Since I work closely with admissions offices, I am frequently asked about best practices for a smooth application process. Let me start by saying that there is no magic formula for the perfect application cycle. For example, while some organizations might choose to employ a rolling deadline, others may have a fixed deadline, and each has its opportunities and its challenges. Although each application process should be customized to reflect the needs and values of its organization, here are the top tips I recommend to clients preparing for their next application cycle.
1) Ensure all questions have a clear purpose
Have you ever joined a meeting without a clear agenda and found yourself wondering “why am I here?” Applicants can feel the exact same way when they encounter lengthy applications with sections of questions that do not seem particularly applicable to them. Shorter applications feel more manageable and are more likely to be completed. The more completed applications you receive, the more choice you will have in your selection process.
Here are suggestions to consider for shortening your application:
- Go through your application and for every question, ask yourself “is this an answer we use for admissions, or is it a datapoint we need to know about our selected applicants?” If it is the latter, consider deleting those questions and gathering them later in the admissions or selection process.
- Use conditional logic. For example, if you only require PhD students to provide information about the university they attended for their Master’s degree, do not show that section to students applying for their Bachelor’s degree.
- Cut down on optional questions. If questions are important, they should be required. If optional questions do have a specific value or purpose in your selection process, add information text to explain the value to the applicant. Providing this context can help them more quickly decide whether or not they need to complete the optional section.
If you must ask several questions, consider breaking them up into shorter pages that are grouped by a clearly labeled topic or section. For example, perhaps some of your disparate questions relate to “Eligibility” and that helps applicants understand why they are filling them out.
2) Test, test, and test again
If you were about to present to a large group, you would probably walk through your presentation with a few trusted people first to gather their feedback. Think of your application as a presentation to your applicants. What makes sense to you might not make sense to someone else, so be sure you pull in others to help proof the application. If you have a small staff running your admissions team (we know of many one man or woman departments out there!), try to think of who else you could enlist for testing - we have seen many fellowships successfully engage their alumni on a volunteer basis to complete test applications and share feedback.
3) Send out reminders
We are all human, and we all forget things. Applicants are no exception. We very often see applicants who think that they have submitted their application, and only after the deadline realize they never went in to push that “Submit” button. Do both yourself and your applicants a favor and send out reminder emails based on the status of their application. Be sure to remind them of the deadline. If their application is incomplete, tell them. If their application is missing recommendations, tell them. If you haven’t received their payment, well...you get the idea. We all make mistakes, and setting up even just one wave of reminders before the deadline will go a long way in increasing your number of completed applications for consideration.
4) Decide on your deadline policies before the deadline
Deadline time can be just as stressful for those running the application as it is for those applying. Administrators are often responding to a high volume of applicant queries, while also trying to set their sights on moving into the application review process. I highly recommend that each of our clients make a decision about their own policies related to the closing of their applications, late submissions, and fee waivers far ahead of the deadline. Locking these policies in early can help prevent the headache of making these important decisions while under the pressure of deadline day.
On the topic of closing the application, some clients intentionally leave their applications open slightly past the posted time for applicants, and up to a week longer (if possible) for recommenders. The logic is that by keeping the portal open, you are minimizing any notes from applicants (or recommenders) about technical or time-related issues. If the application is open longer, you know that you have provided some buffer, and it makes it a bit easier to politely decline applicants who do come back to say they have missed the deadline.
Whatever your policies might be, deciding ahead of time will make deadline day that much easier.
5) Pick a deadline time you can easily live with
I highly recommend noon or 5pm deadlines over midnight deadlines, unless you would like to have a late night up with your applicants! Many of our clients previously had midnight deadlines and found themselves wrapping up at 2am after answering last minute questions from applicants. An earlier deadline will let you jump into the review process the next day with a full night’s sleep.
As noted at the outset, there is no “one-size fits all” process for the application process. But by adopting these few easy best practices, I predict that things might go a bit more smoothly the next time around.
This article has been provided by Devyn Gardner, VP of Partnerships at Embark, a leading provider of online application and admissions software for schools, universities and fellowships.