Technology and College Admissions: Inside Information from the National Association of College Admissions Counselors (Part 1)

Notes from NACAC

During the 3-day national conference of the National Association of College Admission Counselors (NACAC), I had the opportunity to meet with college admission counselors, high school counselors and educational researchers from across the country. More than 5,000 individuals attended the conference to gain insight into the many changes underway in the world of college admissions: changes in admission criteria, technological developments, new financial realities and the increasing internationalization of American education. Naturally, I gravitated towards all break-out sessions involving the collegiate assessments and their role in the admissions process. Over the course of several short installments, I will impart to you the main lessons I took away from the conference.

Part 1: Technology on the rise in the admissions process

I will never forget the painstaking process of typing up my official application to Penn in the fall of 1993; that was the last time I used a typewriter. A year later I was learning how to navigate the Mosaic browser, surf the web, and send an e-mail. A short year after that, I was logging in to virtual classrooms to chat with my teachers and classmates.

The technologies that were in their infancy when I applied to college have matured to the point of now transforming the face of college admissions. Paper applications are historical artifacts; communications are now taking place by e-mail, Skype and YouTube; colleges are promoting themselves via student blogs, virtual college fairs and podcasts. Vast social networks have transformed the manner in which people learn about schools and communicate with one another.

Communications are going electronic

It should come as no surprise that electronic communications are now the norm for interactions between parents and admissions offices. According to one survey, when communicating with colleges only 7% of parents do not communicate electronically at some point during the admissions process. When communicating with their children about the college admissions process, 87% of parents use e-mail, 50% send links or articles, and 32% e-mail drafts of essays. When communicating with other parents about the admissions process, 66% of parents use e-mail.

Facebook and social networking

According to one national survey, over 90% of students applying to college and 50% of their parents have Facebook or Myspace accounts. Of the parents who are on Facebook, 50% are “friends” with their children (a trend that would delight many a family-systems therapist). Most college admissions officers have a professional Facebook account (often supplementing their personal accounts), and 70% of admissions officers have received friend requests from prospective students.

Generally, the younger, 20-something admissions officers, who grew up in the age of Facebook, are more comfortable with social networks than their more senior deans of admission. But the counsel we received was that admissions officers prefer not to communicate via Facebook, as it opens up a number of ethical issues for them. E-mail is the preferred method for electronic communication, and students must always use an appropriate, mature e-mail address in communications with the admissions office.

Protecting your online persona

Numerous admissions officers admit to doing some due diligence on prospective students via the Internet. Interns have been assigned the task of looking up prospective applicants online and checking out their online identity. It’s important that a student be aware of his or her online identity. Obviously, any inappropriate material on Facebook is not tolerated. And sometimes students don’t even realize what is connected to them via the Internet. One admissions officer related the story of a female applicant who innocently created a Facebook group: “I love Asians”. She genuinely felt an affinity for the Asian culture and for her Asian friends. She created the group and left. In time, other users got a hold of that group and moved it away from an innocent cultural affinity towards a different, less innocent direction. However, the student’s name remained affiliated with the authorship of this group. Once she found this out, the student was able to clear things up and dissociate herself from this group, but it only goes to illustrate the importance of protecting your online persona and ensuring that all material tied to you is above reproach.

Mystery friend requests

When it comes to Facebook, be mindful that anonymity is not always ensured. People can assume false identities for a variety of purposes. In an experiment, one researcher spent 17 minutes and created a false Facebook profile. The researcher made up a generic name -Lauren Anderson- and posted a generic photo found on Google of a friendly looking adolescent female. The researcher randomly “friended” 200 high school students. 59.5% accepted the friend request from this complete stranger, granting them access to their personal accounts and communications! Amazingly only 2 of the 200 students asked Lauren Anderson her who she was. Most everyone was simply happy to have another “friend”.

Colleges are reaching out to students using technology

Though they are rarely, if ever, communicating with students via Facebook, colleges are reaching out to prospective applicants in a variety of ways:

  • Student Blogs: Many colleges and universities are jumping into the blogosphere and promoting student blogs as a means of conveying a more personal sense of student life at their institution. Check out MIT’s student blog, where students get paid $10/hour for up to 4 hours a week to write about their experiences.
  • Podcasts: Colleges are putting classes and lectures and information sessions online, using both audio and video podcasts. More advanced universities are posting entire I-tunes courses. Here are a few audio podcasts offered by Indiana University.
  • YouTube channels: Colleges are uploading video content from lectures and activities for public consumption. You can now find lectures from the most prestigious professors and universities free online. Check out Berkeley’s official channel.
  • Online college fairs and open-houses: These allow students to browse through literature, chat with representatives and learn more about many schools from the comfort of their home.

Colleges are integrating new technologies into their admissions process

As more and more families have a high-bandwidth internet connection at home, more admissions offices are taking advantage of this by integrating new technologies into their selection process. Martha Allen, Dean of Admissions at Wake Forest University, discussed how WFU now requires a 20-30 minute interview from every one of its applicants; many of these interviews are taking place virtually through Skype’s web-cam-based technology. Andrew Flagel, Dean of Admissions at George Mason University, discussed how many of the students applying SAT/ACT optional are submitting video-essays on YouTube in lieu of admission test scores.

Private entities are offering up counsel on the admissions process via the Web

If you are looking for counsel from other parents and third parties, sites exist to aggregate this information:

  • With over a million posts, this site offers parents and students food for thought about the admissions process. Quite a few of those posting on the site are ill-informed, but some actually have a decent sense of how the process works. Surf with discretion!
  • Here you will find fewer posts, but more consistently accurate information.
  • College Parents of America offers advice on admissions, financial aid and more. 80,000 subscribers receive the free informational newsletter, and 30,000 paying members receive additional services.

Other resources exist to help parents make informed decisions

According to a national survey of parents with children applying to college, the web sites these parents visit most frequently are:

And for those who want to go low-tech, useful books are still in print to inform the college selection process:

Technology is facilitating greater parental involvement in the admissions process

With the recent technological advancements, parents are frequently becoming more involved in the college selection and admissions process. It is only natural that parents want to be involved in the admissions process as they are so materially invested in their children’s education. Few students will be financing their education completely independently of their parents. However, technology is allowing some parents with “helicopter” tendencies to become overly plugged in to this process.

One of the presenters told stories about the service which allows parents to be much more involved in their children’s education well before students enter the admissions process. Edline allows parents to log in and track every high school assignment and grade as soon as the grade is posted by the instructor, occasionally before the student is made aware of his own performance. Parents who are meticulously watching that junior year GPA can micro-manage at an entirely different level.

When it comes time to apply to college, some parents are using their child’s log-in to take over the admission process. This, in my opinion, is doing a great disservice to the student. Success in college requires a great deal of self-direction and self-regulation. A student who is denied the chance to oversee the application process is missing an important developmental opportunity. And if a student is completely unprepared to handle the demands of applying for college, he or she may be ill-prepared for the demands of succeeding in college. It may be time for a gap-year, rather than a straight path to college.

Parents need to channel their energies in positive ways to help their children, but they must remember that “WE are not applying to college.” The student alone is applying to college. This being said, parents are obviously not going to simply disappear during the application process, or during college, or after college—especially if they are paying for a large share of their child’s tuition and expenses. The proverbial cord is not being severed, and, in many cases, children will return home for a spell in their twenties. This is more and more commonly the case. But during the admissions process, many parents would benefit from assuming a “coaching” role to allow their children the chance to build the skills they will need to succeed in college.

Look for these upcoming installments:

  • Asian nationals and their growing impact on US college admissions
  • Trends in Admission Testing

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