by Jeremy Tiers, Director of Admissions Services
That is one of the biggest questions that prospective students want you to answer for them during the student recruitment process.
Just about every college and university has a campus, classrooms, professors, residence halls, a dining facility, a student center, and so on. Are all those things the same at every school? I don’t think so.
Sure, a lot of colleges offer similar experiences, but there are also a lot of things that make your school, and every other college that your prospects are considering, unique.
The problem is, too many colleges continue to look and sound the same in the eyes and minds of most prospective students (your website, your communications, your campus visit, etc).
Instead of just saying you have “professors who care,” start providing concrete, detailed examples of how they care. And if you have a “friendly, welcoming community,” then give some more context that allows your prospect to connect the dots and understand why that kind of atmosphere is important and how it will make their experience at your school more enjoyable and worthwhile.
If you’re a client of ours, or you’ve had me on your campus to lead an admissions training workshop (or you happen to follow me on Twitter), 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 survey research we conduct is that aside from a college’s profile (small, private; large, public, etc) and the actual dollar amounts in their financial aid award, they struggle to understand what makes school A different and better than school B and C when it comes to fulfilling their wants and their needs. This generation of students is craving a reason to choose a college based on the unique selling proposition it offers them.
Before I give 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 year with admissions counselors and those who hold positions of leadership…plus it ties in with this article and I just believe it’s that important.
Truly standing out takes real courage! I would argue that a lot of college admission and Higher Ed professionals are scared to overhaul a process, change their approach, or move forward with an unconventional idea because of a fear of failure.
Making a change individually or recommending change within the office isn’t easy, but if you want different results and you want to stay ahead of your competitors, it’s what needs to be done. Nobody bats a thousand. We’ve all made mistakes, and we’ll all make more mistakes down the line. Without those mistakes, it’s hard to achieve real growth.
If you’re in agreement with me, I also encourage you to remember that not every prospective student and family is one in the same. 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:
- Emails, letters, brochures and other communications. Study after study says that this generation of students no longer reads things in their entirety. 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 everything 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. 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 more 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 during 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 some students have told 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 reciting a script 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. Students continue to tell us that in their opinion most colleges don’t know how to use social media effectively. The argument I hear a lot from admissions and marketing professionals 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. Do you know what Instagram influencers are? You need to because you have some on your campus right now that I’m betting would be more than happy to help you with free content. Just remember, real and raw wins over forced and fake a hundred times out of a hundred on social media.
- How you recruit others around your prospect (namely their parents). Have you ever 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 during the recruitment process…but they’re not always the only one. When it comes to parents and cultivating a strong relationship with one or both of them, why not create a separate communication plan 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, pastor, 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.
- Having a discussion about fear. I have done everything I possibly can in 2017 to hammer home not only how important it is to discuss fear but why it’s a difference maker. 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?
- Re-package your negatives. Instead of avoiding them, tell a different story about those negative aspects of your school that you can’t control. Your buildings and residence halls aren’t as new as some of your direct competitors? Don’t talk about that. Talk about what happens inside those walls and what makes your campus community unique (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 your value proposition in a way they can truly understand. Use detailed outcomes and provide examples of recent graduates who also paid more but felt it was well worth the investment. 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 them and/or their school stand out from the competition.
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/or your colleagues need to do it. That can take some courage, but an amazing idea executed well can make all the difference.
Think about it, and enjoy the rest of your week!