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Over my quarter-century career in higher education, I have attended countless recruitment conferences and spoken to thousands of potential applicants. They are eager, nervous and hoping to make a good impression. They want to be memorable.

What the potential applicants do not realize is that, as a recruiter, I am equally eager, nervous and hoping to make a good impression on them. Just as the applicant needs to be memorable to me, I must show them the merits of the institution I represent and why we would be a strong fit for their needs and dreams, both personal and professional. My challenge is getting to the epicenter of their aspirations, challenges and goals.

During such recruitment conferences, I find myself in front of a gaggle of people 10 deep often waiting to speak with me, a sight replicated at every other recruiter’s booth at the conference. The students are all similarly conservatively dressed, their conference badges around their neck, the look of mixed hope and intimidation pooled in their eyes. The questions are almost all the same, and I find myself repeating the same responses over and over again -- trying to sound enthusiastic as I repeat our admissions statistics for what seems like the 100th time that day. For efficiency, as recruiters we find ourselves in the precarious position of needing to give students information as quickly as possible, shove a flier in their hand and move on.

I find that practice frustrating and anything but noteworthy -- for the applicant and myself. I have noticed that giving applicants information they can often find on the internet is anything but memorable. The swag we distribute usually ends up in the garbage can. Seriously, how many tote bags, Post-it notes, pens and fidget spinners does a person need? I seriously doubt that the swag is influencing any person’s decision to select my institution over another.

The most meaningful conversations I have had with potential applicants occurred when I actually strayed from my booth. As an extrovert, I will talk to people anywhere: at the airport, on the coffee line, while waiting for the restroom or elevator. The conference lanyard around their neck or look of promise in their eyes gives their student status away. During those unexpected impromptu conversations, I have really gotten to know potential applicants and the catalyst for their professional dreams. During such spontaneous interchanges, I can answer more questions than the usual admissions statistics and list of resources that I share at my recruiting booth. Best of all, I start a dialogue that lasts far beyond the elevator ride. No brochures, fliers or swag needed.

I knew I had to find a way to be more memorable with these students. More importantly, I needed to find a way to have the information that I was trying to convey be more notable. One of the first doctoral classes I took at Teachers College Columbia University years ago was titled Discussion as a Way of Teaching. Stephen Brookfield introduced a concept called chalk talk, whereby a question is written in the middle of a large page or poster board, and people then mark their answers directly on the page or board or attach Post-it notes. They can see the responses others have written and draw lines to those they feel are similar.

Several years ago, I decided to use my version of chalk talk at a national recruitment conference. I posted a question on a big white sheet of paper, which was on an easel pad, and students added their responses on smaller Post-it notes. The responses the applicants wrote became the springboard to our conversation. All of a sudden, instead of rambling about admissions statistics or the number of majors we have, I was focusing on how I, as a recruiter, could help the students answer the question they had just responded to on the Post-it note. The process and subsequent information exchange quickly became more personal.

The questions have varied during every conference, but some of the most popular ones include: “What is a physician scientist?” “Why be a physician scientist?” “What disease are you trying to cure?” (Recruiters at traditional academic conferences might ask, “A problem I’m trying to solve is …” or “A group I want to impact is …” or “When I finish my studies, I want to be …”)

And with a few words scribbled on a small Post-it note, I have found the students’ underlying motivation for their desired career. Together, we’ve been able to explore their ideas, thoughts, perceptions and assumptions -- and cut to what is really important to them.

Someone once told me that a goal without a plan is just a dream. Tapping into the words on the singular small Post-it note, I could help the students lay out an achievable plan toward their desired goal. We could move away from a dry discussion on grade point averages and standardized test scores. We could discuss course work, summer programs, extracurricular activities and research opportunities, and which would be the best fit for them.

With these milestones carefully laid out, the students’ goals have an actual plan and are no longer an unattainable dream. The students realize they can do certain things every day to further their goal. They leave my booth excited about their future prospects and I, in turn, feel invigorated that I was able to mentor and help someone.

Many of those students we meet and engage with at the conferences apply to our main and summer programs or schools. Several of those get accepted and matriculate into the competitive programs that we run. But most important, the change in my recruitment method leaves a positive impact on both the students and me. Very often the feedback that we hear from the applicants is that we make them feel like individuals among the masses.

Though the students may never remember all of the exact information I give them, I like to believe that in the words of Maya Angelou, they will remember how our dialogue made them feel: supported, mentored, guided, heard and understood.

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