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Taking a plunge: the University completes its first digital winter pool

last modified Jan 28, 2021 12:20 PM
The University's first ever digital winter pool was held this month, replacing paper files and face-to-face meetings with digital folders and online collaboration tools. Despite being the largest winter pool on record, the digital incarnation proved so successful that there's no desire to return to the old in-person approach.

The University receives more than 20,000 applications for around 3,450 places each year. The 'winter pool' is designed to ensure that the best applicants receive an offer of a place regardless of the College to which they applied or were allocated. Over three days every January, all pooled applications are made available for consideration by Admissions Tutors and Directors of Studies. 

The University held its first ever digital version of the winter pool during 13–15 January. Paper files and folders were replaced with digital folders, face-to-face meetings moved online and automated tools were created to manage applicant records and data. We also removed duplication of effort by integrating these solutions with the University's student records system, CamSIS.

Digitally mastered

Despite being the largest winter pool on record, with over 4,700 pooled applicants, the process went swiftly and smoothly in its digital incarnation. Participants appreciated having better access to the applicant folders. For the first time, more than one person could review an application simultaneously, and files could be accessed at any time and from anywhere.

The digital Pool was wildly better from my perspective as subject convenor."

Feedback from Colleges was overwhelmingly positive, and the Cambridge Admissions Office saved considerable time and effort – at least 3 days' work each for a team of 15 people, on first estimate. Not surprisingly, there's little appetite for returning to the old in-person approach to the pool, even when circumstances would permit it.

The online Pool system is excellent and saves huge amounts of work for everyone involved. An admirable achievement to roll it all out!"


Digital admissions design sprint

The project team also held a 5-day remote design sprint. This is a method used to solve big problems and test new ideas in just 5 days. In preparation, we mapped the problem, set some goals and asked the experts in the team lots of questions. From that we decided on where we should focus our effort in the design sprint. We met for 2 hours each day to tackle a new theme.

Monday – We shared examples of other websites and services that demonstrated a good approach to our problem. We practiced sketching our ideas.

DA sprint 1

Tuesday – We all presented our sketches and then chose two options to take forward.

DA sprint 2

Wednesday – In teams, we created storyboards of the user's journey and chose one to prototype.

DA storyboard

Thursday – We created the prototype (it took more than 2 hours on this day though!)

Digital admissions portal prototype

Friday – We tested the prototype with six participants and recorded their feedback.

What did we learn?

We got lots of valuable user insight. We learned about:

  • notification preferences
  • sign-in options
  • their process for writing a personal statement

We learned that they liked:

  • a timeline to show how far through the application they were
  • to see which section of the form was incomplete
  • to see a countdown to the submission deadline

We also learned that they were confused by some terms like ‘High school transcript’ and ‘Fee status’.

Next steps

We're going to refine the prototype and do further research and analysis. We’ll then start work on the applicant portal.

We hold fortnightly 'Show and Tell' sessions where we show what we have completed in the last sprint. Please contact Kate Livingstone () or Basirat Afinowi () to find out more.

You can follow the progress of the project via the project page on the UIS website.

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