Killer Apps

It’s college admission season in America, time for anxious high school kids all over the country—and their even more anxious parents—to send applications off to their colleges of choice, then endure the seemingly interminable wait for a reply via U.S. mail. Think of it as one of those timeless rituals that defines the passage to college life.

Except it doesn’t have to be that way. Ask Blake Conrad.

Conrad is a senior at Lisle High School. I met him at Elmhurst’s admission open house on November 13 in the Frick Center, where he was one of about 200 prospective students checking out the College. The high-schoolers and their parents were chatting with some of the two dozen or so faculty manning tables around the Founders Lounge, getting answers from staffers about concerns ranging from financial aid to meal plans, and walking the campus with the College’s impressively enthusiastic student tour guides. Not long after Conrad arrived, he handed off a sheaf of papers to Tony Minestra, one of the College’s admission counselors. It was his application to Elmhurst College.

“All set?” Minestra asked him.

“Yep,” said Conrad, who sounded remarkably calm and confident for a teenager who had just handed over his permanent record for evaluation. As it turned out, he was right to be so confident.

Conrad was taking the College up on an offer it had begun making this year: Turn in your completed application at the beginning of the open house, stick around for the day’s events, and before you head home, get a decision on your application. If your application is accepted, you walk away with an official admittance letter—and just possibly, a scholarship offer. If not, you get advice about what you can do to improve your chances and reapply. Maybe retake a standardized test. Maybe put in a year upping your grades at a community college.

“It’s almost like instant gratification,” Stephanie Levenson, Elmhurst’s director of admission, told me. “It gives students an incentive to go ahead and complete the application, because they know we’ll give them a quick decision. We’ll sit down with them at the end of the day and tell them what we think. It’s very personal, and for us, very gratifying.”

On-site admissions make up only a small share of the College’s enrollment total. (Overall, applications to the College are up 7 percent from this time last year, when the College enrolled its most highly qualified class—and one of its largest–ever.) Levenson said the College offered admission to five students at an open house in October and to another 32 at a college fair that month run by the college-bound organization Chicago Scholars.

The appeal is easy to see. For anyone who thinks that finding the right college has become a little too complicated, the simplicity of on-site admission is probably welcome. And for anyone who thinks the admission process, as practiced at some colleges, turns students into commodities, there is something appealing about getting straight, face-to-face answers from another human being.

You can count Blake Conrad among the fans of on-site admission. “I like it because it doesn’t waste my time,” he told me at the open house. Busy with schoolwork and his part-time job at the local Jewel, he had little time for sweating out the admission process. And his mother, Sandra, a fourth-grade teacher, said the college search had already proved a trial. “You have to be a savvy parent,” she said. “But there’s so much information, it can be overwhelming.” At Elmhurst’s open house, she and Blake were able to get answers to many of their questions from professors and financial aid officers. She appreciated the personal touch.

“My son is not a number. He’s more than a test score,” she said. “I like that we’ve talked to people face-to-face, and that doesn’t happen everywhere.”

Still, when Blake told her that he would get a decision from the College on his application that same day, she had her doubts. When Michelle DeFranco, one of the College’s admission counselors, pulled the Conrads aside at the end of the open house, Sandra looked a little surprised. Admission officers had reviewed Blake’s application during the open house, and now they had an answer for the Conrads.

DeFranco walked them over to a quiet corner of the Founders Lounge and gave them the news: Blake was in. Then DeFranco gave them some even better news: Elmhurst would offer him a one-third scholarship, worth about $9000.

Blake jumped about a foot in the air. His mother put both hands over her mouth. They could have passed for a pair of winners on a game show. There was a lot of hugging. “All that hard work you’ve been doing in school has paid off,” DeFranco told Blake. His mom said, “I’m so proud of you.”

Later, DeFranco presented Blake with his official acceptance letter and the two posed for photographs. (That’s DeFranco and Blake commemorating the moment in our accompanying photo). Then, the Conrads set off to celebrate.

“There’s nothing better than seeing that kind of reaction,” Levenson told me as she saw them off. “You don’t get that when they open a letter in their living room.”


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