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Don’t Turn Your Admissions Cycle into the Season of Dread

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Every year, it seems, one or more institutions raise students’ hopes of admission only to dash them with erroneous acceptance announcements. This year is no different. Early in the admissions season, several dozen rejected applicants to Vassar College were greeted with congratulatory acceptance letters. To the dismay of both the applicants and Vassar College, generic letters, intended only for portal testing purposes, had been inadvertently left online for all to see when prospects logged in to check their admission status. Oops.

Similar damage was done at the U.K.’s prestigious Cambridge University, where several hundred applicants who received acceptance emails were later informed that they had, in fact, been rejected. Ouch. Most recently, at UCLA, students on the admissions waiting list received emails regarding their financial aid status. These emails inadvertently included language congratulating these wait list students for having been accepted for admission. What?

These are far from isolated incidents. Over the past few years, several more institutions have had to wipe egg from their prominent faces after admissions processing glitches produced similarly embarrassing results. When these kinds of frustration-inducing events occur, the public apologies typically include an explanation pointing to computers/technology as the culprit – somehow the computer-aided delivery mechanism (e.g., email) failed.

But look just below the surface, and the root cause tends to be human error or a failure of oversight in using the technology. At Cambridge, someone sent emails to the wrong distribution list. At Vassar, no one noticed the test version of the acceptance letter was still posted when the online portal went live for prospect access. Kudos to the representative from UCLA, who at least publicly acknowledged that human error was a factor in the conflicting messages sent to students.

Errors happen. And that’s unfortunate – both for the prospective students whose celebrations become short-lived and for the conscientious staffers who come to realize the impact of mistakes they unknowingly made. What can institutions do to minimize, if not eliminate, such gaffs from occurring?

A good start is to embrace automated, computer-aided capabilities that reduce the number of opportunities for human intervention to put accuracy at risk. In admissions review and decision-making, this means putting some controls in place regarding how decision letters are issued.

For instance, have the software (typically an ECM platform) driving and monitoring the flow of application files through the review and decision process also automatically update the student information system (SIS) with decision data. By allowing an automated system to perform the updates (as opposed to having staff manually enter this data), you’ll eliminate the possibility that decisions to admit or deny become erroneously associated with the wrong students.

Next, have the ECM platform trigger the SIS to create decision letters and emails, or have the ECM platform handle document creation natively. If performed by the ECM platform, document creation capabilities ensure the text of outbound letters and emails includes phrasing appropriate only for particular students, based on their admissions status.

As an additional safeguard, make sure you’re generating distribution lists based on filtered reports culled either from where the decision was made (the ECM platform) or from where the decision was recorded (the SIS). This guarantees the letters to be delivered are associated with applicants based on how they have already been identified and tagged in those systems in the appropriate decision categories – admit, deny, wait list, etc.

By taking these precautions made possible by automation, you’ll help to avoid student disappointment, bad press and guilt-wracked staff members who were only trying to do the right thing. But didn’t.

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