College admission on the spot

Answers to 4 big questions about organizing an instant decision day

The traditional, nail-biting wait for an admission offer has, at some colleges, given way to a process offering immediate gratification for prospective students: the instant decision day.

This admission recruitment strategy—involving applicants getting an on-the-spot admission decision during a scheduled event—has gained a lot of traction, particularly as a way for colleges that aren’t Ivies or highly competitive to catch students’ attention, says David Hawkins, executive director for educational content and policy at the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC).

For some institutions, the instant or immediate decision day is a way to lock down applicants with high potential for enrolling. Other institutions employ the tactic to move to the top of a student’s list of schools under consideration.

Despite momentum for these events building in admissions circles over the past several decades, the days are still unconventional enough to generate buzz. But are they really buzz-worthy?

Here, colleges and universities that haven’t yet organized an instant decision day can find answers to four key questions about strategy and logistics.

A sample schedule: Bard College’s Immediate Decision Plan on-campus visit

9:00 am: Continental breakfast with opportunities for conversation with current students and admission counselors

9:45 am: Brief introduction by the director of admission explaining the day’s schedule 

10:00 am: Classes start for groups of prospective students; family and friends attend an information session with the president

11:00 am: Current students escort prospective students and their guests from classes and the information session to the admission office

11:45 am to 2 pm: Half-hour individual interviews begin

Rest of afternoon: Prospective students and families can explore the 500-plus-acre campus, with information about campus facilities and resources provided by admissions

1. Is there a formula to follow?

Approaches are as different as individual institutions. Unity College in Maine invites students whose likelihood of admission is high to campus for a day in September. Application materials are submitted in advance. “We get the tactical paperwork out of the way,” says President Melik Peter Khoury.

This makes the on-campus conversations between students and admissions counselors more meaningful, because the focus is on getting to know one another. Participants follow a set program that includes taking a tour, sitting in on classes and sampling campus food, while parents attend their own scheduled activities.

Some institutions put out a wider welcome mat. William Paterson University in New Jersey, for example, allows anyone to sign up for its three fall and three spring instant decision days, says Ken Schneider, director of undergraduate admissions.

Up to 30 students can register in advance to attend an instant decision day, but sometimes walk-ins are allowed. After a mini-interview with a college counselor, each participant gets an unofficial admission decision, which is followed by an official offer by mail, once all the official paperwork is reviewed.

In cases where the student is not offered admission, the counselor can guide the student toward ways to get accepted, such as by taking the SAT again or improving a particular grade.

To avoid disappointment, Schneider advises trying to provide guidance to students before they register for an instant decision day event regarding who is most likely to hear good news at such events.

William Paterson strives to make its standards clear, though some students do slip through and end up discovering at instant decision day that they have some more work to do before being admitted.

At Bard College in New York, students can sign up for one of several Instant Decision Plan days. On campus, groups of students discuss two pieces of assigned literature or philosophy, and participate in a 30-minute interview with an admissions staff member.

The process allows both the student and the college to assess fit, says Mackie Siebens, director of admission. “This process is a two-way street.” Official decisions get communicated a few days later.

Wells College in New York, meanwhile, holds instant decision days on and off campus. During visits to high schools and out-of-town alumni events, Vice President for Enrollment Services Kishan Zuber and her team schedule interviews with potential applicants in coffee shops or in their schools.

Although off-campus instant decisions are appealing to students, the team has found on-campus visits are most effective. “The conversion rate is much higher,” says Zuber, “because it creates an emotional connection.”

2. How do these days impact enrollment?

“From the college’s standpoint, the challenge is getting on students’ radars,” says Hawkins. After all, the earlier a college gets into a student’s head, the more likely attending becomes a serious consideration.

Timing is an important factor—an instant decision day in September or October takes the pressure off students if they’re admitted, while waiting until March or April eliminates many of the benefits to both student and school.

The key idea is to move prospective students through the admissions funnel—from inquiry to applicant phase—quickly, says Hawkins. That makes the conversion from accepted student to enrolled student more likely.

Students who participate in the day are more likely to enroll. At William Paterson these applicants are two to three times more likely to enter what the university refers to as “Pioneer Life.” Unity’s single instant decision day typically results in filling one-third of the following year’s freshman class, says Khoury.

Getting the stressful admission decision out of the way quickly allows counselors to spend more time helping students choose the right activities and courses of study. The focus shifts from getting in to finding the best fit within the university.

3. Are they a drain on resources?

Those most impacted by instant decision days are admissions counselors, who end up working longer days trying to speak with every student who registered for a decision.

The number of counselors available for such meetings is frequently the bottleneck for expansion of the program, says Siebens at Bard, which will continue to limit participation in its Instant Decision Plan Days.

Wells’ decision to meet with applicants on and off campus extends the recruiters’ travel season from August into December. “They’re worn out by the end,” says Zuber.

William Paterson caps the number of students who can participate in instant decision days to ensure everyone can meet with admission counselors. Schneider concedes that the events cost the university money, and the tour guides’ and counselors’ time. Yet on the flip side is the strong enrollment ROI.

4. Are instant decision days right for my institution?

Hawkins of NACAC doesn’t see much appeal for Ivy League-level or highly competitive institutions, where the number of applicants continues to rise and the percent accepted is in the single or low double digits. However, regional and open enrollment schools with well-defined admissions criteria can raise their visibility and potentially increase their yield rate.

Enrollment teams can also get an idea about how the coming admissions cycle will play out.

Unity uses it as a barometer. “Instant admissions day gives us a sense of what students are focused on, how driven they are to get to college and what they are looking for a college to offer them,” says Khoury. ”It helps us understand what the next group of environmental leaders is going to need to meet their college and career goals.”  

Marcia Layton Turner is a Rochester, New York-based writer.

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