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How Technology Is Transforming Admissions: 3 Stories

Tufts University, Washington College, and George Mason University share some of the ways they're using technology tools to reach, engage, and ultimately admit prospective students.

Paper applications and direct mail catalogs are going the way of the 8-track tape as more colleges and universities turn to technology for new student recruiting, communication, and information exchange. They're showing off their campuses and highlighting activities with online videos uploaded to the Web, "talking" to students on Facebook and Twitter, and processing online applications.

Video Essays at Tufts U
At some institutions, that tech-based information stream flows both ways. Tufts University in Medford, MA, for example, added an online video option to its application process in February.

The move allowed the prospective class of 2014 (and those following it) to produce its own videos in addition to the two short, written essays traditionally required. Capped at one minute in length, the videos fulfill the institution's requirement for one additional essay.

Social Networking at Washington College
Washington College in Chestertown, MD has also turned to technology to streamline its admissions process. There, Aundra Weissert, assistant director of admissions, said the movement to upgrade admissions started in 2008, the year she was graduated from Washington College and was hired for her current position. "I was put in charge of evolving our admissions office's online presence," recalled Weissert, "using social media and private social networks and the tools being offered by technology vendors."

Weissert said the push to move the institution's admissions department into the technology age coincided with the fact that more students were interacting and connecting with each other and with their schools online. "We know our students do a lot on the Web," said Weissert, "so we knew we needed to harness its power and start connecting in that way."

One of the admissions department's first moves involved setting up a way to connect with prospective students via e-mail. It sounded simple enough, but, Weissert said, the initiative was a major step for a school that had previously conducted most of its new student communication via mail and phone. Next came the introduction of a monthly (recently upgraded to biweekly) e-mail newsletter created for prospective students.

In the six-pane digital newsletter, Weissert and her team use photos and short text descriptions to highlight campus events, activities, clubs, and recent student awards. "Prospective students want to know what they're going to be doing on campus," said Weissert. The publication also highlights one student or faculty member per issue, discussing what that person is doing on campus (by highlighting a "cool lecture" that the professor gave recently, for example) and tying it into the student experience.

Washington College is also using Facebook to share information about its campus, academics, and faculty and to interact with prospects. The institution recently set up a Facebook page that caters to its class of 2014 and has "already picked up a lot of fans, most of whom use it as a news outlet," according to Weissert, who said she sees untapped potential in the social networking site. "I think there's a way that we could be better leveraging Facebook and social networking in admissions, but we haven't fully tapped that yet."

Weissert said the college is also experimenting with online video and planning to integrate more of it into the admissions process in the future. Last year, for example, her department set up a "freshman video booth" on campus. Students were encouraged to step in front of the camera to talk about themselves, their hometowns, why they chose Washington College, and what they like about the school. Weissert used some of the footage to create short online spots and then uploaded them to the admissions department's Web page for prospects to view.

"We're really focused on visuals--lots of pictures and videos," said Weissert, whose technology wish list currently includes a student recruitment management system that integrates all of the various tasks she and her team have to perform when working with prospects. "We still have paper files," said Weissert, "and while we're not sure about going paperless, it would be great to have an online system where the data is accessible and constantly being refreshed."

Reaching Out to Stealth Prospects at George Mason U
George Mason University in Washington, DC is also integrating more technology into its admissions process. Andrew Flagel, dean of admissions, said the biggest shift has been the way in which prospective students interact with universities during the decision-making process. "Thanks to technology, they can secretly shop around at different institutions without providing any information to those schools," said Flagel.

The challenge for admissions departments, said Flagel, is to get those students to interact with the schools that they're looking at--and not just surf the Web collecting information in that "stealth-like" manner.

Technology is also changing admissions departments' internal operations, where innovations like electronic transcripts--which allow for seamless transfer of student information between departments and schools--have finally become a reality. "The idea has been discussed for 25 years," said Flagel, "but we're at the point now where we're starting to realize the benefits of electronic transcripts for the admissions process."

Flagel, whose team uses blogs, social networking, online videos, and other technology tools when working with prospective students, said those innovations haven't changed the decision process. College catalogs may be available for quick reading online, for example, and students may be able to interact quickly with admissions departments through social networking sites, but it still comes down to grades and performance.

"All the flashy tools don't shift the [admissions] decision," said Flagel, "which is still based on the student's academic record."

Technology also can't make up for a school's shortcomings, even if that institution has an information-packed Web site that's hooked into every social network on earth. "At the end of the day, the successful institution will be the one that distinguishes itself during a time when students are getting inundated with information," said Flagel, "not the one with the massive online marketing campaign."

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