By Jeremy Tiers, Director of Admissions Services
“Confusing” and “overwhelming”.
Those were the two words a high school junior used to describe the college recruiting process, namely the NCAA rulebook, to me this past week. The young man is a football player whose dad is the brother-in-law of one of my neighbors.
As a family, they’re struggling to figure out not only the complex language in the NCAA rulebook, which depending on the division level is between 272 and 428 pages long, but also how to differentiate between all the college mail (emails and letters) he’s receiving.
Knowing what I do, my neighbor recommended they reach out to me and ask for advice.
So, what can the conversation that ensued between this family and me teach college admissions professionals? A lot, actually.
Not enough college marketing and admission professionals appreciate the need for using the right language in their recruiting communications to this generation of students. I’ve reviewed lengthy letters that use the same tight margins, font, wording and letterhead from 20 years ago. I’ve also reviewed emails from counselors and directors that bounce from subject to subject without any kind of connection. The end result is confusing and overwhelming.
When was the last time you and your colleagues did some serious reflection on how your individual letters, emails, social media posts, and even the questions you ask prospects and parents on the phone are constructed? I think that should be ongoing.
Today I’m going to provide you with some tips to help make sure that your recruiting communications are clear, effective, and successful.
- Put yourself in their shoes. Read what you’re about to send and ask yourself if you would find this helpful and easy to read. Furthermore, don’t be afraid to show it to one of your current freshmen and ask them for their thoughts. 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.
- Less is always better. The worst thing you can do, especially with new inquiries, is try and explain everything about your college or university in those early letters, emails, and even during that first phone call…if you want a response that is. The tendency for many in Higher Ed when they write and speak is to use not only more words but as many big words as possible. Our research with your students clearly shows that this generation is most apt to respond out of curiosity instead of information. When you’re trying to explain something, less really is more. Again, use short, logical, fact-based repetitive messages where you leave room for their curiosity to take over.
- Word choice matters. If you’re looking for a quick and easy way to revise your letters and emails to ensure your prospects read them, focus more on your word choices. While many of you might immediately add more descriptive adjectives ex. “We’ve got a really beautiful new science building!” I’m going to recommend a different approach: Verbs. Verbs are action, while adjectives are descriptive. Verbs also give your prospects a positive feeling and do a much better job of answering the “why.” And, I would argue that occasionally it’s okay to start a sentence with the word “and” or “but,” especially if your goal is to increase personalization in your communications.
- Tone matters. When you have a face-to-face conversation with someone, you use the other person’s 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. As an example, exclamation points should be used to express excitement. But, they can also easily be misinterpreted depending on their placement. Ask yourself, “Is there a chance that your message could be misunderstood without visual cues?”
- One topic per paragraph. Limiting paragraphs to one idea or topic is essential for clarity. When you don’t, it’s not only confusing, but it also can be downright overwhelming to your prospects (and their parents).
- And when it comes to your financial aid award letter. Is it straightforward? Are you clearly explaining the differences between scholarships, grants, loans (subsidized vs. unsubsidized) and other fees? If loans are included, consider providing information about loan interest rates, monthly payments and other terms and conditions. Financial aid can be a scary and confusing topic. Is your award letter making things more or less stressful for a family?
- Clear next steps. Above all else, narrow it down to just one thing. Make it simple like “reply back with your answer to that question,” versus a laundry list of things to do…rarely will they all get accomplished. Remember, in the early and middle stages of the recruitment process, your goal should be to get and keep a back-and-forth conversation going.
Do you have any questions about this article? I’m just an email away at firstname.lastname@example.org
And, I’m happy to review some of your current letters and emails and offer an outside perspective if you’d like. All you have to do is ask.