Introducing: The Hacker’s Guide to Admissions

Written by:

Building a Brilliant Application Process on a Budget


If you’re reading this, you’re probably frustrated. All you want is modern software that can streamline your admissions process and yield the right students. Yet many institutions are still grappling with inefficiencies left over during the transition from paper to digital workflow. How does a small enrollment team grapple with an increasingly complex web of tasks?

Entrepreneurs often face a similar frustration: that’s why startup companies commonly find ‘Hacks’ to create high growth, industry leading sales, marketing, and operational processes. These shortcuts are created by leveraging simple, scalable, and (best of all) cheap Web tools. Many of these tools have only entered the market in the past 5-8 years. We’ve found that large, enterprise software vendors often don’t keep up with the blistering pace of innovation created by these simple services.

But where does that leave you—the Dean/Director/Administrator who needs a digital application workflow on a budget? You’re forced to choose between wildly outdated workflows (like emailing PDFs) or exorbitantly expensive enterprise software. Can you spend $1m to create the mother of all marketing and admissions stacks? … of course you can! Still, even when you fork over the cash, you learn that that NO ONE has the perfect admissions product (even though every vendor will promise you the moon). Implementations go off the rails, deadlines are missed, complex features interfere with data integrity, and sometimes you can’t get anyone to fix a simple text field error for weeks.

Universities and vendors have made the admissions process increasingly confusing over time. There is frequently a tug of war between the requirements of marketing & outreach, processing, application review & decisioning, information technology, and financial aid. This conflict results in a lack of shared understanding over how all of these pieces fit together and work towards a common institutional goal. If the actual workflow challenges weren’t already complicated enough, the problem is exacerbated by departmental fiefdoms, campus politics, and legacy ERPs. The purpose of this guide is to dispel the notion that building a great marketing & admissions stack is nearly impossible, or that it needs to be extremely expensive.

The catch? You have to learn how to think (and act) like a startup. But this is your lucky day, because after eight years in the startup space, we’ve discovered cheap/free software that helps us do our jobs better, and we want to show you how they might work for admissions teams as well. In fact, we’ll demonstrate that for ~$20,000 (about the MSRP of a new Honda Civic), you can get the vast majority of the functionality that you need—and achieve improvements in your admissions systems. Plus, you’ll have a more flexible, agile, approach.

Don’t worry—this will be fun!

Chapter 1: How Enrollment is like Entrepreneurship

Let’s find some common ground

DecisionDesk was founded by musicians in a college dorm as a way to alleviate the pain surrounding audition review – and ever since we have been perfecting a scalable online application and review product. On the front end, we’ve devised tools that work the way your users think, employing modern web standards and intuitive workflows.

Digging into our startup roots, we’ve observed that streamlining an admissions process and running operations for a small company aren’t too dissimilar. Our company has spent thousands of hours and hundreds of thousands of dollars on different software tools—none of them ‘perfect,’ many of which overlap in functionality—trying to get them all to ‘just work’. Whenever we overspend, over-engineer, and overthink, we fall back to a simpler set of highly functional, easy-to-understand tools. A rule of thumb in the startup world is that simple is good. Simple provides options. Simple is easily understood across an organization.

Universities are not startups. They are complex organizations. This guide does not suggest that you rip apart your systems and start from scratch. However, there are many similarities between our organizations. By understanding the way in which simple tools can drive immense value, you can begin bettering your practices immediately, and continue pushing forward incrementally.

Enrollment Funnel = Sales Funnel

Hopefully we’re on the same page here, but sales shouldn’t be considered a dirty word anymore. In fact, most startup companies (and admissions offices) are hiring individuals with customer success and marketing backgrounds to drive satisfaction and revenue. They’re the ones who develop your brand, and who understand product/market/culture fit and how to drive value via data.  

The average admissions team is about the size of a small company. The roles are diverse, but ultimately the team wakes up each day and does the following:

  • Finds prospects who have indicated interest in their institution, or who they believe would be a fit for their institution
  • Convert those prospects into engaged applicants who have found a track into the institution (program, specialty, affiliation, etc) through a qualification process
  • Admit the applicants who have the best chance of succeeding at the institution, while meeting the financial requirements to balance the books
  • Impress value and uniqueness upon those selected applicants to optimize their chance of enrolling

But then let’s get the ugly part out of the way: Every school is unique, with homegrown workflows, and entrenched practices created by colleagues you’ve probably never met, and who may no longer even work at your institution. Many staff positions exist within silos. Rules and standards across the organization are not always complimentary – and may even be contradictory. It’s hard to see measurable impact day to day in such an environment.

Startups—on the other hand—tend to be lean, with relatively flat hierarchies and focused objectives.  Those that thrive are the ones that empower every employee to drive value, with a unified definition of what value means, even when they grow from 5, to 50, to 500 employees. Still, when we wake up at a startup, our jobs look quite similar to that of an admissions team:

  • Finds leads who have indicated interest in their product
  • Convert those leads into engaged opportunities, who have found a track into the product through a qualification process
  • Commit the opportunities who have the best chance of gaining value from your product, while meeting the financial requirements to balance the books
  • Impress value and uniqueness upon those selected opportunities to optimize their chance of signing a deal

In standard sales and business development terms: Lead > Opportunity > Commit > Deal

Screen Shot 2016-08-03 at 11.06.15 AM

Get your entire organization oriented around this 10,000 foot view. Startups that fail, typically focus on the trees without ever noticing the forest. Your enrollment organization should remember there’s a big picture here. If your role doesn’t draw a direct line of impact to one or more of those steps… then as the Bob’s put it…

Screen Shot 2016-08-03 at 11.07.13 AM

Stay tuned! Chapters 2 – 5 to be published over the next several weeks.