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Yale leads Ivy admissions offices onto the web

By Kushal Dave

KOI ANUNTA/YH

For most Yale students, the college application process is a distant memory—though some may remember sitting down to write original and creative 500-word essays, licking dozens of envelopes (perhaps sealing them with a good-luck kiss) and rushing to the post office to send the heavy packets off to institutions across the country. Our counselors warned us to photocopy everything we sent, and to get a certificate of mailing, so that our admission would not fall victim to the whims of the U.S Postal Service.

But some students at other colleges have different memories of the applications process. Applications for many schools were available electronically when students currently at Yale were high school seniors—the University of California system, for example, instituted a completely paperless application process last year—but the Ivy League has lagged behind.

However, those pen and paper application rituals may be a thing of the past. In October, Yale University instituted an electronic submissions system which allowed applicants to submit basic information, becoming the first Ivy school to introduce such an online application, according to Yale admissions staff. Six months in development, it was the result of the concerted efforts of Ernst Huff Jill Carlton, the Executive Director and Associate Director, respectively, at Student Financial and Administrative Services (SFAS).

Ernst Huff points out that that the among the system's many other advantages, allows Yale to "remain competitive with peer institutions." There will also be an increase in convenience and responsiveness for prospective students. The application checks for invalid data and precludes errors and omissions by eliminating the data-entry step that typically occurs at the Admissions office. This also reduces the processing cost by making seasonal staff unnecessary.

The many benefits

Already, the system has seen extensive use. Since Mon., Oct 19, 988 students have started online applications, but only 125 have completed the entire process. These applications, however, account for only about 4% of the approximately 3300 applications in the system as of this writing. By the end of the season, 13,000 applications will have been completed. There is still a chance for greater publicity to allow for more extensive utilization of the site.

Margit Dahl, director of Undergraduate Admissions, is already beginning to see the advantages for the admissions department. "During our peak period in January, when we often have a two to three week backlog of paper applications to be processed and typed into the system, applications submitted over the web will become 'live applicants' that much sooner," she said.

Although Dahl does not predict many changes in the applicant pool itself—certainly very few random web surfers would complete the applications form—she sees possible benefits for foreign students and those applying close to the deadline. "It's conceivable that foreign applicants living in countries where the mail is unpredictable will find the web application that much more attractive, and with greater access to the application it's possible that we might see the greatest change in the foreign pool," Dahl said. "Students who decide to apply to Yale very close to our application deadline will also be able to turn around the initial part of their application very quickly."

Responding to the possibility that web applications might seem impersonal, Dahl cited the increased number of web-savvy pre-frosh, pointing out that paper remains option, and, for portions of the process, a requirement. "The folks who want us to see the imprint of their pen will still choose paper, and that's fine. But it's also pretty clear that teenagers today expect a high level of technical service—we were already getting calls last year from prospective applicants asking us if we had a web application available," Dahl said. "I think they appreciate the higher level of efficiency."

Back to paper

However, the admissions officers will still be reading hard copies of applications. Carlton explained that the applications are still printed out on paper to allow for consistency and ease in evaluation. "The admissions office is currently printing out the applications the way the paper application looks," Carlton said.

Yale currently participates in electronic systems for consolidated application to various universities, such as Apply from the Princeton Review and College Edge. However, both systems, at least in Yale's case, require that the forms be submitted via regular mail. Huff suggests that such services will not last. Since every college has its own needs, but students want the convenience of real electronic submission, "More and more the trend will be to do what Yale is doing."

User response

Huff believes that there are many potential Yalies on the web, and he views it as an ideal method of interaction for both parties. When the Yale admissions site implemented an online request form for viewbooks and applications, there was a significant improvement in efficiency and speed. "We felt that that was the wave of the future—more stuff on the web, more prospective students accustomed to using it," Huff said.

Huff may be overestimating his clientele. Explains Madhan Gounder, a high school senior currently applying to colleges who used the University of California's system's online application service, explained, "Most people are worried about the reliability of it and the fact that Internet connections might be too slow."

Gounder personally enjoys the online admissions system, however. "I love online applications. The UC app was a lot easier to do online than on paper because everything was spaced out and presented to you clearly—unlike the paper version—and it checks for you to see that you have filled all the required fields. I've seen the Yale application and it seems just as easy and convenient." However, he did point out that the UC system allows submission of the personal statement, fee, and signature online, options Yale is still working on.

Developing the Future

Java, the computer language that makes it possible to run complex programs over the Internet, provides both the front and back ends of the system. This allows the form to be filled in rapidly and interactively on the client side and to be integrated into a database at the Admissions office. Huff perceives it as a "solid system that will continue to develop over time." Using an ID and password, applicants can start part of the process and then finish later.

Alla Tsipenyuk, a Senior web Developer and one of the programmers on the project, described it as "demanding and intense." In six months, the development team had to go from a loose vision to a precise specification and then develop and test the software implementation and hardware support. "Rethinking their entire internal work flow and paper application processing" and working with cutting-edge Java was both "fun and stressful," Tsipenyuk said.

The programmers were forced to limit themselves so that they could remain compatible with Microsoft and Netscape browsers of versions three or above. However, they were still able to incorporate a great deal of interactivity and customization, of which Tsipenyuk is proud. She says other schools' applications "are not as interactive and dynamic as ours, they don't offer such in-depth data validation features and instructions."

Still, while students can submit information such as test scores and biographical information, application fees, essays and teacher recommendations still must be submitted via paper mail, though the forms for these items can be printed out from the site. Eventually it will be possible to use credit cards to pay the fee on the web site.

'Icing on the cake'

Huff explains that the development is part of a general overhaul of the student services' technological infrastructure that will cost $5 million dollars over five to six years. In fact, it was lack of adequate technology that kept SFAS from instituting such a system sooner. "It's part of a very major project both to make it easier for matriculating students and prospective students," Huff said. He describes the electronic application system as "icing on the cake." Dahl, too, is proud of the project. "The Yale application is an impressive piece of work, far different and more sophisticated than what most other schools are using,"

Carlton stated her enthusiasm more succinctly. "I think it's terrific," she said.


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