The Best Way to Review Admissions Applications? “Screen” Them

The Best Way to Review Admissions Applications? “Screen” Them

A recent front-page article in The New York Times provides a glimpse into the working world of those responsible for making undergraduate admissions decisions at selective institutions. In a verbal snapshot of the committee review stage at Rice University, the article captures a scene in which committee members are collectively viewing and discussing applicant files presented on a large plasma screen.                                             

The description is brief, yet highly illuminating for anyone familiar or tasked with application review. The insight here is that the committee at Rice is not poring through piles of paper documents strewn across a table and covered with handwritten sticky notes. Instead, committee members are quickly, conveniently pulling up on-screen what are no doubt complete student application files. Clearly, these files are being stored, managed and accessed electronically.

For institutions at which admissions processing and application review still move through cumbersome, paper-laden steps, this glimpse into the electronic environment at Rice will no doubt be a source of envy. For Enrollment VPs and Admissions directors at those schools, it should also be cause for alarm.

Why “alarm”? Simple: Paper-reliant schools face a significant competitive disadvantage in the race to admit the cream of the applicant crop. The mere fact that application files can be viewed electronically suggests that an entire admissions process can be driven in an automated manner – from front-end document processing through checklist updating of the student information system (SIS) to assigning and routing files for review. When schools use automation to eliminate manual slowdowns and reduce process bottlenecks, they outshine their peers in timely response and faster decision-making during pressure-filled admissions cycles.

And, it’s not only about speed. It’s about speed with quality. As more and more colleges and universities look to bolster their competitive profiles, they must target increasingly granular demographic breakdowns in order to identify best-fit incoming applicants. The Times article’s focus on the key review criterion of ethnicity underscores the reality that the emerging admit pool at any selective school is steadily being shaped, sorted and reshaped based on a broad range of factors. These include ethnicity, of course, but also commonly scrutinized data points such as high school profile, test scores, scholarship eligibility, athletics, legacy considerations, geographic origin (local, state, regional, international), and so on.

Schools still mired in paper-based processing and reporting will struggle to gain comprehensive visibility into the applicant pool – the kind necessary for true knowledge-based decision-making. That’s because typical approaches include maintaining demographic data in spreadsheets separate from the application files or periodically exporting the data elements from the SIS in the form of paper summary sheets. In neither case is the data conveniently presented in quickly sorted, easily compared fashion within the real-time context of reviewing multiple, competing applications.

Meanwhile, those schools already “screening” their application files – i.e., transforming the documents, the data and the processes surrounding them into a single, seamless electronic view – are setting the pace.


Tom von Gunden

Tom von Gunden directs Hyland’s market research, strategy and advisory initiatives in higher education. Tom holds a Ph.D. from The Ohio State University and spent more than a dozen years... read more about: Tom von Gunden

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