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App cuts application clutter at MIT

An iPad eased the admissions process for Sloan School’s Jennifer Barba. An iPad eased the admissions process for Sloan School’s Jennifer Barba. (Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff)
By D.C. Denison
Globe Staff / December 19, 2011
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When Jennifer Barba, associate director of admissions at the Sloan School of Management at MIT, would prepare to review student applications, she used to start by finding a large horizontal surface.

“I would often look for a table in the office, or use my kitchen table at home,’’ she said.

She needed that space to spread out piles of paper. Although applicants to universities and graduate schools have been using online forms for years, the administrators on the receiving end have been struggling to make the transition to digital technology. Often, they end up leafing through folders stuffed with as many as 30 pages of printouts per applicant.

But that may be changing.

For the last year, Barba has been reviewing applications on Apple Inc.’s iPad tablet device. She has been testing a new app, or computer program, being launched today.

Called Matchbox, the app has been adopted by five programs at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s management school and the UCLA Anderson School of Management.

The company, also named Matchbox, has eight employees and is based in Kendall Square in Cambridge. It just secured a $2.5 million initial round of financing from a group of private investors and venture capital funds, including Greylock Partners, which has a Cambridge office.

The development of the software was spearheaded by Stephen Marcus, a former venture capitalist who is now the founder and chief executive of Matchbox. Marcus also once served on the admissions committee for MIT’s Sloan School of Business.

“I found the candidate evaluation process so slow and unwieldy that I offered to create an app over the summer, when the venture business is relatively quiet,’’ he said. “That turned into an eight-month project and now, a company.’’

Although college applications are often submitted online, admissions staffers at many schools find it more practical to work with printouts.

“Paper is still pervasive and persistent,’’ said Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director at the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers.

The online Common Application system already used by more than 400 colleges and universities is designed as a delivery system to get the digital forms to the schools, Nassirian said. It does not provide an easy way to manage the information on the forms, so “many campuses do end up printing and working with paper copies.’’

The Matchbox software seeks to reduce the paper clutter by integrating the entire process in a single app. The admissions staff at MIT Sloan has been beta testing the program for a year and has used it for three admissions cycles.

The app was designed to run on an iPad, which is more portable than a laptop or desktop computer, because university admissions staff members spend so much time on the road, on recruiting trips, and at events, said Matchbox’s Marcus.

The admissions departments at MIT Sloan and UCLA’s Anderson school combined run more than 100 events a year.

Barba said that before the MIT admissions staff began using Matchbox, each application typically consisted of at least 30 paper pages of student information, essays, and recommendations, collected in a folder.

There was also a separate paper “scorecard’’ to capture and rate information from the applicant.

Multiply those pages by 5,000, the number of applications Sloan’s full-time MBA program usually gets every year, and it adds up.

“If I went to New York for interviews,’’ Barba said, “I’d have to take a hundred heavy folders with me.’’

Now, she said, “I’m just bringing an iPad.’’

Matchbox allows users to sync their iPads with an online server that stores information in the digital “cloud.’’

And it includes a collaboration feature that allows admissions offices to assemble different opinions on a candidate from deans, faculty, staff, alumni, students, and contract readers.

The biggest time savings the new app affords is the reduction of transcription time, Barba said. She estimated the new app saves her 30 to 50 percent of the time she used to spend reviewing each application.

The new program allows admissions staff to easily highlight, copy, and paste from applications to evaluation forms.

“Before, we had to copy relevant passages by hand from the application to the scorecard,’’ she said. “Now we can highlight relevant excepts and easily save them to the scorecard.’’

The technology, which Marcus developed for MIT Sloan, is owned by MIT and licensed exclusively to Matchbox. The software is being sold as a subscription, with pricing that starts at $200 per user per month.

Marcus said the company intends to expand by reaching out beyond business schools to colleges, undergraduate programs, medical schools, and secondary schools.

Barba said she has noticed an unanticipated effect.

“We definitely benefit from a ‘cool factor’ in an interview when an applicant sees that we’re using an iPad,’’ she said. “It’s good for the Sloan brand.’’

D.C. Denison can be reached at denison@globe.com.

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