So December arrives and you’ve completed your Cal State and University of California applications (as Counselors & Transfer Directors throughout California try to rediscover the joy of a good night of sleep). Maybe you even got ahead of the game and finished your apps for some private and out-of-state schools, too. All is right in the world, and you can just relax and wait for the admission offers to start rolling in, right? Well, not quite.

Technology has allowed us to do amazing things, and in many ways it has streamlined the university admission process greatly. With a few mouse clicks students can extend their application from one campus to a dozen. A little creative editing and a quick copy and paste might even let you use the same essay for multiple admission and scholarship applications. A batch of apps that used to take days can now be done in a few hours. But what happens after all those apps have been submitted? Lots…and maybe more than ever for students to do.

Take the case of Maria (not her real name), one of the students I’ve been working with this semester. She is a good student and will be a strong transfer applicant to many universities, but she’s nervous because of what she’s heard and read about impacted campuses and incredibly competitive admissions in California. Wisely, Maria is applying to a variety of schools with different levels of admission competitiveness. Her first choices are in the UC system, but she likes a couple of CSUs too, and she’s using a third as her safety school. Like many students, her parents have their own ideas of where they’d like her to go, so they’ve added a couple more schools to her list. And while she’ll probably stay in California, she is intrigued by a couple universities in other states too. So her total list of submitted apps will include between nine and twelve campuses. She and her family have done the right things, putting in a lot of time researching schools, consulting with counselors and university representatives, and touring campuses. Maria is right to be proud of the effort she’s put into her transfer planning, and she’s looking forward to enjoying some time in spring when she can just focus on her last few classes…if only it worked that way. Instead, she’ll have a lot, and I mean a LOT, of tasks to manage.

Upon receipt of an application, many schools immediately issue prospective students a user I.D. and PIN number, giving access to a student portal page. Maria must check each of these pages immediately and consistently, reading various announcements and following a checklist to submit documents, pay fees, etc. She’ll need to send transcripts and her AP test scores to many of the schools, and some may want SAT scores, even though she’s a transfer and has thoroughly proven herself in college classes. The CSUs aren’t standardized in these documentation processes, so some will want transcripts after her fall grades post (but with varying deadlines). Still, others want them in mid-spring but only if they request them, and one or two want them only after she has been offered admission—the way the UCs do it.  At least one Cal State University often asks applicants to send an unofficial transcript before sending their official copies, and even if a student can send a complete official copy right away, they still ask for an unofficial one too! Some of the CSUs also require a supplemental application, and the UC requires an application update, but the web sites, deadlines, and required information are different between the two systems and among the individual CSU campuses.

If Maria earns one of California’s AA-T or AS-T degrees, the CSU will also require her community college to prepare an AA-T verification form, which she then submits. And yes, a couple years into implementation of these degrees, some campuses still publish different deadlines for the verification form. Procedures and timelines for new student orientations, campus housing, financial aid, and disabled student or veteran services can also vary from school to school, so if she wants to utilize those resources she’ll also need to research and track those tasks.

Once the offers of admission start coming in, Maria will be given deadlines for each school by which to confirm her planned attendance, and there is usually a deposit payment required with that confirmation. But those deadlines also vary, even among campuses within California’s public university systems. Add in some private or out-of-state schools and it gets even more complicated, especially when some CSUs and private schools have deposit deadlines of May 1st while other CSU campuses’ (and the UC’s) deadlines are June 1st. Like many students, Maria may be forced to pay a deposit of up to $400 for a second-choice school with an earlier deadline while she waits for an admission notice from a first choice that gives their admission notification later.

Are you still with me on all of this? It’s my full-time job to work with this stuff and even I sometimes have a hard time keeping track of it all. So how are students supposed to manage it? Which leads me back to a comment I made that shocked Maria: “You should consider this process to be like an extra 2- or 3-unit class in your spring schedule.” “What?!” she exclaimed.

Was that just tough love? Was it too harsh? Was it a slight exaggeration? Maybe. But in her case and those of thousands of other students, keeping track of all the different documents, deadlines, deposits, and procedures is no small task. It requires a disciplined approach and many hours of work, and missing a step anywhere along the line could easily invalidate one or more of her applications.

But if technology can make it so much easier for students to just click, click, click to send out more apps, why haven’t the universities developed similar efficiency on the other end? Why do different campuses within the same state system have such different deadlines and procedures? Why do students need to log in regularly to track information on multiple student portal pages instead of one central system page? Why do they need to have transcripts and test scores sent to multiple campuses—sometimes at considerable expense—rather than sending one copy to a central site that could securely make them available to admissions staff at each campus to which the student applied in that system?

Of course, some might argue that navigating this quagmire is a rite of passage, a growth experience, and a pre-requisite for survival at a university. I’ve also heard some conspiracy theorist-types suggest that universities don’t want to streamline these processes for anyone but themselves since they make a nice chunk of change from application fees, whether the student is able to follow through or not. But the current system isn’t just inefficient; in some cases it’s downright punitive. When very capable students have to divert so much energy and attention away from the classroom to manage their applications, and if even one qualified student falls through the cracks because of an avoidably complex system, then we owe it to them to improve the system.

By Robert Waldren