Thursday, February 04, 2010

Admissions Handling

I've been spending time on both graduate admissions and undergraduate admissions.

For graduate admissions, we've moved to an all-electronic system; the applications are all online. The system is actually a complete pain to use. Does that surprise anyone? (Some of us get our admins to download everything for us, so we don't have to use log in and navigate the system when we need to look at an application, or spend an hour or more ourselves downloading files in a system that wasn't set up to download selected files in a straightforward way.) While I'm absolutely, positively, completely sure that no candidate's confidential information has ever, ever been compromised, or ever will (I believe I've now covered myself and Harvard legally), it seems like a privacy-risk nightmare with all the applications secured by a password that has to get distributed to all the faculty. Still, with all that, it seems slightly better than the paper folder system we had before, where it seemed impossible to track which professor had which folder, never mind actually arranging for folders to be transferred among multiple faculty in a timely manner.

For undergraduate admissions, I'm asked to look at folders -- usually, I'm being used to check that Johnny or Jane's science fair project actually has some interesting science in it, or similarly vouch for math/science talent, but they seem to appreciate if I make other comments as well. It's all paper. An actual person drops folders (a few a week) off to my admin; I type up comments and my admin prints them out, puts them into the folder, and calls to get the folders picked up. Apparently, it's unusual that I type my comments; the admissions officers write their comments by hand. (Often, I can't read them, and my handwriting is worse than theirs.) I've never lost a folder, but I do hope they have back-ups in the home office just in case. (It looks to me like I'm getting the originals; I've never asked. I just assume they can't give the folder out to faculty without keeping a copy of everything.)

Both systems seem flawed, but both also seem designed to fit the way the decision-process is made. I actually like the paper system, even though it clearly requires a lot of people-hours doing background tasks like getting folders from here to there. It definitely reduces the time and effort I have to put in to review the applications -- which ostensibly should be the goal of the system, since faculty time is (ostensibly) valuable.


Harry Lewis said...

Bad assumption about undergraduate admissions folders--please don't act on it! Many applications and recommendations are submitted electronically, but not all. Paper-handling is a major activity of the office, what with recommendations arriving for students with identical names, etc. Applications often contain supplemental materials (papers, artwork music CDs, etc.), and of course they also include original high school transcripts, hopefully with some stamp of authenticity. With 30,000 applications and staff cuts, they don't scan everything before sending it to you. I am aware of only a single instance in the 20+ years I have had a close view of the process in which a folder has been lost. But yes, that is why they are hand delivered to you with receipt signatures, rather than using university mail, for example.

Michael Mitzenmacher said...

Harry - I have always acted in a paranoid fashion and assumed it might be the only copy. On the other hand, knowing the absent-mindedness of profs, and how easy it is to misplace things, that's seems a worrisome aspect of the system.

Now, I'll be triply careful!

Unknown said...

From the viewpoint of applicants, most of the college application and job application programs I've seen out there are abysmally bad, despite all of the hand-wringing about 'accessability' that's popular in higher ed.

I'm actually surprised there haven't been lawsuits from people who claim that didn't eat their application for One of my bosses, asked this question, replied that there probably had been but they'd been settled out of court.

I actually did build a system for taking applications for an undergraduate REU process and that was actually a lot of fun. We wrote all of the documents students gave us, plus PDF files generated from our database into folders in a big directory... when it came time to send the applications to be worked on, we burned the data onto DVDs and mailed them to the institutions that were doing the selection.

Harry Lewis said...

You are failing to take into account the economics of the business, which follows a standard pattern. There are strong network effects --- colleges and companies want to use the same application app that all the others use, because if they have a special one they will discourage applicants. In the college application space one is dominant, The Common Application (which all the Ivies accept), and the Universal College Application is the smaller competitor (accepted only by Harvard and Penn among the Ivies). The Ivies have their own supplements to these standard forms so they can ask additional questions. Don't know about the job application space but I can't see why the same network effect wouldn't hold. And in general, when one player has the lion's share of a service business, it has less incentive to continually improve its service.

Anonymous said...

We also transitioned from a paper-based system to an on-line system a few years back (for grad admissions). We too had the problems with downloading, etc., but one of our profs wrote a web-based interface that automatically downloads all the relevant docs and collates them into one large pdf file for downloading, in addition to providing a basic review system.

Matt Welsh said...

I just want to adapt HotCRP for admissions. In fact, I want to use HotCRP for everything. It's fantastic.

AnonProf said...

We transitioned to an electronic graduate admissions process at my institution a few years ago. While I like the idea of an electronic system in principle, in practice I found the web interface to be poorly designed: it required a lot of mousing around and unnecessary clicks.

I've now lived through a number of these paper-to-electronic transitions. My experience is that they usually seem optimized to make life easier for the administration or the folks who created the electronic system, not for the faculty who have to use it -- and sometimes at the price of making it harder to use for the primary users of the system. In retrospect, I guess that shouldn't be a surprise.