Odds are that when you applied for college, “friend” was not a verb. The Internet has changed so much in the college search and application process that it’s dangerous to make assumptions based on 20- or 30-year-old facts. We talked to admissions officers from several state colleges and universities about what today’s parents need to know.
When asked to offer just one key piece of advice admissions experts don’t have to think twice. “Start the process early so you can narrow your choices. The trend seems to be applying to upwards of 10 institutions, and to try to apply and visit all those schools is unrealistic and unaffordable for most folks,” says Brian Jones, acting director of admissions for Minnesota State University Mankato. “Use your sophomore and junior years to narrow your search to three to five schools.”
For Wayne Sigler, director of undergraduate admissions at the University of Minnesota, the emphasis is on academics. “Take as challenging and rigorous a course load as you can handle in high school,” he explains. “Our research and national research shows that the best way to be successful in college is to take challenging academics.”
Schools can now fill their web sites with stunning photographs to make their campuses instantly appealing — which is exactly the point, says Jones. “The web makes the search process easier for students, but every school has pretty pictures online to make their campus look nice,” says Jones. “You won’t know until you set foot on campus and walk around whether the school is right for you.”
Admissions offices are creating Facebook pages and opening Twitter accounts to connect with high school kids. The U’s office of admissions even has its own YouTube channel filled with videos of Goldy Gopher doing laundry in the dorms, a tour of the new stadium, and interviews with current students. A blog written by a current student named Trisha gives a firsthand account of campus life, including photos of her cramped dorm room.
“We want to allow students to personalize the admissions process as much as possible, so we let them receive information they value in a format they value,” says Sigler. One no-no of the Internet age: Don’t ‘friend’ actual people in the admissions office. Everyone from the New York Times to Sigler himself says professional boundaries still apply.
For many schools, essays and personal statements are no longer part of the admissions process. Neither the U nor Mankato requires any sort of written element in their applications.
“We’ve found that we get sufficient information from what the students submit in our application and from high school transcripts,” Sigler explains. “But we tell applicants that if there’s anything they want us to know about them that we’ll read whatever they send us. We want to strike an appropriate balance between high tech and high touch.”
More than 80 percent of U of M and Mankato applicants apply online, which means they can follow their application’s progress as soon as they hit send. The University of Minnesota has an Application Tracker tool that lets students monitor which pieces of their application have arrived (or whether they need to nudge their guidance counselors to get those transcripts in) and even see whether a decision has been made.
Similarly Mankato sends helpful emails to let applicants know if they are missing pieces of their application. The only drawback? “Students expect an answer just as quickly,” says Jones, who points out the schools still have the same amount of material to sort through.
Has the kind of student they are looking for changed? Both Jones and Sigler say no. “Our admissions requirements are not geared to keeping people out,” says Jones. “We want students who will be successful and prepared to graduate.”
For Sigler, that means keeping enrollment in line with the U’s resources, a tough job when applications are on a major upswing: Between 2004 and 2009 the school experienced an application increase of 67 percent. Of the roughly 33,000 applicants vying for a spot in the class of 2013, only around 5,350 made it to campus.