FOR many high school seniors, the mail-watching season has begun. It is a time of unwanted suspense, spent waiting for vaguely understood college admissions offices to process aplications. For students who'd rather not hang on tenterhooks, however, Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., offers an alternative with its Immediate Decision Plan (IDP). Within hours after submitting an application, a student gets a face-to-face interview with an admissions officer, who renders an acceptance decision on the spot. It is an express-lane approach that many participants like.
``I'd rather go through the anxiety in one day than in four months,'' says a relieved Jesse Buckley, a senior at Belmont (Mass.) High School, upon completing an off-campus, immediate-decision day held in the Boston area. Having been accepted means he can be more relaxed as he awaits word from other schools. (Bard doesn't require students to announce their attendance plans until May 1.)
The personal contact is another appealing aspect of the IDP program. ``It's so much nicer than getting a letter that just says you're in or you're not,'' says Dillon Paul of Brookline (Mass.) High School. In the latter case, ``you have no idea why or how the process worked. This way you get a good idea of how they evaluated your application.''
Rachel Martin, also of Brookline, says the immediate-decision format, which kicks off with a classroom-type discussion of assigned readings, at first sounded intimidating. ``But something about meeting other kids who are interested in going to Bard and sharing with them was comforting to me,'' she says. The hardest assignment, she believes, is in the hands of the admissions officers, who must produce a verdict in their one-on-one interviews. ``That's gutsy,'' she says.
Karen Wilcox, Bard's dean of admissions, acknowledges that turning down students directly is ``the hard part'' of her job. ``But that can be done with compassion and be done in a way that is of more service than a form rejection letter,'' Ms. Wilcox says. ``There's no point in bruising somebody's ego. We try to offer constructive suggestions on what they might do to prove to themselves and others that they are appropriate college material.''
Besides the immediate-decision program, Bard offers ``regular'' and ``early-decision'' admission procedures. Regular applications, due Feb. 15, are answered by early April. Early-decision applications, due Dec. 1, bring a response in early January.
The school leaves these traditional options open because not everyone is inclined or can afford to participate in either an on-campus IDP session or one of those held in Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Boston, and Washington.
The immediate-decision program has worked well for Bard, though. It accepts about 65 percent of the candidates who apply in this manner, compared with about 50 percent of those who seek entry through the other avenues. Approximately half the students accepted through the IDP attend Bard.
The higher acceptance rate may stem, in part, from the opportunity students have to present themselves in person.
``In reading through an application, an admissions officer may come upon a weak record and tentatively conclude that this is a `non-accept,''' says Stuart Levine, Bard's dean and a co-editor of the Immediate Decision Plan syllabus. ``The interview allows students to turn it around if they look like a risk on paper. And in the case of gray-area students, where the admissions people have a hard time making up their minds, the interview helps to decide one way or another.''
The IDP program, now in its 12th year, tends to attract the kind of person who enjoys participatory-style education, which Bard offers. The school, a small liberal-arts college 90 miles north of New York City, enrolls only about 900 students; classes average 15 pupils.
To give applicants a taste of this approach, a two-hour interdisciplinary seminar precedes the Immediate Decision Plan interviewing. The discussion has no bearing on the admissions decision, but gives the applicants a good idea of what Bard is like.
`It's probably of most service to applicants from public schools, because their education format has been quite different from what they will experience at Bard,'' says admissions dean Wilcox. ``These students usually haven't had the seminar format, where their opinions and thoughts are given full weight. They're used to a more passive, larger, lecture-style experience.''
The seminar topic remains the same: ``The Politics of Science: Obedience to the Authority of Morality and Technology.'' In the Boston area, 18 high-school seniors converged around a large table in a wood-panelled room of the Beaver Country Day School in suburban Chestnut Hill.
Dr. Levine, as he often does, led the discussion, drawing out opinions and observations about the place of individual judgment and conscience in a world of authority-wielding specialists. The required reading covers a lot of ground, from an excerpt of ``Prometheus Bound,'' a 5th-century Greek work, to a ``Letter From Birmingham City Jail,'' by Martin Luther King Jr.
Besides giving participants a chance to size up the school, the discussion occupies the students while the admissions officers read the applications and essays turned in right before the seminar begins.
In Boston, the applications, including essays on a local, national, or international issue of concern to the individual students, were distributed among five admissions officers. After the materials are read, a committee meeting is held to share impressions and solicit second opinions.
``This in when decisions are made that affect the weight of the interview in the final decision,'' says Mary Backlund, the director of admissions.
On the surface, the program may seem a rush-rush affair compared with the ordinary admission procedures. In fact, says Levine, the IDP process does not shortchange students.
``Just because an application is submitted in October doesn't mean that the admissions department is looking at it hour after hour, month after month,'' he says. ``It means that on a given day, they will take out that application, examine it with others, and make a judgment probably in less time than the admissions officers spend with these [immediate-decision] kids.''
Levine says the IDP program is not only economical, because of its high acceptance rate, but gives Bard a tactical edge in getting good students. To his knowledge, the only school offering something roughly similar is Hood College in Frederick, Md. Why others don't follow suit, he believes, is wrapped up in unwritten rules of the academic world. ``Colleges do not choose to copy from each other,'' he says. ``Everybody chooses to invent their own ways.''
A small school is better able to adopt this participatory concept for its admissions activities. Levine recognizes that putting a personal face on admissions at a school of 30,000 or more students is difficult. ``I don't know what I'd do, but I'd do something that did not relegate this to a paper shuffle.''
His highest priority would be to take an appropriate sample of the school's academic work - a class lecture, for example - and present it in the admissions process. ``Let the applicants see what the college is about in a capsule form.'' This, he believes, would put more substance into a process that too often is influenced by advertising and slick college brochures, even at smaller schools.