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In the world of higher education, the beginning of March means that application deadlines for next fall’s admissions are fast approaching, if they haven’t already passed. Admission decisions actually began being released before Christmas for rolling, early and priority applications at some American colleges that believe the first acceptance letter a student receives is most likely to be acted upon. As the percentage of students sending out three or more applications has been steadily rising every year, some schools are taking innovative approaches to increasing the likelihood that their offers are accepted, thereby optimizing the admissions yield.

 Strategic enrolment management has become more important as the postsecondary landscape’s gotten more competitive over the last decade, aiming towards attracting, admitting and graduating the right students as efficiently and effectively as possible. Each college or university has unique challenges in balancing demand and targeted admissions, and to prevent attrition, it’s all about finding the right fit. This can encompass all aspects of student recruitment, including providing and promoting an accurate picture of your program and course information, school services and general campus life, so that admitted students are adequately prepared to succeed.

Dalhousie University understands that retention costs less than recruitment, attracting students from positive word-of-mouth by selling the “Dalhousie experience”. “It’s less about a sales pitch and more about listening to what matters to them and seeing whether there’s a fit,” explains Asa Kachan, assistant vice-president, enrolment management, and registrar.


Holistic Admissions Review

Several universities have been experimenting with new approaches to admissions that place a greater emphasis on a prospective student’s personality and motivation, rather than only grades. In 2012, the University of British Columbia began requiring applicants to answer questions about personal characteristics and non-academic strengths besides submitting their high school marks. Evaluating these submissions adds a tremendous amount of work but early results suggest measurable improvements in retention and campus involvement. Furthermore, all new undergraduate students at UBC are now assigned an enrolment services professional to help with financial planning, eligibility for bursaries and scholarships, registration, and much more.

Many schools are getting creative in finding alternatives to traditional admissions:

  •         Bard College in upstate New York has gone so far as to offer an admission path based purely on the submission of four 2,500 word research essays, which more closely mirrors actual college coursework
  •        Chicago Booth’s MBA program accepts a 4 slide PowerPoint presentation instead of a traditional essay submission
  •        Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business challenges applicants to tweet why they wish to attend its MBA program

The University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management is the first to introduce video screen tests to test the poise and presence of MBA applicants, but Yale and Kellogg have recently following suit with this emerging trend. Applicants must answer two pre-recorded questions in a 90-second video to allow the admissions committee to see the applicant in action. “It’s been helpful to identify superstars and to make some of the tough decisions,” explains Niki da Silva, director of MBA recruitment and admissions. 

Leveraging Technology in Admissions

Colleges and universities have access to such a vast amount of data that effective control systems are necessary to manage it all. Google Analytics has become the norm to understand the many alternate entry and exit points of today’s enrolment paths, and schools are seeking to apply this accumulated data to derive long-term trends. Paperless admissions software, such as AMP, make it easier to organize graduate admissions from application to interview, providing access to applicant portfolios, custom reporting and much more.


As an institution’s website is the primary source of information for prospective students, it is imperative that the admissions and acceptance processes are communicated as clearly as possible. Applicants and their parents are full of questions about each stage of the process, not just admissions, so demystifying the next steps may just make the difference in enrolment.

Example: UBC makes understanding the admission process more transparent, empathizing with applicants asking “Now what?”

ubc admission

Making the Offer

Applicants should receive an email within a few weeks to acknowledge their application’s receipt by the Admissions Office and, if possible, know when and what to expect from the department in the coming months. Some schools have seized the opportunity of the admissions offer to make a memorable impression in the minds of incoming students. Marquette University and its official mascot hand delivered letters of admissions in January, capturing the action on camera for social media success.

Angi Roberts, Information Services Manager in Admission Services at the University of Guelph, wasn’t aware of this initiative but did see that a nearby university was including a hand-written note of congratulations in their offer packages. “We joked that we should send our Registrar out to hand-deliver offers, and that snowballed into sending our mascot (the gryphon),” she says in an interview with Karine Joly at The team identified three applicants who lived close to campus and had made the university their first choice, leveraging the resulting videos and pictures in all sorts of social media marketing, including a Twitter campaign called “wherewillGryphshowupnext.”

A posting to a popular student Facebook page yielded 2,277 likes and 21 comments in 12 hours. “The response has been incredible, and it has brought levity to what can be a nail-biting time for high school students awaiting news about their university choices,” reports Roberts.



The social media success of this latter campaign illustrates that a little creativity and great timing can go a long way in these times, with even arguably mundane parts of the admissions process potentially eligible to earn schools a slot in the spotlight. As student expectations evolve and universities seek new ways of engaging prospects, some are finding the old rules of admission are ripe for reinvention. We are always excited to see what will come next!

Has your school found innovative ways to improve student admissions?