Wednesday, June 23, 2004

College admission counselors are crashing a party once dominated by high-schoolers: the virtual world of instant messaging.

Boston University’s admission counselors are online all day, quickly fielding questions from prospective students about admissions procedures, college life or the status of their application. The university has been using the software for nearly three years, and more schools are logging on.

“It’s the way they communicate with each other and the best way to communicate with us,” said Micha Sabovik, director of student services. Free instant-messaging software is available from America Online Inc., Yahoo Inc. and Microsoft Corp., providing real-time conversations between computer users.

The university office began using the technology to foster communication with an age group that uses instant messaging recreationally, Mrs. Sabovik said.

About three-quarters of American teenagers regularly use instant messaging, according to a 2001 Pew Internet & American Life Project report, the latest data available.

At Truman State University in Kirksville, Mo., counselors have been instant messaging with applicants for about four years.

“It’s been very helpful for students to have another option for contacting us,” said Melody Chambers, co-director of admission. “It’s a little more relaxed and casual.”

Although counselors like that students feel comfortable, the process has kinks, as some students forgo grammar, capitalization and formality rules, Ms. Chambers said.

“Many do not realize they’re talking to the person going over their application,” said Mrs. Sabovik. “It’s a little more informal than an admissions office query should be … it’s like they’re talking to their buddies and not higher-education professionals.”

But the ease of the software outweighs the informality, and both schools plan to continue using it.

Students appreciate how quickly they can get responses, rather than calling or e-mailing questions in, Mrs. Sabovik said.

And the idea of 20 to 50 messages flashing across the computer each day isn’t as daunting as it might sound, Mrs. Sabovik said. Not only do the messages take the place of “cumbersome” phone calls, but counselors can multitask more efficiently because both the messages and students’ files are on the computer.

“[The messages] can get overwhelming in the throes of the application process, but generally it’s an easy way for them and for us,” Mrs. Sabovik said.

Studies on the number of colleges that use messaging software aren’t available, but an informal Internet search reveals that small schools are more likely to use it rather than large, well-known schools — with some exceptions.

The escalating number of schools using messaging software is a sign that colleges are realizing that the Internet is the first point of contact with students, said Dave Hawkins, director of public policy at the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

“There’s a strong emphasis on putting your best foot forward on the Web site to engage the student,” Mr. Hawkins said.

And immediately answering questions through a messaging software is going to win out against a voice mail and reply, Mr. Hawkins said.

The instant response impressed Darryl Ryan of Los Angeles when he was shopping around for graduate schools.

Mr. Ryan hadn’t heard of schools using instant messaging, but he liked that Boston University was easy to communicate with, and in a format that he regularly used. It also eliminated the cost of a long-distance call.

Now that he is a graduate student at Boston University, he sits on the other side of messages as a counselor.

“Just like on a personal [instant-messaging] program, it’s really exciting to get [messages] … from people who have honest questions that you can answer.”

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