Why wait? Colleges try 'instant admission'

When Angie Douglass decided to apply to college two weeks ago, she wanted to know right away if she was admitted. So instead of mailing her application, she walked down the hall of her high school to the guidance counselor's office.

There, a visiting admissions officer from Western Michigan University at Kalamazoo greeted her, took her application, and began checking grades and test scores. Minutes later, the woman looked up, smiling.

"You're in," Ms. Douglass recalls her saying. Instantly, she felt relieved and excited, the load of college-hunting lifted from her senior-year shoulders.

Some call it "instant admission," while others dub it "immediate" or "on-site" admissions. Whatever you call it, a trend toward rendering speedy decisions in person is turning on its head the long wait for a "fat envelope" in the mail.

Public universities, community colleges, and even a selective college or two are adding this approach to their repertoire.

Some charge that it "manipulates" the process. But high-schoolers say they like the speedy decision, personal service, and ability to weigh various scholarship offers and shop around even after being admitted.

On the downside, it can be a wrenching experience. And students might tend to limit their search once they've been admitted somewhere.

Nobody knows exactly how many schools practice instant admissions. Fewer than a dozen institutions responded to an e-mail survey by the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers. But about three dozen references to instant or immediate admissions programs appear at different university websites.

Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the association, says many colleges now wield speed and personal service as a competitive weapon.

"What is driving this is a customer-oriented approach, which began in the 1980s," he says.

Most of California's 27 state universities now offer "instant admission days" on selected high school campuses, says Selma Mayhew, supervisor of admissions and records at the Northridge campus. On the East Coast, William Paterson University in Wayne, N.J., began doing so about three years ago.

Advocates concede that the fast-answer system may not work for highly selective institutions, and probably works best for universities with clear-cut admissions criteria based mainly on grades and test scores.

The advantage for such schools is that those who apply this way are generally better students. And, because of the personal touch, a higher percentage of these applicants go on to attend that university after being admitted.

"If a student comes to an on-site interview, it's an indication that student is very interested in us," says John Fraire, dean of admissions at Western Michigan.

Other schools, however, find a middle ground: They keep the personal touch when delivering the admissions decision, but still review applications in advance. Thomas Reason, assistant director of admissions at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, says the "immediate decision" approach involves far too much manpower to be broadly useful with so many applicants.

Each fall, Wisconsin representatives attend a gathering of 40 universities at Barrington and Deerfield, two top high schools in the Chicago area.

At these unusual, high-intensity information sessions, a key feature is that school representatives also tell students face to face if they've been admitted or not. The news is often good, but not always. "It can be pretty awkward and troublesome," Mr. Reason says. "We word our [denial] letters very carefully so individuals have time to read and digest what we're telling them, to help them understand."

The in-person method doesn't allow students time to reflect, he says. "I've had students crying at my desk - followed up by phone calls by mom and dad."

Even so, students get deferrals more often than outright denials.

For representatives from Western Michigan, the occasional letdown is just one more opportunity to help kids plan more effectively. It's a skill their officials hone while barnstorming dozens of high schools throughout Michigan and elsewhere. "We turn it into a counseling session, a service to help them understand what they need to do," Mr. Fraire says.

At least some students say the face-to-face option is worth the risk.

"It's no more stressful than the rest of the college-application process," says Leda Ghannad, a senior at Deerfield who was admitted on the spot to the University of Wisconsin.

Bruce Scher, a college adviser at Barrington who started the event six years ago, says in-person admissions decisions do not diminish the admissions process, a criticism he says comes from competing high schools.

"Even if it's difficult, it can become a useful teaching moment," he says. "Kids are getting the word faster. And it humanizes an application process that can seem mysterious."

Even elite Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., offers an "immediate admission plan." Students call to reserve a time during a visit, sending applications in a week or two ahead. Each is interviewed individually on campus.

"It's almost an old-school, old-world approach to admission," says Mary Backlund, Bard's director of admissions. "Students leave that day with a clear idea of whether they are, or are not, accepted.... Nothing has the level of quality of this kind of conversation."

Jessica Leinwand, a senior at Hereford High School in Parkton, Md., went through the Bard process a few days ago.

"I'm very very relieved [college hunting] is off of my list," Ms. Leinwand says. "A bunch of us walked over to the office as a group and [an admissions officer] had our letters waiting for us. We opened them as a group, you know, - you just open your letters and say, 'yeah!' "

E-mail claytonm@csps.com

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