by Jeremy Tiers, Director of Admissions Services
Your school has a campus, classrooms, professors, dorms, a cafeteria, a student center, and so on just like every other college and university in the country.
Are all those things the same at every institution? I don’t think so. Sure, a lot of colleges offer similar experiences, but there are also many differences between you and your competitors. Despite that fact, so many admissions departments are still much more comfortable following the norm and looking/sounding like everyone else (your website, your comm. flow, your campus visit) versus figuring out a bold move that will truly make you and/or your school stand out.
If you’re a client of ours or you and I have ever had a conversation before, then you know how much I constantly stress the importance of being unique, original and even surprising when it comes to how you approach and handle student recruitment.
One thing we continue to hear from students in the ongoing research we conduct is they struggle to understand, aside from the actual dollar amount, what makes school A different and better than school B and C when it comes to fulfilling their wants and their needs. They crave a reason to choose a college based on the unique selling proposition it offers them.
Before I offer you some ideas on how to be different and stand out, let me back up for a second because I want to quickly address something that’s come up a lot in conversations I’ve had this fall with admissions counselors and directors…plus it ties in with this article and I just believe it’s that important. Making a bold move and truly standing out takes real guts. I think many people in Higher Ed and college admissions are scared to overhaul a process, or move forward with an unconventional idea, because of a fear of failure. For many people, there’s a fear of failing in front of someone else (your boss, a colleague, a peer at another institution) and hearing “I told you so”, or being made to feel bad for trying something different. Making a change individually or recommending change within the office isn’t easy, but if you want different results, it’s the solution.
Once you’ve accepted the fact that it’s okay to be different, I encourage you to also remember that not every prospective student and family are one in the same. This means that sometimes a great recruiting idea that generates results with one student or segment of students might not be effective for another. And always be mindful of the fact that the execution of an idea doesn’t always happen seamlessly the first time around. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea that won’t produce the results you want.
Here are a few aspects of the student recruitment process where we’ve helped schools take a different approach and subsequently make a considerable impact with their prospects:
- Brochures, letters, emails and other communications. Study after study says that this generation of students no longer reads things from cover to cover. Why then do so many colleges still take the long-winded, cram every fact and statistic about their school in small font approach in their efforts to reach students and families? If you know that your prospects scan the materials that colleges send, then go ahead and make your communications shorter in length and have them focus clearly on just one idea. Then have that communication set up your next message and so on and so forth. As far as the language you use, if you want to create a reaction and get engagement from your reader (so you can find out what they actually think about what you just shared with them), you need to forget the writing rules. Take a less formal and more conversational approach. That approach does not, I repeat DOES NOT, make you or your school sound unprofessional. It actually makes you relatable which makes establishing a relationship with a prospect or parent much easier.
- Campus visits. More and more I’m hearing stories of students feeling overwhelmed by all that they see and hear in the short amount of time that is a campus visit. That’s not the feeling you want them to have considering how important the campus visit is in a student’s final decision. Let’s start with your information/welcome session. Most colleges offer a quick overview of their campus along with information on academics, financial aid and scholarships, as well as the application process. Be honest. Do you find your current presentation riveting? Start by offering separate sessions for both students and parents. Each group values different things, so come up with topics accordingly. For students, how about a current freshman or sophomore talking about “living with a roommate” or “how I not only survived freshman year, but thrived”. You want it to be something that grabs and keeps their attention, offers value, and is memorable. Speaking of separating students and parents, would it surprise you to know that more and more students tell us they think the campus visit would be more impactful if students and parents were given the same tour but in different groups. And then there are your tour guides. Do you treat them as part of your admissions team, and do they understand the important role they play in the student recruitment process? When they give tours are they just pointing out and discussing the history of various building on your campus, or do they understand the importance of storytelling and how to effectively do that throughout a tour?
- Social media. I don’t have to remind you how powerful social media is with this generation. Unfortunately, students continue to tell us that most colleges, in their opinion, don’t know how to use SM effectively. The argument I hear from the admissions office is that creating great content on social media is extremely difficult and time consuming. I disagree, and here’s why. You’re over thinking it. For example, stop spending hours and hours trying to create fancy videos that look like a movie and are narrated by someone your prospects don’t know and can’t relate to. Whether you like it or not, it almost always comes across as forced and fake. If you really want to showcase your school’s personality, then go document. Have real students and real people (faculty, admissions staff, food service people, RA’s, etc) document what a normal day on campus looks like through their eyes as it happens. It’s okay if the hair isn’t perfect and there isn’t music playing in the background, because that’s real and raw. And instead of posting picture after picture of the exterior of buildings on your campus, why not showcase what happens inside those walls. There are so many great stories just waiting to be told if you’re willing to do so, but don’t forget to explain why what you’re documenting matters. How about looking into using a brand ambassador to engage on Snapchat or using Facebook Live as an introduction to your campus or a way to show unique events that happen throughout the year? The possibilities are seriously endless. Just remember, real and raw wins over forced and fake a hundred times out of a hundred on social media. Here’s one more that I just heard about the other day. In addition to traditional acceptance letters, some colleges have begun sending students a congratulatory acceptance “snap” that goes straight to their Smartphone.
- How you recruit others around your prospect (primarily the parents). Have you ever stopped and asked yourself who’s recruiting your prospects for you when you’re not? It’s an important question. Our ongoing research continues to show that parents are the most important outside influence for your recruit throughout the process…but they’re not always the only one. When it comes to the parents and cultivating a strong relationship with one or both of them, why not create a separate comm. flow for them? We do it for our clients, and it continues to pay dividends in a BIG way! Now, let’s discuss everybody else that matters in your prospect’s life. This may include their siblings, best friend, girlfriend/boyfriend, high school counselor or possibly another mentor, coach, or teacher at school or in the community. If you want to be different, it’s time you started connecting on various levels with each of these influencers, so they too understand the value of your school and why it’s the best option for that student.
- Talking about fear. This is one of the biggest points I’ve being trying to hammer home in 2016. Every single one of your prospects is scared of something when it comes to the college search process and the transition from high school to college. What are you doing to alleviate that fear? Last week during a workshop discussion in Tennessee, I asked the group of tour guides (11 freshmen and 2 sophomores) to raise their hand if as a high school senior they remembered being scared of something at one or more points during the college search process. All 13 hands went up. Then I asked how many admissions counselors at any college they spoke with or visited ever asked about their fear(s). Not a single hand was raised.
- Re-package your negatives. Instead of avoiding them, tell a different story about the same negative aspects that you can’t control. Your buildings and dorm rooms aren’t as new as some of your direct competitors? Don’t talk about that. Talk about what makes your campus community unique and how they welcome new students. Then talk about how they’ll receive a personalized education from professors who truly care. And then mention that choosing a college based on the newest buildings and facilities is the wrong way to choose where you get an education. Is your college the most expensive option for that student? Explain to them why the cost difference between you and College B is worth it in the long run, and offer a detailed explanation of why. Whatever the story say it confidently, and repeat it over a long period of time.
Here’s the great news – I believe that anyone, if they work hard enough, can come up with a truly amazing idea that can help you and/or your institution stand out from the crowd. I just gave you a handful of ideas that have helped many of our clients create a unique recruitment experience for their students and families.
The next step once you have an amazing idea is arguably the hardest for a lot of people. Go and execute it, or go and present your case on why you believe you and your colleagues need to do it. That takes guts, but an amazing idea executed well can be a game changer.