Wired Admission

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This year's college application season has been a doozy for the admissions office at the University of Dayton. By mid-February, it had received 6,775 applications for the fall class of 2003, up 11.5 percent from last year and a whopping 37.5 percent increase from two years ago. Colleges around the country, from the Ivy League to state schools, have reported similar increases.

Demographics tell part of the story: there are simply more kids graduating from high school these days than in past years. The Internet may be swelling the applicant pool as well. Today, prospective students can hop on the Web and apply to many colleges online, via university home pages as well as third-party sites. Some schools, including the University of Dayton, even encourage "e-apps" by waiving the application fee for students who file online, and the response has been dramatic: In 1997, the first year the University of Dayton offered e-apps, only 2 percent of applicants tried it. This year, with the fee waived, that figure soared to 49 percent.

One benefit of e-apps, admissions counselors say, is access to more timely data on the applicant pool. Duke University's graduate school rolled out its e-app last October using ApplyYourself, an electronic admissions program from LAM Technologies of Fairfax, Virginia, and received 22 percent of its applications online. "We would have been thrilled with 10 percent," says Donna Giles, assistant dean of admissions at the graduate school. Giles and her team knew what was coming early on because each person who started an application received a PIN number. Not everyone who received a number turned in a completed application, but the counter provided a preview of what to expect. The data also showed that the average time it took to complete Duke's application was 20 days-and that 7 percent of those online submissions came in just shy of the midnight deadline. "Every piece of information in the database can be studied," says Len Metheny, Jr., president of LAM Technologies. "Counselors can look at how many of [their] applicants have studied a foreign language, played sports, and so on."

MIT's Sloan School of Management took a radical step this year: it required all prospective students to file applications online. "We're simply taking advantage of the technology," says Rod Garcia, director of MBA admissions. "And there's evidence that close to 100 percent of our applicants have access to computers."

Garcia notes that e-apps can also enhance recruiting efforts significantly. If the school wants to sponsor an event for minorities and women right after the deadline passes, he says, online applications can be quickly mined and invitations sent out in short order. Try that with mountains of paper applications piled on several admissions officers' desks. And such quick turnarounds can one-up the competition courting the same individuals, Garcia adds.

Unlike MIT, most colleges are still trying to figure out how to integrate e-apps into their admissions process. One dilemma facing administrators is whether to offer their applications on third-party resource sites in addition to their own home pages. These sites attract lots of eyeballs because they post applications and information about many colleges.

College Edge, for example, says it processed 500,000 e-apps this year. But the eyeballs come with a hefty price: College Edge for example, in addition to a per-application processing fee, charges colleges anywhere from $10,000 to $40,000 for its services, which include access to a recruitment database, e-mail management, and event scheduling. For the time being, most admissions offices are doing both, teaming up with third parties and developing their own Web presence.

There is still a long way to go to streamline the process. Duke's Giles admits that her staff prints out e-apps -how else to collate them with academic transcripts and recommendations letters that trickle in through snail mail? She might want to talk to the crew at the University of Dayton. They scan everything into computers so counselors can peruse an applicant's entire file electronically. There are limits, of course. MIT, for example, doesn't plan to e-mail rejection and acceptance notices just yet. "People think e-mail is informal," says admissions director Garcia. "They won't hesitate to write back."

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