By BARBARA GAYNES
Years ago, students applying to U.S. colleges and universities had to handle a lot of paper. Their applications and personal essays were either typewritten or printed out and then “snail-mailed” to each school. When the schools responded with admissions decisions, those arrived on paper too: A thick envelope in the mailbox usually meant acceptance, while a thin one often held bad news.
Flash forward to today’s world of Facebook, Instagram and WeChat, where photos, videos and mobile phones rule. Today’s students want to be able to share their credentials and personal stories in a more lively and three-dimensional way. Fortunately, several new tools are making it easier for college applicants to use technology to show off their personalities, skills and creativity.
One of the more popular innovations in college applications is ZeeMee, a free mobile app that allows students to upload personal profiles and videos to create visual resumes that can be included with their applications.
More than 220 colleges and universities offer a ZeeMee option as part of the application process. Many other schools allow a link to a ZeeMee profile to be added to the application, usually in a space that asks students if they have additional information to share.
The video aspect is especially appealing for international students, who may be more comfortable showing their unique stories than writing about them. ZeeMee co-founder Adam Metcalf says 10 percent of ZeeMee applicants to U.S. schools last year were international students who used the app to set themselves apart.
“There are a lot of international students, especially from China and India, so it’s important for the college to get a sense of who you are as a person — your character, your growth mindset, your grit,” Metcalf says. “For that international student who uses ZeeMee to bring their story to life via video, it’s a really fantastic way for them to showcase themselves.”
ZeeMee has been used by students in more than 150 countries, Metcalf says.
One of those is Drexel University sophomore Vidya Golla from Hyderabad, India. As part of her application to Philadelphia-based Drexel and other U.S. colleges, Golla created a rap video in which she starred.
“The ZeeMee video I made was really fun,” says Golla, who is majoring in Entrepreneurship and Innovation. “I basically rapped about myself. I made it up pretty much on the spot. ZeeMee really liked it, and I’m sure the colleges liked it too.”
In addition to the video, Golla used the ZeeMee platform to share a personal portfolio with college officials.
“It was just a link in my application that could show any admissions officer so many things,” she says. “It was pictures and videos and all of my writing. I thought it made the application a lot more authentic and creative.”
That’s exactly what ZeeMee’s founders had in mind when they developed the platform. Metcalf, who was a high school teacher, and his partner Juan Jaysingh, a former international student from India, wanted to help college applicants connect with schools and show their worth beyond grades and SAT scores.
“Working with students, I realized that they are so much more than their test scores,” Metcalf says. “There’s really a desire to see that paradigm in education reversed to where we value more the qualitative aspects of a student as opposed to just the quantitative aspects.”
Jeff Schiffman, director of admission at Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana, agrees with that philosophy. His school was one of the first to offer ZeeMee as a way for prospective students to add depth and color to their applications.
“There’s been a shift in the world of college admission, and Tulane is a part of that,” Schiffman explained to prospective students in his admissions blog. “We want to know your authentic story, beyond just your scores and your grades.”
Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia, where interviews are mandatory for all applicants, allows students to use ZeeMee videos to meet that requirement.
Darryl Isom, director of admissions, believes the use of video helps him and his colleagues discover students who are “diamonds in the rough” — those who may not shine when using a traditional application.
“ZeeMee has been very helpful in finding these students where they are,” Isom says. “They are able to tell their stories via video. They are able to show the unique aspects of what is going on in their lives. This helps us to understand (more about) students … who really do well at Morehouse and who we may not have admitted initially but the video really made a difference.”
THE COALITION LOCKER
Another relatively new tool comes from the Coalition for Access, Affordability and Success, a group that introduced an application platform in 2015 now used by more than 110 member colleges and universities. Among the group’s stated goals are getting students engaged in college prep early and using technology to create a supportive application process “that encourages reflection and self-discovery.”
Students who sign up for the free platform get access to a digital “locker,” which they can use all through high school to save class papers, artwork, newspaper stories, videos and photos to share with colleges when they eventually apply. Each student also receives private online collaboration space to connect with teachers and other advisors who can provide guidance on their path to college.
The University of Washington in Seattle began using the Coalition application this fall as a way to help high-schoolers get an early start on the admissions process.
“Students may complete many of the self-reported academic fields before the senior year, allowing them to work on their application as they move through high school,” the school states on its website. “We are hoping that this feature will reduce stress and frenzy for students, counselors, and families in the fall of the senior year.”
At some schools, an interview with an admissions officer is an important part of the application process. This can be difficult for international applicants who live thousands of miles from campus.
To make it easier, several virtual interviewing tools have popped up, such as a video-based platform from Kira. More than 140 universities worldwide use Kira’s video assessment tool to conduct real-time interviews with prospective students.
Wake Forest University in North Carolina started using the interviewing tool in 2016 to evaluate applicants to its School of Business. Eric Olson, executive director of enrollment operations for the business school, said it was especially helpful for assessing the skills of international students.
“You can have a very strong candidate, but if their communication and language skills aren’t at a certain level, they are going to have a hard time in the classroom and in group settings,” Olson said in a Kira interview.
Each college or university comes up with its own questions for applicants, which are prerecorded. These prompts are designed to uncover certain characteristics that might help students to succeed at that particular school. During the interview, candidates are shown the prompts and must respond in real time by talking into the camera on their laptop or phone. In addition to showing their ability to speak fluently in English and think on their feet, the video interview helps admissions officers determine the “motivation, commitment and drive” of applicants, Olson said
UNIQUE SCHOOL TOOLS
Some universities have come up with their own ways to allow students to show their skills and personalities. For example, The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), one of America’s best-known engineering schools, encourages applicants to display their technical abilities and creativity by submitting a “Maker Portfolio” — a written or videotaped description of a project that demonstrates creative and problem-solving skills. While a new app or computer program would fit the bill, the project could be anything from an origami design to a potato cannon.
“It gives us a fuller picture of the student,” Stuart Schmill, dean of admissions at the Cambridge, Massachusetts school, said in a New York Times interview. “Without this, some applicants might not be able to fully get across how good a fit they are for us.”