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November 6th, 2018

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We Need to Talk About Those Emails and Letters

By Jeremy Tiers, Director of Admissions Services 


We need to talk about them because words like confusing, overwhelming, and boring continue to show up in our surveys way too often when we ask students about the emails and letters they receive, and the conversations they have, with colleges during their search.

Too many colleges still don’t appreciate the need for using the right language in their recruiting communications. The result is lower levels of engagement and less action being taken.

I’m not just referring to what your marketing and communications staff might send out either. I’m also talking about the emails, letters, hand-written notes, and text messages that admissions counselors send out on any given day, as well as the phone calls that they make.

They all have a structure to them. And there’s a right way to construct and deliver your message if the goal is to get a response, have the reader take another specific action, or get a back-and-forth conversation going. That’s what I’m going to help you with today, because many of the students considering your school right now will engage with you throughout their college search process if you follow these best practices.

  • Don’t try and “sell” your school at the start. There are all kinds of studies out there that suggest we’re more likely to reply to something that doesn’t sound like an advertising message. Many initial messages that colleges construct jump right in to “selling” their school. My recommendation is that you be patient and take a long-term approach. Start by getting them comfortable enough to engage with you, and then ask them questions that allow you to discover their wants, needs, fears, etc. Very few inquiries or prospects (especially high school students) are ready to take in sales-related messaging from a school right away.
  • Put yourself in their shoes. As I’ve explained many times before, students are scared and confused during their college search…about a lot of things. Before you send them any sort of communication, read it and ask yourself if you would find this both helpful and easy to read. The answer needs to be yes to both. And if you want to be extra sure then go ahead and show it to one of your current students or student workers and ask them for their thoughts. It’s okay to do that. Understanding your audience helps you to determine how you should arrange your information and what kind of details will be important for a specific segment of your population. It also influences the tone of the text, which is something I’ll get into more about in a just a minute.
  • Let them know that you want and value their feedback. It might surprise you but students tell us in surveys that they wish colleges would ask their opinion on things. Many of those same students also want you to tell them that it’s both okay for them to offer feedback, and that you appreciate their willingness to share.
  • Less is always better. I’m probably not the first, second, or even third person to tell you that your messages and conversations need to be shorter. Less really is more with this generation of students. Instead of trying to cram a bunch of different points on a specific topic into one email or one letter, break them up into sequential communications that connect and hammer home the big point you’re trying to make. And limit your paragraphs to one idea for clarity. When you don’t, it’s not only confusing, but it also can be downright overwhelming to your prospects (and their parents).
  • Word choice matters. If you’re looking for a quick and easy way to increase your engagement levels, focus more on the words that you use. The solution is to take a less formal and more conversational approach. That approach won’t make you sound unprofessional. Instead, you’ll become more relatable, believable, and more authentic. Also, make it a goal to have your emails, letters, and texts flow just like a regular conversation, meaning don’t talk at the other person and give them orders, talk with them. Lastly, it’s okay to start the occasional sentence with the word “and,” “but,” or “because.” And it’s okay to use a … to continue a thought.
  • Tone matters. When you have a face-to-face conversation with someone you use their body language, specifically their tone and facial expressions, to assess how they feel. Letters, emails, and even text messages don’t allow for such a determination. That means you can’t tell when the other person misunderstands something. In addition to your word choices being important, both punctuation and capitalization matter. The tone you use will help you create excitement and anticipation.
  • Consistency matters. Make sure you’re communicating foundational, logical facts to prospective students about every six to nine days. That’s how often they want communication from a college according to our research. Along with your emails and letters mix in the occasional phone call and text message depending on the student’s preferences and the stage they’re at. Our research solidly indicates that when a student sees ongoing, regular contact from a college that follows the other points I’ve outlined so far, not only do they engage on a more regular basis, but they also make the judgment that the school is more interested in them, and values them. Those feelings are what every college should want prospective students to feel.
  • Establish a “go-to person.” I’ve talked about this at length in previous articles but it needs to be mentioned again. Have one consistent voice in your recruiting communications (emails, letters, phone calls, text messages). Eliminate the admissions.edu email address and/or the 1-800 number/general admissions office phone number. Students are less likely to engage with you when you take that approach for a number of reasons, namely fear. Establish a “go-to person” for all of their questions and concerns. That person, who I recommend should be their admissions counselor, should be doing the bulk of the communicating with a student/family from start to finish. We use this strategy in the messaging we create for colleges and it’s extremely effective.
  • One call to action, that’s it. I’ve been asked to review and offer feedback on a lot of recruiting emails this year, and almost every single one has had multiple calls to action. When you include more than one CTA you increase the chance for confusion and you decrease the chances that the student will do any of what you ask. Choose one thing and be clear. As a by-product of doing this you’ll also have shorter emails/letters.

Change is hard, I get it. But if you’re not getting engagement or you’re struggling to get students to take action I want you try one, two, or all nine of these things. They continue to work for our clients and other colleges I’ve recommended them to and I’m confident that they’ll work for you.

If you enjoyed this article, please share it with your colleagues.

P.S. I’m happy to review one of your current emails or a letter and offer an outside perspective if you’d like. No strings attached. All you have to do is email me and ask.

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