Where's the line?

  • by , May 30, 2008

In just four short years, there has been a small yet considerable change in the college application process. When I applied for an undergraduate education, I filled out a paper admission's application. As you may also remember, one of the most exciting parts of the whole process was receiving "the big envelope." Everyone knew what that meant, and everyone dreaded the standard size envelop with the college of your dreams written in the upper left-hand corner. However, when I filled out graduate school applications this year, every one of them had a substantial electronic submission section. Although this is in no way surprising, I was alarmed when I discovered it wasn't my little tin mailbox I had to check religiously everyday, but rather my inbox.

Although I'm a huge fan of immediate feedback - or perhaps I should say more accurately, instant gratification - there is something very disenchanting about receiving such important news via email. As I reconsider my frustration with this shift to electronic notifications, I discover that my irritation stems primarily from my view of email, and most online communication, as casual and informal. Yet, I ask myself - why does the medium through which I receive notification matter? Isn't it the content that matters? And these days, as we push towards being green shouldn't I applaud universities that are not sending out tons of paper letters that inevitably will be thrown away?



After reading an article about the recent Email Insider Summit panelist discussion, I have to agree that I personally prefer and use email as my primary communication tool. It's useful. It's practical. And it just plain makes sense in our world today. Nonetheless, when we resort to using email alone as a means of accepting and rejecting applicants, or perhaps hiring and firing employees, I'm a little perturbed. Some things seem to need more care and attention - even if it is as superficial as a tangible snail-mailed copy of the same notification I could easily receive via email. Or perhaps, I simply have some norm-reassessing and redefining to do. In this battle I can't help but feel like I'm stubbornly holding onto an inconsequential norm for no viable reason.

2 comments about "Where's the line?".
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  1. Jim Brouwer from Krell Lab, LLC, June 2, 2008 at 10:16 a.m.

    Jen, you bring up a very interesting point.

    I founded CollegeView back in 1992 (though I'm no longer with the company), the first multi-media front-ended college information database (remember when we called it "multi-media"?). Electronic applications were just starting back then, the largest player was a company called Xap. CollegeView had several levels of electronic application ability under the title of InfoZap.

    What was hilarious back then was the manner in which numerous major universities used these "time saving" electronic application forms. Kids would fill out apps either on a mailed Xap floppy disk or on-line with CollegeView (which actually used the Internet even then). Colleges would then print these out and re-enter them into their admission tracking system by hand! I kid you not.

    Admission offices are always looking for ways to stretch their tight budgets. Savings on postage and record processing really adds up when you consider that the typical high school student sends out 8 applications. By most rough estimates, it had cost a college or university a minimum of $15,000 per thousand applications just to do minimal record processing (excluding overhead and the actual review process)! Electronic processing has slashed that number considerably.

    I find your main point and quandary intriguing. When I started CollegeView, it was obvious that high school students were less comfortable with computers than middle-school students. As a young graduate student, I'm wondering how fast your fingers speed over your cellphone's keypad when sending a text message. My guess is that your not as fast as the 10th graders I've seen composing messages at lightning speed - without even looking at their phones! The point is that each generation (or fractional generation) finds a new level of comfort when it comes to electronics.

    I agree with your premiss that there is great satisfaction in receiving a great looking formal letter in the mailbox. Ask anyone who has another 20 to 30 years on you and they would want it hand written, not typed. Your reflection on balancing the need for care and attention versus new norms strikes me as not an either/or exercise. There is absolutely no reason that we shouldn't expect both.

    I'm sure you didn't mind filling out an application electronically. However, I suspect (and hope) that wasn't your only contact with your undergraduate college or graduate university. The bottom line should be about the people, both the professors and other students. Given the investment of both time and finances, continuing education is a huge transaction. Completing the application hurdle and being accepted should be treated as a major event. Progressive admission offices should (and many actually do) call the prospective student and personally congratulate them, then follow that up with a formal letter.

    Going back a century, there were similar concerns expressed over using the telephone as a sales tool rather than meeting with clients face-to-face. We are an adaptive species, but we should always be wary of loosing our humanity. Our focus should be on people, not the tools we use.

  2. JMF Bero, June 2, 2008 at 11:23 a.m.

    I understand your feeling that some communication needs more care and attention. My experience with e-mail communication has been similar, with the job search and potential employers.
    Several companies, both large and small, request a job applicant to create an/or applicant profile, complete application materials, do skills assessments, and personality inventories on-line. The advantage is that the applicant can check his or her application status at any time via the on-line system and apply to multiple positions with one profile.
    When an applicant is rejected, many companies just note in your message board that you are no longer being considered for a position. That is that. After I've gone through a long interview process, I've even received rejection messages delivered via email.
    I guess communicating this way does save time any money for everyone. My feeling is, the more time and effort a person spends in preparing an application, testing, and interviewing, the more personal the communication need to be.
    However, I do get some satisfaction from hitting the delete key and hollering "you don't know what you're missing, jackass!"

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