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Machines Evaluating Applicants? Applying to College Could Change a Lot in 20 Years

For those of us who, ahem, filled out applications on a typewriter and received acceptance and rejection letters in a metal mailbox, the concept of a virtual college tour is mind-blowing.

But in reality, colleges still have a lot of room to innovate to meet students where they are, technologically speaking.

So what could admissions look like in 20 years? From a school’s perspective, automation will take on a lot of the human-led work, according to Steve Farmer, Vice Provost for Enrollment and Undergraduate Admissions at the University of North Carolina.

"Machines are going to be more heavily involved in the evaluation of students and counseling of students; you can ask Siri or Alexa for help, and she will help you. Schools are going to do that, too."

Artificial intelligence will provide simulated human interaction (think live chats, only more alive), and students will get quicker answers.

Machines will be involved in the evaluation of candidates, too.

"I hope that machines won’t be making the decisions about candidates, but there are some things that machines can do more reliably than humans can — evaluating the strengths, for example, of a student’s schedule in high school," said Farmer.

The automated evaluation could also include scanning transcripts and comparing them with performance of the school as a whole.

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From a student’s perspective, everything will change.

In Andover, Massachusetts, students are part of a pilot program called the New Resume Project. The students create digital "resumes" — they can contain artwork, videos, music, or even a reading of a written essay — that are meant to give a holistic view of their lives, passions and talents that a 2-D essay just can’t.

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“It in essence embodies some of the things that are not easily seen in an application,” said Sheldon Berman, Andover’s superintendent of schools.

"We are enabling the students to do a two-minute kind of TED Talk, a 'Here’s Who I Am’ in video, or here’s the project that I did. Universities are going to want to know, 'What did you do?' Although they write about it, they can easily say ‘here’s a quick video of what we did and how we did it, and here’s my talk about it,'" Berman said.

Will consumer tech drive higher ed’s innovation?

Colleges are climbing on board, too. Last year, Yale University, the University of Chicago and Pomona College all began allowing video supplements to their written application requirements.

"On the one hand, technology is just one medium,” said Berman. “But on the other hand, technology opens up opportunities to present oneself in a multiplicity of ways.”

And according to some experts, schools that cater to students’ evolving communication style will be the ones that remain competitive, especially in a future scenario where institutions are increasingly vying for students’ attention, rather than the reverse.

"All of the work that’s been done has really made the administrators’ lives easier," said Sasha Peterson, CEO of TargetX, a software company that creates student-first solutions. "But we’re becoming a much more consumer-centric society. Everyone has an app, and they expect instant responses. And yet universities are expecting you to come to them."

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Peterson believes that consumer tech — such as targeted ads and geolocating — will drive higher ed’s innovation. Imagine a system that, based on your browsing habits, is able to narrow down the schools where you or your student might be happiest.

Then, thanks to an easy-to-use mobile app that shares your grades with colleges, schools would let you know your chance of getting in, decreasing the wait time on what can be a torturous process.

“Many institutions have a formulaic approach, and many still do holistic review, but to the extent you can make it easier for a student to know earlier whether they’re going to be in or out, that’ll make it easier for them to become comfortable with the process,” said Peterson.

One concern that persists as the notion of advancing admissions technology evolves is that students from low-income and first-generation households may be left behind.

But a mobile-first approach may do just the opposite. Jim Nondorf, Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid at the University of Chicago, led the charge for the Coalition for Affordability, Access and Success, a program that creates solutions to increase access.

“It turns out that low-income and first-generation and even international people are much more likely to have a phone than have a computer,” said Nondorf. The first iteration of the Coalition application required a computer, but with a new app, students can apply from their phones.

Today, 60 percent of students complete at least part of their applications on a mobile device.

To grab the attention of those teens, said Peterson, "you can’t ask for more than two to three steps."