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Technology and the College Admissions Process

When it comes to using the Web for researching potential schools, students aren't as smart about it.

We all know the Internet has forever altered how high school students research and apply to colleges. After all, seniors can “visit” campuses and their surroundings via virtual tours, peruse online course catalogs at will, and explore financial-aid options using free tools on Web sites. Increasingly, it’s just a matter of filling in the fields of a Web-based application form and clicking “Submit.” It’s all good, right?

Not completely. It’s more of an 80/20 ratio. For, along with the clear advantages that the Internet brings to the process, it has brought problems as well.


For instance, savvy seniors may think they have it all wired, and might just skip the step of talking with a school guidance counselor. Parents, accustomed to deferring to their kids’ expertise when it comes to all things “computer,” might be tempted to concur. This would be a mistake.

"Kids are great recreational users of the Internet, but lousy academic users and that includes their researching of colleges." -Kenneth Hartman, author of The Internet Guide for College-Bound Students

It’s not that excellent information isn’t available on the Internet. It is, and moreover, much of it was previously unavailable. But most high school seniors, despite their self-confidence, are not yet adept enough at gathering it.

“Kids are great recreational users [of the Internet], but lousy academic users,” observes Kenneth Hartman, “and that includes their researching of colleges.” Hartman, a member of the Graduate School of Education at The University of Pennsylvania who spent 11 years at The College Board, is the author of The Internet Guide for College-Bound Students. He notes that most students just go to the main pages of college Web sites—the marketing materials, if you will. Fewer than 25 percent will dig much deeper, he estimates, and thus most are missing opportunities for real insight.

Using the Web and e-mail, “now students can find the ‘unofficial’ information about a school or academic program,” Hartman explains. To learn about hotbed issues or crime on campus, for example, they can read the college’s student newspaper online. To explore non-academic life, they might scan the meeting minutes of various clubs and student organizations, perhaps even e-mailing questions to club officers. Students rarely e-mail inquiries to faculty, current students or alumni. “That’s a shame,” Hartman volunteers, “because such direct and unfiltered communication is usually invaluable.”

Very few high schoolers delve deep enough online to learn much about an institution’s faculty either—another huge omission, notes Hartman. For instance, student evaluations of faculty and of courses are often posted online, detailing class size, lab work, lecture style and more. “Why be satisfied with the course catalog’s description when you can find out what students who have already taken the class think?”


Like parents, high school guidance counselors may also tend to defer to students’ Web expertise. Little effort has been made to train guidance counselors in effective use of the Internet, so it’s natural for them to gravitate toward the same obvious set of materials that their students do. Similarly, learning how to mine student information systems’ data takes both time and assistance.

Plus, many counselors are overwhelmed by the sheer number of students they must serve. The American School Counselor Association recommends a ratio of no more than 250 students per counselor, but in large high schools, case loads easily exceed two or three times that number.

Encouraging signs, however, are in the wind. Foremost, focused technology training and tools are becoming available.

For instance, the National Technology Institute for School Counselors, founded by Hartman, began delivering tailored professional development to K-12 school counselors nationwide in 1999. Via workshops, seminars and summer institutes, counselors learn how to locate, interpret and use Internet-based information; how to use specific software and Internet applications for documentation as well as guidance; how to write technology plans or grants; and more. In addition, three NTISC Series CDs (Counselor, Student, Parent) are offered free to schools and districts, while supplies last.

Over at Bob Turba’s Cyber Guidance Office, counselors should explore the free demo of his ADVOCATE software. This “digital cumulative folder for guidance counselors” is built in FileMaker Pro 5.5 and thus multiuser, cross-platform and fully customizable. Turba, chair of Guidance Services at Stanton College Preparatory School in Jacksonville, Fla., created the program expressly for the needs of high school counselors.

School counselors have been
overlooked in terms of improving
their technology skills and tools.

Then there’s the ASCA’s National Model for School Counseling Programs. With its final draft due to be published in January (while this issue is being printed), the goal is “to create one vision and one voice” forschool counseling programs. Tacitly acknowledging its absence, technology is to be used “daily” by counselors, with the Internet, word processing, student-database systems and presentation software specifically mentioned in the national model. Counselors will also create online portfolios for their students. They are to receive yearly training “in all areas of technology advancement and updates.” Lastly, school counselors must leverage technology as “a tool to gather, analyze and present data to drive systemic change.”

So, it’s finally begun to sink in: school counselors have been overlooked in terms of improving their technology skills and tools. And that situation must be quickly corrected. This new century of data-driven decision making and accountability in K-12 schools demand nothing less—as does our commitment to students.


Certainly, the Internet’s voluminous financial-aid information means a more diverse array of students are getting into colleges and universities. “Web sites like and are a big help,” agrees Vince Daughrity, one of six counselors at El Camino High School in Oceanside, Calif.

Located next to Camp Pendleton Marine Base in San Diego, the school’s 2,900 students don’t tend to be from wealthy families. Yet the number of students able to continue their education has risen steadily during the last few years.

Students’ academic achievements are due, in part, to the school’s participation in Advancement Via Individual Determination, a national program in almost 600 schools. AVID targets academically “in the middle” and low-income students with structured tutoring sessions, a rigorous college-prep curriculum, and more. (Data indicates it’s successful: 92 percent of AVID graduates enroll in college; 60 percent in four-year institutions, with 89 percent still in college after two years.)

But if you can’t be certain that you’ll be able to pay for college, where’s the incentive?

Scholarship and financial-aid search tools on the Internet make “a huge contribution to students’ motivation,” says Daughrity, and not just in senior year. AVID students, for example, are identified in eighth grade. And all of El Camino’s high schoolers are encouraged to contemplate college and career desires, to ensure they take an appropriate curriculum. “It’s competitive,” says Daughrity about college admissions, “and students have to prepare themselves academically. Knowing you can pay for it relieves at least some of the pressure.”


Interestingly, at the more affluent high schools, the Internet is having less of an impact on the college-admissions process. It hasn’t, for example, really changed which institutions students end up choosing or how many college applications they submit.

Students usually apply to more schools than they need to, says James Conroy, chair of the Post-High School Counselors Department at the Winnetka Campus of New Trier Township High School District 203 in Winnetka, Ill. But that’s not because the online process makes it easier, he explains. Instead, it comes from social pressures.

“There’s been a general narrowing of the list of ‘acceptable’ colleges by our families,” Conroy says. “We call it the gold-plated Holy Grail list.” Of the thousands of public and private colleges and universities nationwide, Conroy estimates that only 250 make the cut for New Trier’s seniors and parents. “And that’s a generous estimate.”

Naturally, competition is intense for these upper-echelon schools. Knowing there are only so many freshman slots, students typically apply to multiple “approved” institutions just to improve their odds.

Problems created by technology
concerning college admissions
lay not with the tools, but with
students' and counselors' abilities
to use these tools well.

Conroy and a staff of five guidance counselors focus mainly on college planning for the Winnetka Campus’ 850 seniors. Among the Web tools favored at New Trier are virtual campus tours, which he terms “fabulous,” and scholarship-search engines.

Conroy has run across a few downsides to submitting college applications via the Internet. First up is the “I thought I sent it” syndrome. Sometimes, the Web-based application forms just don’t go through—but you don’t know that until much later. Another, the “too cool to read it through” disorder, is characterized by omitting a final, crucial, sheet from the application. “That’s the page with instructions for getting your transcripts sent to a college” explains Conroy. “In either case, no request for transcripts sends up a red flag to us.”

Moreover, school counselors lose some control when everything is done online. “I try to get them to let me read their essays ahead of time,” Conroy says, “but they don’t always remember. They’re just so comfortable using the Internet and very much into its immediacy.”


It’s evident that the problems created by technology concerning college admissions lay not with the tools, but with students’ and counselors’ abilities to use these tools well. Targeted training for counselors will fix much of that; awareness of students limitations and tendencies will help address the rest.

Terian Tyre,, is a contributing editor.