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Prioritizing Applicant Experience

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Learning from Students

After five years experience as an admissions officer, last fall I traveled throughout China with a startup that is matching international students with American graduate mentors to Screen Shot 2015-07-29 at 2.04.09 PMassist in the application process (pictured, right, next to my very serious popup display banner). I was welcomed by highly enthusiastic and intelligent crowds at over a dozen top Chinese universities. Perhaps a bit jaded after giving hundreds of such presentations, I thought I was ready for anything. But taking the stage one day, a confident student raised her hand and asked, “Most of us are at the top of our fields academically. Why is it we need to attend a lecture on how to apply to graduate school? ” Stunned, I also knew this was a completely fair question. As education professionals we need to come to terms with the fact that this process we’ve created is neither efficient nor intuitive.

Reflecting on Process

It’s not just international students who have difficulty. A major complication in the graduate admissions process stems from friction between paper and digital processes. There are transcripts, and test scores, and essays, and visas, and recommendations with requirements that vary from program to program, often without any guidance from the offices themselves. In fact, one gets the feeling that many universities don’t care about the applicant experience. Sometimes the hurdles to applicant experience are in outdated processes or technology, but at conferences I’ve overheard numerous colleagues who took pride in their Byzantine application process, almost as a “test” to see which students were worthy. If schools want to continue to meet enrollment goals, this needs to change.

Four Reasons Applicant Experience Matters:

Positive branding. Application experience is seen as a proxy for quality of institution, especially for STEM students.

More applications. Students simply abandon an application if they feel the process is poorly executed.

Less phone calls/emails. Confused applicants flood phone lines and email inboxes with technical issues, reducing staff productivity.

Higher yield. Students with a better application experience are more likely to enroll.

Experience in Action

DecisionDesk recently worked with Texas A&M University MS Statistics and MS Analytics programs that prescreen applicants for base-level GPA and degree locations. But doing so required applicants to download a document, fill it out, then email back to the director. Describing this process as tedious, directors noticed that when appealing to an elite applicant pool and trying to attract only the best to an exclusive program, a poor application experience damaged candidate relationships and created a “reputation hazard” for the programs. We arrived at a solution that enabled Texas A&M to:

•  Capture program, GPA, test scores, and essays into an easily accessible, centralized location.
•  Clearly display the university brand and technology friendliness
•  Ability to encourage applicants to finish their application, and offer help if materials are missing.

These solutions are just the beginning of an evolution in application technology that is enabling universities and students to match in more efficient and exciting ways. When auditing your own application process, use this Application Quality Checklist to ensure you’re providing the best experience:

Application Quality Checklist

•  Consistent look and feel of your institution
•  Clear deadline expectations
•  Centralized portal and digital submission of all materials
•  Robust technical support for applicants and recommenders
•  Confirmation materials have been received
•  Ability to save and return
•  Apply and submit via mobile
•  Integration with payment gateways, transcript providers, and CRM

About the Author: Evan Cudworth is Director of Content at DecisionDesk. Former Director of Content and Media and New York Director of Admissions at the University of Chicago, he worked with technology teams across the university to prioritize student interaction experience.