Tradition of waiting for college acceptance letters erodes

Wednesday, January 30, 2002

Jillian Alexander felt the joy of being admitted to Johnson & Wales University even before completing her application. The teen-ager simply gave her transcript to a recruiter from the private school in Providence, R.I., and soon heard those golden words: "You've been accepted."

"She just told me right on the spot," recalled Alexander, whose grades (a 3.8 GPA) and test scores (1,000 SATs) won her admission back in November.

Among high school seniors aiming for college, experiences like Alexander's are becoming more common. The traditional February-to-April admissions period -- when colleges mail fat envelopes to those they accept and one-pagers to those they reject -- is quietly eroding.

Schools are recognizing that today's prospective freshman grew up with the immediacy of the Internet and doesn't like to wait by the mailbox for an answer.

Some colleges now hold open houses and similar events where they admit worthy students right then and there. Others shorten the wait by giving applicants access to a Web page where their decision is posted, or send the news by e-mail.

Breaking out of mold

How many schools employ these practices is unknown, but they're clearly growing with the technology. And they're in addition to the ways hundreds of schools already break out of the traditional waiting period by offering applicants early admission in the fall or rolling admission throughout the year.

"We want to treat them well, and we want to take into account their convenience," said Harvard admissions director Marlyn McGrath Lewis.

Harvard inaugurated e-mail notification in December for early admission applicants, though some 100 messages bounced back to the school. Lewis says the university will have working e-mail addresses on April 3, when it will e-mail another batch of admissions decisions on the same day it sends admissions packets via the U.S. Postal Service.

'It's much better'

The University of Colorado gives applicants PIN numbers to a Web site where they can track their application's status. There they can find out, for instance, if their file is in committee or missing a transcript.

Applicants who are admitted can see that on the Web. Those who aren't see a note telling them a letter is on its way.

The Boulder campus sifts some 20,000 applicants for about 5,000 freshman slots. Before the Web site went online last year, there were a lot of panicky phone calls when admissions got backlogged.

"It's much better," said admissions director Barbara Schneider. "We understand fully where the kids are coming from if they don't hear."

Yet immediacy also has its drawbacks.

Meghan McKenna of Glendale, Calif., recalls classmates at her private school crying last spring in the computer lab. The University of California, Los Angeles, had just posted its admission decisions, and some students got bad news.

While McKenna was among the fortunate, the spectacle of tears "was pretty intimidating, and sad," she said.

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