By Jeremy Tiers, Director of Admissions Services
A couple of weeks ago I spoke at the Indiana ACAC Conference in Indianapolis.
In addition to giving the opening keynote, I led a session for about 60-70 college admission professionals on a topic that continues to not get enough attention during the college search process. It’s the other 4-letter “F” word, and it’s affecting most of the decisions that prospective students (and their parents) make from start to finish.
I’m talking about “fear.” Every student you’re dealing with right now regardless of where they’re at in their college search process is scared or concerned about something…maybe multiple things.
My question to you is, are you asking about this, and furthermore are you coming up with ways to alleviate their fear(s)?
In today’s article I’m going to provide you with some updated survey research on fear, including sharing with you some of the things students are most afraid of. I’m also going to give you five strategies that you can use right now to help alleviate fear.
Let’s start with the data. In our ongoing survey research, we ask students, “Which of these was your biggest FEAR during the college search process?” Here’s what nearly 1,500 students who responded over the past year told us:
- 35.9% said their biggest fear was making the wrong decision
- 34.4% said their biggest fear was not being able to afford their dream college
- 15.4% said their biggest fear was having their grades and test scores affect their admissibility
- 14.3% said their biggest fear was moving away from home/fitting in at college
So, if you want to start and lead a conversation around this topic, you can safely assume that fear of making the wrong decision or fear of not being able to afford their dream college will be the biggest concern for a large majority of the students you’re working with.
In addition to those four fears, here are seven other things that prospective students are scared, worried, or concerned about (in no particular order):
- Fear of talking to colleges on the phone, or returning a college’s phone call
- Fear of giving honest feedback
- Fear of asking a dumb question or saying the wrong thing
- Fear of taking on more responsibilities as a college student
- Fear of not knowing what to do next (i.e. doing the wrong thing)
- Fear of telling you, “no”
- Fear of the unknown
Whenever I talk about fear at a conference or during a workshop that I lead, I ask the room to raise their hand if they consistently bring up, or have conversations with prospective students about this topic. Most of the time, maybe 25-30% of the room raises their hands. Why is that?
The answers I get most often from college admissions professionals are either a) there are more important things to talk about, or b) I don’t know when/how to talk about it. My hope is that the data I just presented you with helps you get past the first point if that’s why you’re not talking about fear.
In terms of strategies that you can employ to help students and families alleviate a fear, here are a few that continue to work well for not only our clients, but also other admissions counselors and leaders that I recommend them to.
- Focus on their feeling of being fearful. It’s not actual facts that a student is scared about, it’s the feeling of being scared that they’re trying to avoid. You need to answer the question of why they’re feeling scared about something (ex. leaving home, visiting campus, or returning your phone call). Focus on the feeling that’s creating that fear.
- Ask them direct questions about their fear(s). Logically, if they have a fear (rational or otherwise), you need to be the one to lead that conversation. It starts by asking an effective question like, “What scares you the most about the college search process?” That’s something you should be asking all students early on. And when it comes to your undecided seniors, you could ask them, “What scares you the most about picking a college?” or, “A lot of students tell me that fear of making the making wrong decision is something that worries them. Does that worry you?”
- Tell them what you think they’re thinking. Tell the student what you see them being scared about and see if they agree with you or not. It’s easier for many to react to a statement about what you think they’re thinking than it is for them to tell you what they’re actually thinking. Is it confusing? Yes. Regardless, it’s what we find to be true, so use it to your advantage.
- Storytelling. Because so many students are scared of the unknown or making the wrong decision, storytelling can help connect the dots and provide them with concrete examples of people who were in the exact same situation that they are, and show how they overcame that fear or concern. They need to see that it’s possible to get to the other side.
- Help them create a long-term plan. People worry and over analyze situations when they don’t have detailed, well thought out plans. I want you to help the students that you work with, and their families, to set clear goals and a clear timeline.
If you can help calm their fears, you’ll win their trust and in turn gain a major advantage on your competition who doesn’t believe this topic is important or doesn’t know how to address it.
I implore you to please make fear a part of your regular recruiting conversations. Your target audience continues to tell us it’s important to them. They want help with this and if you don’t give it to them, there’s a good chance that it’s going to either hold them back or delay them from taking the next step in the process with your school.