Written by David Silverberg

Imagine you're an admissions officer at a university and you are deluged by hundreds of transcripts and cover letters. How can you properly assess the applicants beyond the numbers and carefully thought-out bios? 

You want to also customize the kind of content you receive from students seeking admission to your school. Maybe you want some videos to see how a performing-arts hopeful reacts to questions on being open on stage. Maybe you think math-program applicants could benefit from analyzing graphs on the fly and answering questions in a timed written assessment.

Yorkville-based Kira Talent has been adding these layers of technology to their software they sold to more than 250 schools, around three-quarters of them based in the U.S.

“The way many schools still do admissions, it's still just applicants sending in paper, the way it's always been,” says Emilie Cushman, CEO and founder of Kira Talent. She explains how admissions officers don't have anything interactive or unique to learn more about applicants. 

“Also, students are getting smarter and gaming the system, and you might have people submitting essays they didn't write and you won't know about who they really are until the interview process,” Cushman adds.

Kira Talent's tools include custom tests applicants have to take as part of the admissions protocol. Kira's staff work with clients on how they want the test to look, including the core principles they are looking for in applicants, which varies from department to department. “Some programs look for teamwork and others look for creativity, and others look for critical thinking,” Cushman says.

The format of questions vary, such as timed assessments for applicants to answer, and the software can detect keystrokes and where the cursor moves to, in case the applicants are thinking of checking Google for the right answer. That means Kira Talent can intelligently detect if a student is clicking the copy-and-paste buttons on their keyboard, another method to combat cheating.

You can also see the personality of applicants via video, Cushman notes. “Programs that are more public-facing want to look at communication skills, and that's where video comes in. You can even ask a simple question on video, like ‘Why did you apply to this school?' and you'll get a very different answer than if the applicant had to write it down.”

Video also lets an applicant's personality come alive on screen, which can be difficult to translate through scores and paper submissions.

She recalls that when Kira Talent began operations in 2012, video-based Q&As could be intimidating, maybe even scary. “But now everyone is happy to be on video, thanks to social media,” Cushman says. “And people are used to being put on the spot in real-time.”

Kira Talent began as a self-funded startup but has since raised $9 million in funding, Cushman says.

Kira Talent's encouraging rise to success has still met its share of challenges, such as entering a sluggish market. “Higher education is full of slow-moving institutions. Their sales cycles are over a year, they're very bureaucratic, and not as fast-paced as other markets.”

As for where she'd like to see Kira Talent in five years from now, Cushman says, “I'd like Kira to become the standard of what all schools use for admissions. In the future, I don't want to hear from admissions staff any longer ‘Oh we admit based on a cutoff we set.' Admissions have to be fairer than that.”

Photo credit Zlatko Cetinic, Images Made Real