UW News

October 4, 2007

Graduate School provides ‘one-stop shopping’ online for applicants

News and Information

Beginning Oct. 9, the UW will take a major step forward in handling graduate admissions online. The UW will institute “one-stop online shopping” for most material that is required for graduate admissions, both by individual programs and by The Graduate School.

For people familiar with undergraduate admissions, where online applications have been available for a number of years, this may appear to be no big deal. But the system of admission to graduate programs is complex: The UW has more than 100 graduate programs and more than 300 separate degree programs, most with their own set of required materials, application questions and deadlines. Some applications are reviewed by a small group of people in a single department who work near one another, while other admissions review committees are far-flung and involve people from a number of departments. A growing number of fee-based programs require a very quick turnaround, because they have applications deadlines much closer to the start of the quarter than traditional graduate programs.

Addressing these complexities has resulted in the creation of a highly flexible online process which nevertheless gives applicants one point of contact for submitting all necessary material. Moreover, after Oct. 9, applicants will be able to find out in real time whether all their application materials have been received.

“We see two clear benefits from an online process,” says John Drew, director of computing and information resources for The Graduate School. “Members of the review committee will have easier access to information, no matter where they are in the world. In addition, having information online also should speed up the review process. People in departments have told us that, in a very competitive environment, quick turnaround is essential in recruiting the most sought-after applicants.”

The key to making the process flexible has been the creation of “admissions profiles,” which graduate programs can customize to meet their particular needs. These profiles permit virtually all of the material that formerly would have been submitted in a supplemental application on paper to be sent online.

“We’ve worked very closely with the schools and colleges in setting up this system, because this is really their process,” Drew says. “We know that a seamless process matters, because this is often an applicant’s first impression of the UW. Although surveys show that applicants regard their admissions experience here as good, we know that other schools are moving ahead with online applications and to remain competitive, we needed to take this step.”

In the old days, The Graduate School would receive by mail all applications for admissions, which it would then distribute to departments for review. When this became a bottleneck, applicants were required to send one set of materials to departments and another to The Graduate School, which provides coordination and oversight. Under Drew’s guidance, The Graduate School began to move its application process online in 1998, while program applications remained chiefly on paper.

MyGradProgram, initiated in 2002, was conceived initially as a Web-based method for improving communication among graduate faculty, graduate program administrators, departments and The Graduate School. One of its major innovations has been putting the doctoral committee system online. Now, the development and modification of admissions profiles are managed by departments through MyGradProgram, which has been overhauled to serve as the portal for receiving and examining admissions materials.

In 2005, online recommendations were accepted, along with some departmental applications. Then, last year, the UW Information Technology Resource Sharing Group recommended a central system for processing all graduate applications. Drew and his colleagues took up the challenge.

Drew, who has served as chair of technology services for the national Association of Graduate Admission Professionals, was aware that other universities were exploring online applications. He also had conversations with private vendors. Most of them had worked on undergraduate admissions and were unprepared for the variety and complexity inherent in graduate admissions, he found. So his team set to work on a home-grown solution.

“We’ve been helped greatly by our new relationship with the Office of Information Management,” Drew says, “which has helped us extend our distributed model for information sharing, and also has helped us with ensuring that we have a secure system with offsite backup.”

For faculty members who prefer to review applications on paper, the system has a print-on-demand feature. And while the system has not yet entirely eliminated paper, Drew has plans to scan remaining paper documents, so that they become part of the student’s electronic application file. The online system also opens up the possibility of accepting multimedia materials more easily.

To imagine what a difference this will make for people involved with graduate admissions, consider the case of Computer Science & Engineering, which receives about 1,000 applications a year. The process used to require the creation of 1,000 manila folders, one for each student, which would fill six or seven long file drawers. CS&E, which brought the bulk of its process online about two years ago, has eliminated all paper except for official transcripts.

“We even do online review,” says Lindsay Michimoto, the department’s academic counselor. “There was some initial resistance, but now everyone sees the value. You can review applications anywhere. Now people realize how inefficient our process used to be. We had to heft 12 bankers’ boxes of applications around to every member of the review committee. Now the review proceeds rapidly. The Graduate School has done an excellent job with us, the users. They’ve invited our feedback and participation, and we’ve seen improvements nearly every year.”

For Ann Wilkinson, the program coordinator for neurobiology and behavior, the admissions process “used to be terrible. We have about 180 applications a year, which may not seem like a lot until you have to do everything manually,” she said. “Each day we’d receive about six inches of mail, with pieces of paper that had to be sorted into a file for each applicant. We have at least three recommendations per student, plus letters of purpose, GRE scores….”

Like CS&E, her program began moving online about two years ago. “Now I sit and click. It’s a piece of cake. It has cut my work by about 40 percent. I can download a file of pertinent information on each applicant in about 30 seconds, whereas before I’d have to create this by hand and it would take 20 to 30 minutes per applicant. We still have some paper, when our committee meets to consider who among the top applicants will be invited for an interview. But the preliminary reviews are all done electronically.” Which is a real boon, because the neurobiology and behavior faculty are not concentrated in one building, nor are all of them even located on the Seattle campus.

“The Graduate School has done a really good job on this,” Wilkinson says. “They’ve helped improve my job tremendously.”

Each year, the UW receives about 20,000 applications for graduate admission. The number has grown by 15 percent in just the past two years. This volume of applications generates about 300,000 separate items submitted by applicants. That’s a lot of trees.

“Everyone involved in this project at the departmental level has been very positive about the role that The Graduate School is playing,” says Julia Carlson, administrative process support manager for The Graduate School. “John and his team have inspired great confidence among the people in the departments, and we want them to be happy with the final product.”

One advantage of the streamlined process is that reviewers will find it easier to review all applications more thoroughly, Carlson notes. This means the days of using arbitrary cutoffs based on test scores or a cursory examination of an application are likely to be a thing of the past.

Already, Drew and his colleagues, as well as his partners in the departments, are looking forward to the next process improvement, in which all reviews will be possible online through a centrally managed and maintained system.