By Daimon Eklund | Jan 26, 2016
Shelves full of color-coded admissions packets.

Right now, there's something missing at the UW’s Office of Admissions.

Tables, desks and floors are empty instead of being covered with stacks and stacks of paper applications. For the first time, most applications for admission at the University of Washington are being considered as digital files instead of pages of printed paper.

About 32,000 students from within the U.S. applied for admission this fall, which means 32,000 files were not printed and stacked around the admissions office. Moving away from paper helps the UW reduce paper consumption as directed by state law. But the new digital workflow isn't only saving paper – it's allowing staff to spend more time actually considering the applications instead of printing, organizing and moving the printed files.

A student works to assemble printed UW admission packets.

A student works to assemble printed UW admission packets.

"This was primarily driven by efficiencies," said David Sundine, assistant director, office of undergraduate admissions. "Of course all of us want to save paper, but we were spending hundreds of labor hours just building files, not even doing the work of reviewing applications."

A few types of applications, such as international and transfer students, are still on the old system and printed, but the switch to digital files for the bulk of new student applications allows the admissions office to use its resources – and space – more effectively. And it shouldn't be long until all applications are moved into the new digital system, providing even more gains.

The number of applicants for admission at UW has been growing each year, and using paper files would have meant spending more time dealing with ever growing piles of paper. Instead, those resources can now be used for reviewing the applications.

The switch wasn't easy. Because of the systems involved, in recent years, applicants were able to fill out and submit their applications online, but it was then printed for review. In order to start using a full-digital workflow, the admissions office built an entirely new database and interfaces which allow admissions officers to quickly and easily review applications. Where before it might have taken days or weeks after an application was submitted for the printed copy to be properly labeled and filed so the review could start, now the application is in the system and ready to review almost immediately.

Staff in the UW Office of Admissions sitting at computers.

Staff in the UW Office of Admissions review applications submitted digitally.

The switch to digital started this summer for students applying to start in winter quarter 2016. The smaller number of applicants in that cycle allowed the admissions office to fix a few small bugs in the system, hopefully getting everything ironed out for the much larger fall 2016 applicant pool.

"We're really excited about it. And we're nervous," Sundine said. "It's brand new, and with huge projects like this, integrating with legacy systems, things can get bumpy. But we're really excited."

The office is currently in the process of reviewing applications which were due on Dec. 1. Going forward, the office plans to use the digital system for the few applications which are still printed, but they're already seeing the benefits. Every empty tabletop is a reminder of the benefits of going digital.