Improving the Online College Application Process

As online education has grown, so has competition for students. The most aggressive of universities may have enrolled a potential student before the least aggressive university has even made contact, so the need for a streamlined application process has become more important than ever. This is especially important in the online realm; where up to 31 percent of four-year applicants do not complete an online college application after starting the process.

Effective Online Application Design

One strategy to increase application cohesion is to examine best practices in online application design. We discuss four main themes below:

  • Simplicity
  • Technical Flexibility
  • Security
  • Administrative Efficiency


According to University Business, a top complaint for applicants and parents is the level of complexity in the application process. Complexity can force an applicant to choose “the path of least resistance,” which can lead to leading to the abandonment of applications. In a 2012 survey of college bound high school juniors and seniors, 55 percent of students said that the biggest challenge with campus websites was not being able to find “what they wanted because of challenges with the site navigation.”

In an annual survey of over 100,000 high students, the National Research Center for College and University Admissions (NRCCUA) compared and rated the effectiveness of nearly 3,000 admissions websites along seven functional areas. There are several important takeaways from their findings that are relevant to effective online application design:

  • There should be a prominent link directly to admissions from the institution’s homepage, and the link should be in the top half of the page.
  • Consistency within the website is important.
  • Application instructions should be simple and easy to follow.
  • Offering the ability to pay online is more convenient and can save money.
  • Students expect to be able to apply online; however, the application should be easily downloadable or printable.
  • It should be easy to find any information applicants might be looking for.
  • It should be easy for applicants to contact admissions, by mail, phone, email, and online.
  • While it is important to make the application design as simple as possible so that applicants do not fail to complete the application, it is also important to allow applicants to save their application so that they can return to it later in case there are any hang‐ups.

In many cases, these features are becoming standard on admissions websites, and their absence could decrease competitiveness since applicants expect them.

Technical Flexibility

In addition to simplicity, it is important that applicants be able to conveniently access online applications. And in the mobile age, it is especially important for applications to be easily accessible from mobile devices. For instance, 50 percent of respondents in a recent survey said they would complete applications on mobile devices if available. Offering mobile compatible applications for students has become a necessary step for improving the online application process in today’s day and age.

Compatibility and access to application data is also important from an administrative perspective. Private admissions software developers DecisionDesk and Jenzabar, Inc., for example, emphasize the value that cloud‐based access to admissions data via any browser, tablet, or mobile device can bring to admissions administration efficiency.


As online applications have become more common, some students and parents have worried that electronic submissions might not actually go through. On the other hand, institutions may find that students themselves can overlook the submission of an online application; an ACT survey of counselors and admission staff identified a transmission failure as among the top ten mistakes applicants can make. Institutions can address this by providing a confirmation page and email for completed applications, and may also wish to prompt students with incomplete applications to follow through with submission.

The second aspect of security is that sensitive student data that applicants have sent to the admission system must be transmitted and stored securely.

Administrative Efficiency

There are a number of important dimensions for which an application’s ability to handle data is important. First, effective data tracking allows the admissions office to track application completion rates. This allows the institution to contact applicants who have not submitted their application and to help them to do so. The ability to track application completions also alerts the application developer to potential problem points in the online application design.

Second, more efficient data integration and processing is quicker and can cut down a time‐consuming process. Enrollment statistics show that students are more likely to enroll when they receive acceptance notifications sooner. The ability to offer admission quickly depends on an institution’s efficiency in processing completed applications. Back‐end administrative inefficiencies may result in monetary costs related to time, labor, and opportunity.


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