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Chatting One-on-One With 20,000 Applicants?

Salt Lake City — Prospective students have a zillion questions for colleges, and they expect Google-fast answers. Yet no admissions office has enough of a staff to handle each and every query.

That’s why Tessa McSwain sees promise in live chats. At the Rocky Mountain Association for College Admission Counseling’s annual conference here on Thursday, Ms. McSwain, assistant director of admissions at the University of Colorado at Boulder, described her office’s recent experiments with two forms of online communication.

So far this year, Colorado has held five “group chats,” in which two or three admissions officers fielded questions about a range of subjects, including financial aid, housing, and on-campus dining options. Recently, two all-day chats attracted about 250 prospective students and parents, who received quick answers from real, live human beings on the other end of the Internet.

The chats have proved especially useful for communicating with international students in far-flung time zones. ”That instant gratification happens in real time,” Ms. McSwain said.

Colorado has also begun to test software that enables visitors to its admissions Web site to ask questions (during specific hours) by typing questions in pop-up chat windows, just as they might do when communicating with banks and cable-television companies. The idea is to allow students and parents to get information—in, say, five to 10 seconds—that they would otherwise have sought by telephone (the university’s call center handles the online inquiries).

Colorado is working with a software company called LiveAcademic to manage both kinds of chats. Because today’s applicants expect the immediate feedback they get through social media, said Shane Gibson, the company’s director of technology, colleges should consider ways of enhancing their virtual communication to provide a more-personal touch—even if that touch is fleeting.

“Your Web site,” Mr. Gibson said, “is your funnel.”

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