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Paper or plastic: how students prefer to learn their application results

Allegheny College, PA
Allegheny College, PA
Nancy Griesemer

Over the next two weeks, high school seniors across the country will learn admissions decisions for which they have been anxiously preparing—sometimes for a lifetime.

The University of Notre Dame sends admissions decisions through the U.S. Postal Service.
Nancy Griesemer

As the outside world looked on, they struggled with application glitches, missing forms, and nerve-wracking interviews, while continuing to keep up with classwork, add to their accomplishments, and otherwise get through the last months of what was supposed to be a great year.

While not particularly organized or well-orchestrated, the process of revealing “regular decision” results began several weeks ago and will reach a peak with the Ivy League release on March 27.

And once upon a time, these same decisions were delivered by a letter carrier who came bearing either the highly desirable “big” package signaling an admit or the dreaded small business size envelope, which usually suggested bad news.

But that’s SO last century.

These days, most admissions results are conveyed electronically: type in the password, say a little prayer, and there it is.

The screen may burst into a flurry of fireworks or there may be a terse apologetic message from a faceless administrator assigned responsibility for dashing dreams.

And believe it or not, much thought goes into how students will be advised of their application status.

Highly paid enrollment management experts study how students and their families react to certain kinds of messages. They factor in cost to the institution as well as impact on yield—or subsequent enrollment decisions.

It's as much about marketing to prospective students as firmly letting others know where they stand between wait listed and denied.

Teege Mettille, director of admissions at Northland College, has been tracking how students and their families react to different means of delivering admissions decisions.

And the results are a little surprising.

In surveys conducted last year with students applying to a selective liberal arts college in the Midwest, the overwhelming majority of students (85%) and parents (66%) reported that a paper mailing should be the first way a student learns his or her admission decision.

And these mirrored results from a similar survey he conducted in 2012.

In fact, only 13 percent of students and 23 percent of parents said an email is the way to go, while two percent of students and 11 percent of parents recommended a “secure site” requiring a password.

Although the sample was relatively small and the survey was conducted weeks after dust had settled around admissions decisions, the reactions from the most important parties to the process were surprising—particularly those from parents.

“Paper gives the applicant a tangible sense of being accepted at the college,” said one respondent. “It’s official, and doesn’t seem as changeable as something on a website.”

And given the number of colleges experiencing bleeps in their online admissions systems—sending out false positives or otherwise leading rejected students to believe they were accepted—the student is probably right.

“The conclusions left me feeling pretty confident that the admit pack is still a pretty important piece of postal mail,” suggested Mettille in an email to admissions professionals.

And for those of us who spent hours in front of the mailbox waiting, there will never be a substitute for the excitement of ripping open a big envelope and holding an acceptance letter up for all to see and touch.