Anatomy of a deadline – Managing applications at 70 documents/second!

We all know that applicants prefer to submit their applications literally at the last minute. For an admission officer without an adequate, online system, this can be very stressful.

However, when everything is automated and flowing smoothly, it will make for some amazing graphs to enjoy and analyze. In fact, because the Tempus Public Foundation in Hungary graciously allowed us to share some of their impressive statistics for this year’s application round for the Stipendium Hungaricum Programme, we would like to show you the DreamApply Difference.

You can see the (now inactive) application system here.

When the application window closed on 15 January 2019 at 23:59:59 (Central European Time), more than 28,400 applications had arrived from about 70 participating countries/territories.

When we said that applicants send their documents literally on the last minute, we really meant it. The peak of 52 application submissions per minute occurred at 23:59 CET.

Literally on the last minute.

Application submits per hour. Click to zoom in.

In the last hour, applications were submitted more than 4 thousand times.

Before we look at the rest of the numbers, let’s try to look at it from an IT perspective. The prospect of tens of thousands of people trying to send their data at once is more than enough to send cold shivers down the spine of any IT veteran. Online applications systems are perhaps one of the hardest things to scale. The system is mostly idle for much of the year and then everything happens in a mere, few hours.

This means that you have three choices:

  • keep a really beefy and expensive system online, doing almost nothing for most of the year
  • deploy a less powerful system and simply accept the fact that things will crawl before the deadline 🙁
  • architect the system to dynamically respond to any changes in load – this is what we have done at DreamApply!

But it is not just a technical problem. We have all experienced frustration when, for example, rushing to get the best tickets for the concert of your favorite band and the ticketing system starts to crawl. Not only does the usability go down, but it also creates a lot of confusion. Did my button press go through? Should I risk refreshing the page? What will happen when I do?

Furthermore, it’s not just a question of system performance. If the processes have not been thought through properly, any sub-optimal instructions or process flows, flawed system logic or catch-22‘s will start to show themselves. An application system only works well as long as the applicants are not having any issues with it. Once they run out of ideas and the system is not offering any help, you will again have thousands of emails in your mailbox without warning – the very thing that you were trying to avoid! To guard against this, a proper analysis and iterative user testing is key. We have woven years of experience into the fabric of DreamApply and can tell you what works and what will cause problems down the line.

Let’s look at a few key moments from the last day of the Stipendium Hungaricum Programme’s intake period.

It is important to realize that with DreamApply, applicants are free to work with their application and documentation, save their progress, add documents at their convenience and continue at any time. They only submit their application when they are fully satisfied that all the checklists are ticked off.

The process starts with a registration, that is when the applicant creates an account in DreamApply. We can see below that during the days leading up to the deadline, it was mostly stable. Presumably most applicants had already registered some time ago but pushed the bulk of the work until the last minute. We all do it.

Applicant registrations per hour. Click to zoom in.

The next graphs are more interesting. The two major things that applicants do are 1) fill in their data (and save often) and 2) upload the required documents. Below you can see the number of “Save” presses and document uploads.

The first thing you notice is that the graphs strongly trend upwards in the last 2-3 days leading up to the deadline. At a point there were almost 15 thousand “Save” presses every hour. Note that this graph also shows the number of auto-saves that are performed without the user’s knowledge.

The small bump after the clear deadline drop-off sadly shows that a number of applicants did not meet the deadline and were still working on adding some data to their applications, but of course they were not able to submit it anymore..

“Save” presses + autosaves per hour. Click to zoom in.
Document uploads per hour (mostly scanned PDF files). Click to zoom in.

In this instance, applications were frozen at midnight. While DreamApply can be customised to allow applicants to reopen their applications and make some permitted alterations, later re-submitting the application, that wasn’t the case this time. This applicant activity ceases pretty much instantly.

Finally, we come to the most important graph.

Submissions per hour. Click to zoom in.

It is very easy to see the number of submitted applications per hour ramping up approaching the very last minute. This makes a lot of sense – applicants are free to refine their applications until the very last minute and many seem to be taking advantage of this. Even though the peak “Saves” petered out hours before the deadline (see the previous graphs), the applicants still took their time before pressing the final, all-important “Submit” button.

Sadly, you can also see a small number of attempted submits just after the huge drop-off at 00:00. These are applicants that just missed the deadline and could not submit their applications.

What can we learn from here?

For us, it was a good validation of DreamApply’s architecture and the investments made into the resiliency of our infrastructure. Keep in mind that the Stipendium Hungaricum application system is just one DreamApply user and hundreds of other university systems were humming along at the same time.

But the main takeaway for us is that applicants are just like a lot of us – everything they do, they do at the last minute. Even the most advanced admission system in the world will not change this fact.

However, having a system that can anticipate and handle a large volume will ensure your admission team sleeps soundly at night.
DreamApply … providing admission staff quality sleep since 2011.