By Jeremy Tiers, Director of Admissions Services
Think about some of the biggest decisions you’ve made in your life – things like buying a car, a house, moving to a new city/state for a job, changing jobs or careers, or getting married. For most of us there was a process involved with each one of those things.
At some point during that process you were probably scared, nervous, uncertain, and you hesitated to make a decision because how do you know you’re not going to make the wrong decision, right? We all look for signs or some kind of affirmation that we’re not completely crazy if we choose to move forward.
The same holds true when picking a college…all of it. Your admitted but undecided students have gone through the process and cut their list down to a few schools, and now it’s time to decide…but how? And if one college or university doesn’t check every single box then how do they break a tie between schools? Let’s talk about that.
What usually ends up happening for students is similar to what happens with us. We rely on feelings as well as feedback from people we trust to help us with our decision – even during a pandemic. Students right now are continuing to rely heavily on the feel of campus to help them with their college decision. If that’s not possible because of COVID-19, expect students to think about where they feel supported, wanted, and where, regardless of how school begins later this year, they feel confident a plan will be in place to help them adjust and stay on track.
Without those feelings or someone to help guide them, help them overcome a fear, or help them understand why it’s okay to choose a college farther away from home or one that costs a little more, some students and families will end up making the safe, easy decision (i.e. choosing the college closest to home, the cheapest option, or the biggest name school on their list).
Let’s talk about some of the things that can help you break a tie in your school’s favor. Here are five strategies that continue to work well for our clients:
- Display empathy and care more than your competition. Sounds easy in theory, but the challenge for a lot of colleges and universities is doing this consistently, and doing it in a way that feels personal. Our survey research with students from across the country continues to show that how the admissions staff treats a student and their family throughout the college search process is one of the most important factors in a student’s final decision. COVID-19 will not change that. You can display empathy and prove that you care by consistently communicating with students and parents/families in a personalized manner regardless of the medium you use. Your language and tone are key. Do you recognize what they’re going through, and are you consistently providing them something of value during this time, or just cluttering up their Inbox? Along with that it’s important you ask them how they’re feeling about everything, and if their feelings have changed at all.
- Keep them updated as the process unfolds. Nerves are on edge, and there’s a lot of uncertainty out there. We continue to find that too many colleges are sitting back waiting for information and questions to come from students and parents. It’s critical that you lead the conversation and consistently communicate in some shape or form every six to nine days – a combination of value points and updates about what’s happening with your campus. Even if your update has nothing new to report, but informs them that you’re having ongoing discussions about different plans of action, this is a must do. I can’t stress this point enough! Students and parents will remember the colleges and admissions counselors who do this effectively.
- Find ways to create emotional connections. As we’ve talked about before, emotion often outweighs logic and facts for this generation of students. They trust the feelings they get throughout the college search process. Think about the “recruiting relationship” that different people at your school have or haven’t developed with your admitted students. Now what about their parents/family and other influencers? How are you capturing everybody’s emotions and creating emotional connections between your admitted students and others in your campus community (i.e. admissions counselors, current students, faculty, alumni, and other staff)? One virtual or online admitted student day event is unlikely to be sufficient. Think about different, authentic stories you can tell via email, direct mail, and social media from the current student, parent, or staff member lens – you could share how online learning is different from a student’s point of view and offer tips that have helped them adjust; ways in which students are continuing to feel supported by their professors; ways that your campus community or even specific dorms have stayed connected; ways in which campus resources are being used to continue to support students academically and emotionally; and reasons why other students have chosen your college during this crisis. People connect with other people, not platforms, websites, facts and figures. The biggest thing admitted students are missing right now by not being able to visit campus and participate in events are the interactions with your current students and other admitted students. Be creative and find ways to connect them. Those emotional connections create a feeling of comfort/security, they create trust, and they offer a sense of acceptance and belonging which is what a lot of students are scared they won’t be able to find at college, especially if they have to start this coming year with online classes.
- Provide a clear understanding of how something at your college or university is truly different, and why your school is worth the investment. Your school has professors who care, a welcoming community, and lots of opportunities to get involved. So do most of your direct competitors. Without providing more details, it’s hard to truly stand out. The key once again is the stories you tell. They help to differentiate you. You need to offer concrete examples of how, for example, your professors care (ex. they don’t just teach, they mentor; they provide their cell phone number to students and offer to provide help outside of class; they assist in finding internships; they invite students over to their home for dinner; they show up at sporting events and other activities on campus to support students). And when it comes to cost and paying for college, why are some students choosing to pay more to be a student at your school? Why do they think your college or university is worth the investment? Same thing for parents. Your value can be communicated logically and emotionally, and you need to do both.
- Ask them if they’ve thought about how they plan to break a tie if it gets to that point. During a phone call, video chat, or even as a call to action in one of your emails, ask your admitted student that direct question. Preface it by saying that you know making a college decision is hard and that a lot of students struggle when they get to this point of the process. Tell them it’s okay if they’re not sure, and then offer some information and stories around how other students have made their decisions (i.e. what factors were most important).
What you do during the next few weeks will in large part determine whether or not many of your undecided admits pick your college or university instead of another school that’s still on their list.
Want to talk more about today’s article? We can do that. I’m also happy to offer quick, situational feedback if you’re looking for help or advice from an outside voice. By the way, last week I was asked what quick, situational feedback costs so let me clarify. It costs nothing but your time.
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