Speed-selecting a college
When Jess Maddox, a high school senior, settles in for a session trolling the Internet for the right college to attend, he often clicks from one college website to the next, giving each a quick scan.Skip to next paragraph
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How quick? Maybe a minute. If he finds something intriguing, he might spend 10 to 15 minutes "drilling down" into a site looking for virtual tours, student profiles, and curriculum information.
That pace might seem frenetic, but it's actually relatively relaxed. Eight seconds on a college website is more typical for prospective applicants, experts say. If they don't make a snap connection, they jump.
Yet that fleeting virtual visit has become a "make-or-break" moment for colleges trying to woo a new generation to apply for admission, says John Swiney, director of admissions at California State University at Chico.
"You don't have a lot of time to get their attention," he says. "Just 7 to 20 seconds for a typical student browsing the Internet."
Colleges are waking up to the fact that the venerable marketing tools of yore - the college viewbook, letters, postcards, phone calls, even videos - are just so much old technology to today's prospective undergrad.
In fact, students now say the Web is their primary tool for checking out suggestions from friends and parents, and sifting through piles of contenders that emerge when they plug criteria into college-hunt search engines at sites such as www.collegeboard.com and www.usnews.com.
Among 5,400 college-bound students nationwide, 66 percent say websites were more valuable than print materials, according to a Carnegie Communications report last year. The Web "has emerged as the single most important tool in the college search process," the marketing company in Westford, Mass., found.
It is during this first brutal phase of weeding through a big list to compile a manageable shorter list of schools that snap decisions are made. And these decisions are based on the attraction to - or repulsion from - the website of a college. These findings are sending new ripples through the admissions community.
For Joe Head, director of admissions at Kennesaw State University in Georgia, staying ahead of other schools in the online admissions arena has led him to push for an overhaul of the school's website. He wants it smoother, better organized, as interactive as possible.
Not "wasting students' time" is key, he says. The school began accepting applications online years ago. And it also permits students to see if they are likely be admitted. That takes just one minute.
But that's not nearly enough now, he reckons. So the school is adding a feature that will enable students to check the status of their application online - plus a competitive weapon, "Virtual Advisor," developed by software company Academic Engine in Kennesaw, Ga.
A sophisticated software tool, Virtual Advisor takes student questions in plain language and delivers plain answers without forcing a user to sift through the site. Ask Virtual Advisor if there is a drinking problem on campus or if a pet parakeet can live in the dorm, and it responds quickly. (Answer: Drinking is regulated tightly and no parakeets are allowed.)
"We want them to service themselves as much as they would like," Mr. Head says. "Eighteen-year-olds are accustomed to this. If we don't provide it, they will search for a college that does. They expect it of us."
Even websites that appear slick to faculty and administrators aren't necessarily appealing to an Internet-savvy generation that grew up using personal computers, surfing the Web, and visiting sophisticated commercial sites with interactive features.
Jess, who attends Marietta High School in Marietta, Ga., is preparing his application to submit online. So any school that doesn't accept online applications won't get one from him. More schools offer this feature. But Jess notes he would also like to check his application status online, a feature most schools still do not offer.
Lush photos and bland descriptions just make him yawn. What he yearns for is solid interactive content that is specific to his needs: pre-law and political science. If a website is disorganized or text-laden, or offers no way to apply online or take a virtual tour, he may click away and never return.
"Some websites had a lot of information so general it was a waste of my time," Maddox says. "They would say, 'We enroll the best students around and offer a diverse campus.' Cliché comments like that are a turn-off. It's more helpful when they offer specific[s]."