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I woke this morning after dreaming about how to implement a really useful, effective way to use Twitter for the Admissions Office. Thankfully, I didn’t lose all the details upon waking, which sometimes happens to me with dreams interrupted by an alarm.

But I did think, upon waking, that the dream was a really bad sign. A really good sign too, but also a really bad sign.

It told me I don’t have enough waking time to process this sort of thing.

I suspect either tomorrow or the next day I’m going to have to tell my boss that I’ve reached critical mass. That I have too many tasks and need help. It’s swallow my pride time and I hate that.

He’s just back from vacation and the approximately minute-and-a-half I had with him today was not the time to address this, but it does need to happen soon.

The firefighting I’ve been doing has shoved the less pressing things to a back shelf, and if we want to keep them alive, I’ve got to lean on others.

I hate that. I’ve always been a bit of an overachiever, and not always good at delegation: I’ve always subscribed to the “to get things done right, do it yourself” school of thought. But I’m learning. Sometimes the hard way.

In the process, though, I’m learning that people like to be challenged. When I hand over non-drudge work, work that requires critical thought and judgment, they appreciate it. Most of them realize that means I trust them.

And that trust is, sometimes, hard to come by. Hate to admit it, but it’s true. But I’ve got to learn better.  Hopefully other folks will help me out by doing well with the projects I hand over.

We have a new writer/editor on board as of yesterday. Desperately needed, I might add. I’ve already passed her two tasks that I really needed an editor’s eye on, and she already caught a typo I missed (I did write it and hadn’t proofed it yet–nor had I put it up yet, but that’s beside the point).

I’d love to tell the story and link it, but it’s not ready for public viewing just yet. I’ll give some background instead.

In a cost-saving/environmentalist attempt to be more efficient, our office is going to stop sending a letter reminding students who apply that we’re missing information from them like standardized test scores and their high school transcript. Instead, we’ll be directing them to their online account with us, where they can view their regularly-updated status and see exactly what we’re missing at the time.

In the past, this letter and the transcript or scores often crossed in the mail, prompting anxious calls. At the same time, I expect we’ll get “I didn’t know I had to check that” calls from now on, even though we’ve made every effort to point them to the resource, and we know that most students are using it. Obsessively, even.

So there’s rewriting of current material to be done. We have to catch everywhere we might mention that letter.

Even though the process of halting this letter started almost last year at this time, it was only today that we made the decision to stop the letter entirely. Starting tomorrow.

So there was, of course, a bit of a scramble to make sure we’d killed it everywhere we needed to. Most of it was double-checking on things I’d changed six months ago and forgotten about for certain, but it was a scramble nonetheless. I checked the last place I needed to at about 5:10 this afternoon.

In the process, a few things were proven to me.

I had considered asking the new writer/editor to help me locate the letter references, but quickly dismissed that as folly. She would have no idea where to start other than a search engine.

If I hadn’t been in the office today, this might have been a problem. Not to put too fine a point on it, but I really do think that I’m the only one in the office that knows all the content on our site backwards and forwards. And given that memory isn’t always my strong suit (I digitize most of it to give me more processing room), that resource needs to reside somewhere else too.

Basically, I’d argue that for a large site containing lots of procedures, you need documentation for where things that may need to be changed reside. And it has to cross platforms.

We’ve yanked a lot of references in my time with Admissions:

  • SAT I became just SAT.
  • We used to recommend against the rush option for their scores–strangely enough, there was a time this came to us via paper, whereas the normal scores came electronically and were loaded faster.
  • We used to take scores as official if they were printed on a high school transcript. No longer.

And that’s just standardized test scores.

Now that I’ve been there long enough and I know all of our materials, I can name most of the spots all the above used to appear: which brochures (viewbook, fact brochure), presentations (prospect, out-of-state, SASD), letters (AU001–the missing information letter; a host of others not worth mentioning), pages on our site (news/html/newsat.htm, from our old site–and I’m sure you can recognize the archaic structure there), the application for admission, and a ton of standard email we send out as reminders.

It’s the pieces I don’t touch regularly that have gotten missed. I found an email from what used to be a separate team in the office that still has both the rush score and transcript mention that was sent out as recently as last January.  And, I suspect, more recently than that still, but have yet to have proof.

Our office is, unfortunately, a bit of a Kraken: multi-armed and sprawling. Such is the nature of a large office with independent functions, much less a large university or a multi-campus institution like ours. We can occasionally collect all our arms, but most of the time a tentacle does get loose. They’re squirmy little buggers.

And no, I’m not going to make the Cthulhu comparison some of you might be expecting.

But back to my point.

Not everyone in the organization is going to be an expert. You’ll always have new staff. Help with managing sites, processes, etc is always welcome. Documentation may be key to keep all your miscellaneous bits in line.

Everything is Miscellaneous, and it doesn’t always flock as neatly as Weinberger demonstrates. Learn to manage your organization’s information, both for the benefit of your own memory and sanity, and to help the new folks on your team.

At a recent meeting, I and a bunch of our decision-makers were trying to make changes to how we use some of our brochures. Costs are rising, both in terms of printing a piece and the cost of postage to distribute them, and budgets are being cut back, so it was time to take that hard look.

And I finally heard one of the sentences I’ve been waiting for out of our Executive Director’s mouth:

People are looking for this information online.”

. . .

Thank you. And darn right they are.

Even putting aside the fact that we created this piece because the colleges stopped printing their own pieces with similar information, there’s the doubles and triples that students get of the same brochure, not knowing it’s in their folder already or that there’s one in the mail to them, etc.

And besides which, they’re getting the information the way they want to already. The related pages in question on our site are our most popular pages. We know people are accessing this information there. Even our Knowledge Base entries show it’s the most popular question people have in mind when they get to our site.

So I presented a mock-up of a new landing page for the subject in question. I poured all the information we had about the subject onto a page and then faithfully trimmed it by half.  I did not go the half again that Steve Krug recommends because–frankly–this was just a mock-up. I didn’t have the go-ahead to spend more time on it, really.

And the first response? “Awfully cluttered,” and “wordy,” to quote the two folks in question. Absolutely right, and I’ll admit it. I could certainly spend more time and cut it back more.

And thank you for recognizing what people want on the web: clarity and simplicity.

Be succinct. That’s my best web writing tip.

This is, however, super difficult to do when you’re dealing with a multi-campus system that’s truly (more or less) integrated in terms of curriculum and admissions. With 12 academic colleges at this campus and another 6 throughout the rest of the other 19 campuses scattered across the commonwealth. And especially when multiple campuses offer majors that have the same name, but are different programs with different curricula and options.

Not an easy task. But one I have to tackle.

But tomorrow. I almost missed today’s post-per-day due to midnight hitting, and that just won’t do, now will it?

My day in brief:

  • Meetings 8:00 to 12:30, some of which were interrupted by three different people looking for me, all leaving tasks for me behind them.
  • Brief hour at my desk for email/IM and lunch.
  • Interview for a programmer position open from 1:30 to 2:30,
  • half-hour of post-interview review, then
  • a good hour of fire-putting-out on our online application for admission–with no resolution.
  • Back to email/tasks left behind.

No way I can answer all the email I got today, nor catch up on what I got previously and haven’t gotten to/resolved yet.

While today was mostly an exception, this sort of thing happens all the time, to one extent or another. And it’s frustrating.

And I know it’s not just me. Other people have similar workloads.

At some point, I’m going to have to call an embargo on meetings, or declare email bankruptcy, or not be on IM, or close and lock my door. Or all of the above. Something. Because otherwise, I can’t actually put into action the things I’m in those meetings for.

We’re down two content people in my office now, so that could be aggravating the problem. But man. Rough Friday.

The web obviously needs some man-hours, and not just in my office. If there are any web folks out there at Penn State twiddling their thumbs (not that I think there are), drop me a line. I sure could use the help.

Social bookmarking has caught my attention again. I’ve had one account or another for years and years, but in the last year or so I’ve really latched onto it.

In part, I think it has at least a little to do with my iPhone. Before this, I’ve (generally speaking) had two computers in use at any one time. One for work and one at home. And the work bookmarks went on the work laptop, and the personal bookmarks went on my home computer.

When I started emailing myself links to my work email address from my home computer rather than hauling out my work laptop, though: that’s when I knew I was in trouble.

And then the iPhone came along. And believe it or not, it’s my main mobile device. When I stopped in on the Learning Design Summer Camp, all I brought was my iPhone. No laptop. And I did fine interacting with the Live Question Tool, and backchanneling via Twitter, and all that.

But to really get the most out of whenever I was websurfing on my iPhone, I needed to be able to access my bookmarks. And putting them “in the cloud” on a social network (so to speak) has done that.

Someone a few weeks ago told me that you can tell a lot about someone by looking at what they bookmark. I’d give that more credence than judging by their shoes–though I don’t know a lot about shoes past what’s comfortable and looks decent.

My top tags in delicious (name change from the original del.icio.us, so named because a friend of the founder compared finding good links to eating cherries) on my professional account are as follows: socialmedia, reachingstudents, marketing, web2.0, admissions, socialnetworking, usability, content, culture, webdesign.

That’s telling. Though I rather dislike that marketing shows up there: I’ve always resisted that label.

I’m the one usually telling my boss or my equal on the print side (who’s a marketer) that we shouldn’t do that  when he suggests a scheme that smells suspiciously of spamming. We didn’t even have an unsubscribe on the marketing email going out of our office until I got there, and our security policies were (emphasis there on the past tense) not very strong on a few points.

Is it that I’m more ethical than my marketing colleague? Possible. I do know that I’m closer to the age of the students we’re trying to talk with, and way more tech-savvy than he is. And social media-minded, for that matter.

It’s more that I, like many of a similar age and younger, have been totally suspicious of marketing for as long as I’ve been aware of it. “All Marketers are Liars” is more than a book title to me.

In this vein, social bookmarking has become really valuable to me. I’ll more often trust–or at least follow–a link passed to me by a friend or colleague than one being advertised.

So in short, those are the two big draws for me. Social bookmarking is:

  • in the cloud
  • with my community

It allows me to contribute and consume from people I know and trust from anywhere. Which is also the main perk of Twitter, I might add. And I’m sure it could also be extended to many other social networking applications. Care to contribute some more to the list?

This post started after reading this blurb questioning the need for committees. And I have to say I agree.

My office excels at bringing together committees, or working groups, or what-have-you. In practice, though, the most effective use of everyone’s time that I’ve seen has been in bringing together the two or three people who will actually do the work for the project and having them keep up with each other.

In a lot of cases, this could be done online. Twitter could be used for up-to-the-minute updates. Or, of course, you could use a more normal project management package. A few of us used Backpack pretty extensively for awhile. The subject experts should only be pulled in as consultants to make a good project run.

But the point of committees in our office (often), unfortunately, and I see the need for it, is generally for buy-in. To keep people aware of how the project is coming.

And I really feel it’s a waste sometimes. But there’s a huge culture change that would need to take place to make it all work without them.

Has anyone else actually been in a place that has managed that change? Any tips you can share?

So as of yesterday, I’ve been approved to move forward with some usability testing on our online application for admission. As an excellent bonus, I’ll be allowed to waive the application fee of the students who help us by letting them observe them.

Our Directors Planning Team, which collectively makes most of the important decisions in the office (which I’m a member of), was somewhat characteristically interested in the details. Who are we testing? Just students who visit? Out-of-state students? Students in the different regions of Pennsylvania? Those who visit our Community Recruitment Centers? I took it a step farther to make it clear that breadth isn’t necessarily our aim considering our resources for the project–as of yet, I have no further funding approved–by suggesting transfers and international students. Further than that, we should look at adult students. But if I intend to test 5 – 10 students, there’s no way we’ll hit all these populations. How do we balance my funding, resources, support, and time? Not to mention equipment and travel, possibly?

The easy answer is: we don’t. Keeping it simple and keeping it close to home (so to speak) keeps it feasible. And we’ll get plenty of useful feedback just with that, potentially more than we can change in the time we have. If I get the funding and time I need, though, the equation changes completely.

This morning (during the Spend a Summer Day admissions presentation, I’ll admit, with the caveat that I’ve seen it five times now) I started mulling over my own questions about the project, which in some ways I find more important. What should we ask on a pre- or post-survey? Do we really strip this down to make it fast and easy and not have either? Do I want to publish/speak on this topic and thus slow us down with the IRB process? (No, probably not. What we do now falls under process-improvement and hasn’t required one thus far.)

Should I contact my Usability Engineering instructor from last semester and see if he knows a student who might be interested in helping with this very important research? Do we want to try to include someone with accessibility issues to make the point that we need to work on that end of things? (One rule of usability testing is not to go in with an agenda, so I probably shouldn’t pursue this.)

The questions go on and on.

In the end, we’ll probably end up on the end of a stripped-down version, because doing that way gets it done. Getting ambitious may mean it doesn’t happen, and I’d hate for that to occur. We need to know what real students do rather than continuing to make suppositions.

Wish I had more time to address this today, but this one will have to be quick. Keep in mind most of this is supposition.

Sometime during their search, I bet students looking at colleges and universities are likely to tap into Facebook. While this is still theory, it’s supported by others such as James Howell, in his entry a few days ago.

Unfortunately, right now I don’t expect that Penn State Admissions will be headed in that direction just yet, despite the presentation I made this past spring at our Penn State Admissions conference. The basic gist of that presentation was a suggestion to use Facebook Pages rather than Groups or Profiles for an “official” presence there. The “fan of” dynamic is just easier to deal with. That aside.

So for those students who choose to take a quick peek via Facebook into the ins and outs of a university, they’ll probably breeze through the groups, maybe take a look at some interesting people.

If I were to give some advice to that student, it would be: don’t judge us by a quick run-through, by our more popular groups, or even by our more active students on Facebook, necessarily. Take a moment to search for faculty. Look through staff like advisers, if you can find them. Look through the clubs and organizations with an official presence there. And better yet, contact people. Ask the question you’ve been wanting to of that student leader, that professor whose department you’re interested in, especially if they’ve been active recently.

The head of the Undergraduate Writing Center, Jon Olson, resisted getting onto Facebook for years. The peer tutors he works with created a “Get Jon Olson on Facebook” (or some such title) group. He finally relented recently and has been posting enthusiastically since: status, photos, even video.

It’s a hurdle for faculty sometimes, but I think most of them find that it’s super easy (and maybe even fun). But it does present some interesting quandaries: do I provide advising for the student that contacts me on Facebook, or do I refer her/him to email? That sort of thing. And while they all make their own decisions on that end, I would hope they would at least answer you. So reach out.

Social networks are for interacting, after all.

Writing my first post-a-day blog post in August on my iPhone during gaps in a Spend a Summer Day.

SASD, as we know it and love it for short, is a day-long open house event held at all Penn State campuses. At Penn State University Park, due simply to demand, it’s held on six days: every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday spanning two weeks, usually bridging July and August.

August 1st, incidentally, is also the day our new application for admission goes live. Given that and the fact that EVERYONE in the office helps during SASD (our Executive Director was running between the HUB and Schwab Auditorium on Monday trying to fix a problem), to say this time of year is stressful is an understatment.

I’ve been staffing our table at the information fair during the event pretty regularly so far, and I’ve noted a difference in style between me and some of my colleagues. Some colleagues push our brochures, despite all the information in a few of them being available online.

If I can make a generalization, these tend to be the older admissions folks who are more used to using the brochures. Others offer options: you could grab this AP brochure to see what credit you’d get for what score on which test, or you can look it up on our website. (for my own commentary, why waste the paper and cost us the money for four scores they could easily look up?)

I’ve also found that when I offer my AIM handle to students I’m talking to, they get super-enthusiastic. And even their parents start telling me I’m the last word in customer service: above and beyond and all that.

So while this doesn’t affect the larger conversation of the newest modes of electronic communication, it does tell me that some folks are picking them up no problem (students, to generalize), some folks are slowly picking them up or recognizing their value (parents), and some folks will print out webpages if the brochure is discontinued (the non-technologically-savvy).

But the thing is, we have to serve them all. Penn State is committed to serving the Commonwealth, and any one of the above could either become a student here or at least interface with the University in some way.

So how do we serve all, even those not comfortable with technology?

I think the idea of engaging the early adopters is a good one (apologies that I don’t remember who suggested it right now), and certainly paves the way to spreading the word in a grassroots fashion.

Something else I’d like to explore further, perhaps in a later post, is how technology can help us realize cost savings and green initiatives without leaving anyone behind, especially considering the widespread nature of Penn State’s mission.

We’re in the midst of launching the new Admissions site–in phases, believe it or not. So right now we have www.psu.edu/admissions up simultaneously with admissions.psu.edu, though the front page of the latter redirects to the former at the moment. But if you know a second-level page you can explore the new site, like admissions.psu.edu/academics.

This is good in a lot of ways, including getting search working ahead of time–giving our Google spiders the run of the place, basically–but frustrating in others. Most of those frustrating bits are things we wouldn’t want to have public, certainly, but the longer we wait, the worse it might be in terms of fixing the things that need it after launch (both myself and the other main person working on the site have vacation time and/or conferences coming up fast that would preclude helping with damage control if need be).

I rather wish I’d started this blog earlier, though, if only to take a look back and see how much we’ve covered in how short a time period.

A lot of people laughed when they heard we were planning a complete and total redesign–infrastructure, information architecture, design, content, and all–in the span of five months. But we hit it.

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