The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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

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

"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

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 and

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.

An Internet-savvy generation expects more

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

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.' Cliche 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

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 Munoz, 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. Munoz 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," Munoz 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 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

"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.

Websites may only become more important

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."

(c) Copyright 2003 The Christian Science Monitor. All rights reserved.