Colleges Go Online to Calm the Admissions Jitters

By Susan Kinzie

Washington Post Staff Writer

Daniel Creasy and the other Johns Hopkins University admissions office staff have to read 200 files a week to get through the 14,840 applications piled on chairs and crates in the hallways. That’s 65 percent more applicants than they had just five years ago — so many, Creasy joked, that he has to get his dog to help read them.

He even posted a photo of his dog, paws planted next to a stack of files, on the Hopkins admissions Web site.

Creasy is trying to lighten things a little and ease some of the anxiety of the application process as the admissions frenzy whips up. With more applicants than ever competing to get into the top schools, students’ stress is obvious. It chokes online message boards about college admissions. (One site — where overachievers crunch numbers, analyze their chances and obsess over scores — had 17,048 posts about Hopkins alone.)

Now, some schools have staff members like Creasy who not only read files but monitor message boards, field questions on their own Web sites and try to humanize the process.

In charge of Hopkins Insider, “a behind-the-scenes look at the Johns Hopkins Admissions Office,” Creasy hopes to take away some of the mystery, correct misinformation here and there, crack some jokes and, occasionally, talk students off the ledge.

“When I got into the field, I was told this is a very secretive field. Not a lot of people know what we do,” Creasy said. “I agreed with that.” Many in admissions still do. Creasy used to think of himself as an admissions officer, working for the institution to create the strongest possible 1,200-student incoming class. Now, he has far more contact with applicants — at least electronically — and knows just how much they’re sweating the admissions process.

He’s begun to see himself as more of an admissions counselor instead.

“So many applicants think of admissions as this abyss where you toss in an application and never hear what happens to it,” said Ben Jones, who helped transform the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s admissions Web site into a percolating conversation among hundreds of students and staff members. “That creates a level of anxiety and stress that is increasing as years go on and admissions become increasingly competitive.”

Last month, MIT posted winners of an essay contest about the admissions process. One applicant created animation set to the Zombies’ “Time of the Season” with a stick figure waiting by a mailbox in the snow. Another wrote about anxiety, pressure and a classmate who applied to Stanford and hanged himself.

Jeannine C. Lalonde, an assistant dean of admission at the University of Virginia, said: “They picture people in a room with a big ‘REJECT’ stamp. This makes people realize we’re real, we’re accessible, we’re not scary.”

So Creasy blogs. He writes about how many files he has to read, explaining the admissions process, the months of late-night reading and discussion about applicants. He introduces other staffers, giving their backgrounds, favorite animals (”Not a Bushbaby — those things scare me,” one wrote) and admissions pet peeves. (Tip: Don’t leave the “s” out of Johns.)

He describes how he works, with a blue binder, glass of water, iPod, calculator and eight — eight! — calendars. He adds photos of the stacks of applications and of his niece, crawling along the floor. And he writes such things as: “ . . . most of us have dreams (nightmares???) about application files, letters of recommendations, paper/folder cuts, grading scales, aaaaahhhhh!”

And even with application folders filling 23 five-drawer filing cabinets along a wall of the office and spilling onto most other flat surfaces, Creasy has gotten to know more about individual students such as Christy Thai, a high school senior from Olney.

She was worried about her scores last year. Then she found a college admissions message board with people posting their statistics and felt even worse. “It was bad,” she said, “because it made me believe I won’t get accepted to any college.”

As decisions near, the drama peaks online, with people writing, for example, “ONE MORE HOUR!!!!!” until admission and rejection results would be posted and “I can’t take it!”

When Creasy reads those message boards, he knows the people who write often are a small minority even of those who are competing for the most selective schools. “But it does scare me sometimes,” he said. “The intensity.”

It’s great that students have access to so much more information, said John Latting, director of undergraduate admissions at Hopkins. “The flip side is a sort of hysteria about college admissions.” He worries about college rankings, which can make families think their options are limited to a short list of elite schools, and the misinformation floating around.

On a recent night, someone listed his SAT scores (in the 700s on each part) on a site and wrote: “Guys, do you think I have a chance to be admitted. I am really nervous. . .”

Someone told him he had a 50-50 chance.

“Some of the information out there is just shockingly, shockingly bad,” said Lalonde, who monitors sites for U-Va. and often posts corrections and clarifications. “I get bombarded,” she said, with nervous students and parents dragging her to other online discussions to answer new questions.

Creasy tries to fight the stereotypes of Hopkins — that the school cares only about numbers and scores, not the applicants, and that the atmosphere on campus is hypercompetitive and cutthroat. He takes questions. How many?

“More,” he said, “than you could ever imagine.”

Thai sent some after finding that her early-decision application had been deferred to the regular admissions pool. She didn’t know quite what to think — was it all over for her? — so she posted to the Hopkins message board and got answers and a list of suggestions from Creasy right away. “I felt like ‘Oh, good, I have another chance!’ “ she said.

Now at Hopkins, a group of students gives Creasy ideas for admissions, helps him monitor the message boards and answers questions. Some blog.

Creasy runs contests, shares his Oscar picks, posts pictures of teddy bears wearing little Hopkins hoodies and chats online about his favorite TV shows, such as “24.” “24 is on in just a few hours!” one applicant posted recently. “Haha sweet i was the closest!” another wrote after a contest.

Thai checks the site often. “It’s really better. It kept my nerves down and stress down.”

Not that all the applicants are laid-back now. Far from it.

“We definitely get students who communicate with us on an obsessive level,” Creasy said. But overall, he thinks the changes the school has made help it connect better.

That means making Hopkins more appealing, he hopes — and luring more applicants. And making it even tougher to get in.