Hiring in Admissions

The days of personable young alumni landing counselor jobs with ease are gone. Kent Barnds writes about how these positions are filled.

August 7, 2009

Hiring the right admissions counselor in today’s marketplace is no longer a routine responsibility. Gone are the days of generous recommendations offered by presidents, coaches, faculty members or even board members. Gone are the days of simply hiring a recent grad, providing him or her with an expense account and an atlas or GPS and trusting him or her “to become the college.” Gone are the days an Office of Admissions can rely on the old school tie, a great smile and ease at communicating.

The qualifications of hiring an admissions counselor may have changed, but the job is more important than ever, with budgetary pressures, an increase in first-generation college students and demands for strong academic programs. When each hire has to really count, it is useful for those hiring to extend an offer to someone who will make an immediate impact. An enrollment manager needs to look for a different set of competencies when looking for a qualified person. In my experience, the following five straightforward attributes have steered me to acquire admissions counselors who have a competitive edge and should be included in résumés for admission positions: independence, strong communication skills, personal experience with the financial assistance process, success in extracurricular activities and high tolerance for ambiguity and indecision.

Independence: Successful admissions officers are comfortable and confident on their own. Evidence of this attribute can be found in an applicant’s résumé, interview and references.

Check the résumé for character-building life events, tough decision-making in a challenging environment and/or a number of accomplishments. Examples may include starting a summer business or nonprofit organization, completing a college capstone project, participating in an immersion international study program, completing an internship, or volunteering for a political candidate. (As a former intramural referee and Little League umpire, I submit these as “growth” opportunities that shaped my ability to cope without a playbook.)

During the interview process, I ask candidates how they manage spending time alone or feeling isolated, and request an example of an assigned project each candidate oversaw from start to finish without assistance.

Strong communication skills: It is no secret that effective admissions counselors need to possess strong communication skills. However, I would note that communication skills are not limited to public speaking and presenting. It is equally important to consider body language, written and electronic communication, listening skills and telephone interactions. A typical counselor will have one-on-one conversations, make phone calls, write e-mails and send handwritten notes much more frequently than he or she will give public presentations.

You can test final candidates on several of these proficiencies by conducting a brief phone interview and requiring a 5-minute presentation on a specific topic during their upcoming visit to campus. Keep in mind that body language can communicate a very powerful message — positive or negative — to visiting families or during a college fair. For example, a weak handshake, lack of eye contact, poor posture or bad choices about what a candidate wears are more powerful messages than anything said verbally. Keep in mind, an admissions counselor only has 45 seconds to capture a prospective student’s attention. Poor body language sends a message in seconds. Prospective parents who spot a tattoo or piercing may even steer their student away from your college.

Personal experience with the financial assistance process: Applicants who have experienced the complications and rewards of financial aid may make better candidates for admissions counselors. Finding a candidate shouldn’t be too difficult, according to College Board, which says more than $143 billion in financial aid went to undergraduate and graduate students in the form of grants, loans, work-study, tax credits and deductions in the 2007-08 academic year.

The number of prospective students who demonstrate financial need is at an all-time high. Admissions officers need to be equipped to discuss the value of a college education, as well as financial aid policies and financing options. Counselors can no longer wait to discuss cost until late in the process. Those who can speak firsthand about their experience with the financial aid process, student loans and how their family “made it work” are sure to be more effective than those who simply approach the process as a timetable or checklist.

Approaching this topic in an interview can be a bit uncomfortable. However, there are delicate ways to approach the subject when trying to hire. Try asking, “How did your family support you in achieving your college degree?” or “What do you believe is the biggest obstacle preventing students from earning college degrees?” These questions open the door to money-related issues and give you the chance to ask a candidate how he or she might counsel a student about his or her financial options. This will reveal candidates’ knowledge of and familiarity with the process and how capable they are of empathizing with families.

What if you are a candidate for a job and don’t have experience with financial aid? Schedule an interview with a knowledgeable director of financial aid and ask about the family experience and the methods families use to finance higher education. While I don’t dismiss a candidate who did not receive aid, I do believe it is critical for admissions counselors to learn as much about the process as possible so they can be a resource.

Success in extracurricular activities: People with self-discipline, high expectations and enthusiasm make great admissions officers. A candidate who exhibits involvement in an array of extracurricular activities or service in leadership roles may possess these attributes.

For example, both athletes and musicians understand competition and hard work. They must have a passion for playing an instrument or earning a spot on the varsity team. Whether they are trying to sell a charge to a referee on the basketball court or engage an audience while singing Mozart’s Requiem, they know how to connect with, excite and influence people. In both cases, they know that hard work ends with better results. Their experiences give them a high degree of self-discipline and the necessary work ethic to be successful admissions officers.

It is important to remember that not all athletes, musicians or leaders are going to be good admissions officers. When interviewing, press candidates to describe their involvement and experience in their activities. What did they learn from it? How can their experience influence their work as an admissions officer? How did their participation influence their college search? How did it influence their college experience? The answers to these questions will help you sense if you are interviewing a musician or athlete whose experience has positively shaped the attributes of an effective admissions officer.

High tolerance for ambiguity and indecision: Sometimes the finest admissions officers are people who took a last-minute detour from their intended career path or found out they didn’t love what they were trained to do. I’ve had the privilege of working with amazing officers over the years who have paved their path to admissions with abandoned dreams of medical school or lost passions for teaching. These people know firsthand that a change of plans is not the end of the world, and they often have genuine empathy and appreciation for the plight of the students they counsel.

The college admissions process is often confusing, and 17-year-olds can be a challenge. Effective officers must sympathize with students and families, have patience for all types of questions and be sensitive to changes in plans, indecision and last-minute deviations. Officers adapt to last-minute challenges such as sudden enrollment goal shifts due to budget needs, or different styles of working with various departments within a college or university, according to a 2008 Maguire Associates study.

Certain experiences on a résumé can point you toward candidates who have this tolerance for indecision. Consider candidates with double majors or multiple minors, a professional whose previous career is unrelated to his area of study, or a stay-at-home parent reentering the work force. Their experiences likely make them empathetic to the challenges a prospective student faces.

While the five attributes above are the most influential when hiring an admissions counselor, I am often asked about the importance of hiring an alum versus a non-alum, and whether or not recent grads are more effective than those who have previous work experience.

Alumni preference? Each institution should weigh its own needs and wants when making a decision to hire an alum versus a non-alum, but here are a couple of things to consider. An alum offers the obvious advantage that he or she knows the college and can offer a compelling first-person narrative. However, alumni counselors may lose themselves in personal experience and forget to listen to what the prospective student seeks in a college. Alumni who are successful admissions officers use their experience sparingly as a testimony and are able to capture a prospect’s attention and imagination about what he or she might accomplish at that college. Non-alumni have the obvious disadvantage because they cannot tell the story of the college in personal terms. Yet, non-alumni often have a more objective and deeper view of the college because they do the research and often connect the dots between what the college offers and what a prospective wants.

I have worked with excellent alumni and non-alumni alike.

Recent grads vs. those with more experience: The decision of whether to fill an admissions counselor position with a recent grad or someone with previous work experience is greatly influenced by a changing recruiting model. In the past, the job was custom-made for a recent grad whose responsibilities included spending weeks on the road at countless college fairs. Their energy and enthusiasm was palpable and they often were just thrilled to have a job. We would often discuss the rule of 3 or 30. If a counselor made it past 3 years, he or she would likely remain in the profession for 30. Now, counselors are asked to establish and maintain relationships with prospective students for up to 24 months. This shift opens the door for hiring someone with more life experience and the emphasis enrollment managers are placing on maintaining a seasoned admissions staff. While some of my very favorite counselors have been recent college graduates, they often leave the profession. Whereas, some of my most impactful counselors have been those who had done work they really despised before entering admissions.

In a perfect world of higher education, applicants for our admissions offices would have all five of these attributes. However, those of us who conduct interviews for our offices know the perfect candidate rarely, if ever, exists. Therefore, when evaluating potential officers, you must be willing to give and take. Prioritize the needs of your institution by considering the strengths and weakness of the other people in your office. Could you use someone who is very hard-working and organized even if he or she is not as outgoing as you’d like? Keep in mind the difference between skills and traits. You can probably coach someone to maintain eye contact, but it is much harder to develop someone’s work ethic. Also, don’t make your final judgment of an applicant’s skills based on a résumé. Be thorough in your selection process and ask applicants to show you, not tell you, their strengths. Your careful evaluation will ensure that you hire admissions officers who are capable of attracting high-quality students to your institution.


W. Kent Barnds is vice president of enrollment at Augustana College.


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