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.
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]."
That's why people like Gary Guyton are in business. As president of LiquidMatrix, a higher-education website developer, he knows only too well that he has just a few seconds to connect. So he strives to make a personal, if virtual, connection.
"My mission is to try to engage and endear these students" to the college though its website, he says. "Students want to determine, 'Will I fit?' Our software will spotlight students at the college from the student's own hometown and with the same interests."
For Cal State Chico, Mr. Guyton's company this spring installed sophisticated software that personalizes the website to the individual visitor to make the visit a one-on-one connection. A visitor to the admissions part of the site is first invited to "personalize your experience." It doesn't take much: a few tidbits such as a name, e-mail address, and one or two extracurricular activities, for starters.
From then on, the website recognizes the visitor and offers information and contacts geared to his or her interests. Masquerading as a prospective student, a Monitor reporter put in his name and e-mail address. He listed English and art history as prospective majors and volleyball as a possible extracurricular. The results were fairly dramatic.
Right away the site goes to a firstname basis with "Welcome, Mark!" But it doesn't end there.
Student profiles pop up. First on the list is a woman who has a minor in art history. Then come short articles detailing the exploits of the volleyball team - as well as an award won by the student newspaper that might interest a future journalist majoring in English.
It's this personalization that will make or break college admissions in the future, says Chris Muñoz, who was dean of enrollment at the University of Dayton where he spent years personalizing the school's website. Now as vice provost for enrollment at Case Western Reserve University, he's done the same thing - totally remaking the school's admissions website.
In 1996, the University of Dayton had a website much like its printed viewbook. But Mr. Muñoz noticed a major difference after he made it possible for students to personalize the site and get information on their interests e-mailed automatically to them. The yield, or percentage of web visitors who personalized the site and later applied, leapt to 53 percent - compared with 14.7 percent of students who did not personalize the site.
"The campus visit is always the most critical desired touch point for a prospective student," Muñoz says. "But it's quite clear the website has become very critical in terms of influencing the decision to go visit."
No kidding. Just ask Scott Snider, a senior at St. Edward High School in Lakewood, Ohio. Since he began his college hunt in eighth grade, he has visited and evaluated at least 150 college websites, spending as much as 45 minutes and as little as five minutes on each.
Getting serious last year, he and his parents together went to www.collegeboard.com and did a search that netted 200 possible colleges. A refinement narrowed the list to 50 schools - and Scott has since spent time four to five days a week, poking around on these schools' websites during study halls and at home after soccer practice.
A few websites allowed him to plug in his personal interests - political science, business, soccer - and then he received e-mails with custom-tailored information - an aspect he really liked. He also enjoyed the "virtual tours" some sites offered.
But a few others, he recalls, seemed to cast the school in a negative light.
"The websites are definitely important to me because, you know, if they're disorganized, or the links don't work, or you can't find what you're searching for, it's a real turnoff," he says.
His parents have been closely involved - especially on the Wednesday "family night" session, when his dad sometimes connects the computer to a pulldown video screen and together they visit and prowl the college websites two to three hours at a stretch.
His parents, he says, were impressed because they recalled having to look through "books and books" to find the same information he can obtain so easily.
Finally, he's decided to apply to five schools: Duke University, American University, the University of Virginia, the Miami University of Ohio, and Ohio University. Of those, American University had popped up years earlier - then again when sifting using the college board site. So he visited and liked it. Meanwhile, the University of Virginia was recommended by a friend and he has stuck with that, too.
"I wouldn't say the website was the biggest factor for me in where I applied - but it was pretty important," he says. "I think my grandchildren are going to find it a lot more important."