity, combined with the academic, social, family, and financial pressure most students experience, leads to a high degree of confusion and frustration on the part of many. Some students abandon the entire application process, or choose the easy way out by applying to only one or two schools, perhaps those with only minimal application requirements.
This year, for example, a strong vocal music student we counseled finally pulled out of the application process at all but one institution--her state's public university--choosing a music program that will not offer her as many options or as much challenge as those she initially researched and visited. Overwhelmed by the choices and requirements, she chose the path of least resistance.
The major complaints about college applications revolve around the multiple requirements, the inconsistency of those demands, the repetitiveness of various tasks, and the complexity of the administrative process. Families are relieved when we walk through what they will need to do to complete the relatively simple and short Common Application.
Yet eyes begin to glaze over when they discover the multiple supplements to be completed, or the fact that several schools of interest do not accept this application. Students wish they could use the one central essay they have written which they feel best represents who they are, and are concerned when a college makes it very clear that they want a school-specific essay that was definitely not written with any other college in mind.
Having put together one comprehensive list of activities, awards, honors, work, and volunteer experience, order in terms of personal priority, and including involvement summarized by hours per week and weeks per year of participation, students are frustrated when asked to use "only the resume or activities format listed on our application."
Students who don't fit a neat and simple list, or who have sharp edges, pronounced angles, deep involvements in one or more activities, or complicating factors associated with their personal, academic, familial, or physical history, wish they had more room to elaborate. "Are you sure I should include that?" they ask. "It sounds like they don't want me to send anything else." Why, some colleges don't even require an essay, or even recommendations. Forget about an on-campus interview opportunity. How will these institutions get to know a student beyond the numbers?
More colleges are considering a student's demonstrated interest in attending the institution when making the admission decision. According to the National Association for College Admission Counseling's (www.nacac.com) latest "State of College Admission" survey, 32 percent of admission officers considered interest, or lack thereof, when evaluating an application when asked directly if they do so. Fifty-three percent of admissions officers said that demonstrated interest was of some importance when asked to rate various factors that affect the admissions decision.
Not surprisingly, smaller and private colleges are more likely to consider demonstrated interest. Students might demonstrate such interest, which is basically linked to knowledge of the college and a suggestion of intent to enroll if admitted, through campus visits and interviews, contacts with the admissions office, an Early Decision or Early Action application, or specification of a particular academic or professional focus or contact with a faculty member. While it is true that many institutions note that individual interest has an impact on the eventual yield of admitted students (the percent who will actually enroll), more colleges indicated that finding a good fit academically between student and school, and conducting an individualized, holistic review of all applications were stronger reasons for considering demonstrated interest.
Thus, students might show interest through a campus visit, an interview (when offered, and increasingly they are not), and through targeted writing and recommendations. Primarily, students should take the opportunity to write directly and specifically to colleges about why there is a logical fit, as we refer to it, between them and the institution. Recommendation writers should indicate what type of college will best serve a student, and perhaps even when one college in particular is appropriate. Students should follow up with colleges through one or more letters at key points in the admissions process to update admissions committees and indicate how much interest they have in the college and why.
The issue for colleges is how to be receptive to all this, in order to select the most appropriate, interesting, and interested class, and the individuals most likely to enroll and succeed upon doing so, without putting too much of a burden on students who, no matter how strong their interest, will necessarily look at and apply to other institutions.
Essay opportunities are one element where students can reveal personal interests and reasons why they are a good match for a college. Particularly when interviews, much to our chagrin, are being phased out at many institutions, and visits are too costly or time-consuming for many students applying from around the country and the world, the written application stands the best chance of showing real communication skills and research.
Despite the foibles of the essays, and the risk that they are overly-influenced by outside editors or even downloaded in complete form from an internet site, we see little alternative to their continued use. With the new option for admissions officers to view a student's timed, monitored New SAT Writing sample on the internet, perhaps students will be less apt to submit someone else's work, and admissions counselors will have a chance to compare the two different forms of writing.
Does your institution have a policy or program to attract and enroll students of lower socio-economic status? If so, and even if not, consider the impact of your application process and the demonstrated interest phenomenon on families less able to travel extensively for campus visits, and less sophisticated about how to show interest in other ways.
Some universities, such as Denison (Ohio), offer travel money to bring such students to campus, or assist with the completion of applications. Some, like the University of Vermont, establish relationships with high schools with large numbers of lower-income and underrepresented minority students and visit them to teach students how to apply for admission and financial aid.
The Common Application, or the variety of state-wide standardized applications or application services, can ask students to submit one or two essays that detail interests and personal strengths without demanding too much from students.
A short supplement can pose a "why us?" question, such as: "Given your strengths and interests, academic, personal, and extracurricular, why do you feel that XYZ University is a good match for you? Please be as specific as possible." Many IHEs, such as Emory University (Ga.), Georgetown University (D.C.), Bates College (Maine), and the University of Pennsylvania already ask such a question on their applications. Until we establish a national common application service, which seems unlikely for a long while to come, the Common Application seems the best model for the largest number of students. More institutions, such as Princeton (N.J.) and Yale (Conn.) have joined this program, and others, such as Dartmouth College (N.H.) and Harvard University (Mass.) have dramatically scaled back their own applications in favor of sole use of the Common Application in the admissions process. Public universities were also recently allowed to join the program.
Many colleges require short supplements to the Common Application, some of which are data-oriented, and others of which add a "why us" or alternate question. Other colleges that do not accept the Common Application might consider mirroring its format in order to simplify the process for students constructing a standard activities list and so on. It is also possible to add an opening for students to submit an additional something--a self-portrait, writing sample, more detailed resume focused on athletics, music, art, or volunteer service, or learning need.
Administrators should discuss with peers what has worked in terms of moving to the Common Application or another service. Did it increase applications? What were the effects on yield and the quality and diversity of students? Monitoring changes as they occur over several years will help you assess the impact of such a shift.
What are other ways to connect to students and learn their level of interest? How about a help desk for students completing the application, staffed by a senior admissions officer on phone or instant messaging at regular hours? Or perhaps an on-the-road required interview process, as is being done by the University of Denver (Colo.), which is bringing the interviews to students around the country? Or maybe e-mailing partially completed applications and waiving application fees, as Emory and Tulane (La.) are doing? You might consider conducting phone interviews with students who have completed applications. Establishing standardized applications for colleges in a similar peer or geographic group, perhaps based on athletic conference, is yet another possibility.
"Hi Howard and Matthew. We thought you might enjoy seeing how Reed handles their acceptances. They definitely have a creative style!" Thus writes one family in reaction to Reed College's (Ore.) unique invitation to click an e-mail link leading to a Flash-based, interactive web feature that slowly revealed to this applicant her admission offer. Certainly creative. Definitely different. And, most who know Reed would agree, reflective of the college's identity. This eye-catching electronic admission offer might not capture this student, but it caught her attention and conveyed Reed's culture on multiple levels.
There is no limit to the possibilities you can create to find, assess, and enroll students. Some institutions will continue, like the University of Chicago, with its "un-common application" or Northwestern University (Ill.), with its unique and demanding application questions, to require students to go the extra mile to complete their applications. Such institutions will indeed lose potentially appropriate and interested students who just cannot bring themselves to do the additional work, and, as such, the schools will find they attract a more self-selecting student body.
The fundamental dilemma for admissions officers and institutions as a whole is how they can convey meaning and personality about their institution during the application process, and ask questions they feel are important in order to know more about the right type of students for their school, without deterring too many students by adding complexity and requirements that will turn them off. Each college or university will need to find the right balance, responding to its needs and pool of applicants. Nevertheless, we encourage you to consider your current application process comprehensively, and to weigh the pressures and demands of the entire admissions process on families when designing your solutions.
Howard Greene and Matthew Greene are the authors of Greene's Guides to Educational Planning. To contact them, visit www.greenesguides.com.