As admission officers, we work hard to get high school students off our websites and onto our campuses. When they do visit, we pray for good luck with unwieldy intangibles, such as weather, plane takeoffs and landings and hotel accommodations. Even the attitude of servers at local restaurants can affect a prospective student’s impression of a campus. We make sure that our office has fresh flowers on the reception desk and sweet treats in the lobby for the taking. And then … we unleash our visitors onto campus and wait for them to fall in love.
There are proactive steps that we can take to ensure that our visitors’ trips around campus are every bit as picturesque as their introduction in the admission office. We have the opportunity to craft an ideal vision of campus life — and we can do so without sacrificing authenticity or even spontaneity. The trick is to ensure that the self we’re presenting is our best self.
The campus visit begins with leadership
Administrators need to remain accessible to students and their families. When I began my tenure at Drake University seven years ago, I found my office space sequestered on a floor very few, if any, prospective students would ever visit. A few months later we spruced up our admission facility, and the first item on my docket was putting myself in the center of the action. I knew it was important that I get the chance to mingle with our visitors.
Three things have resulted from my office being so close to the action:
- I can hear the conversations families are having. I hear about their trip, the other schools they have visited, how the tour went and their initial impressions of Drake and Des Moines. It gives me the opportunity to get very real, instructive information that we can then use in a variety of ways to optimize the Drake experience.
- When I introduce myself, families are often pleasantly surprised that the vice president of admission and student financial planning is taking the time to say hello. I have received many thank-you notes over the years simply because I have taken a minute or two to chat. It tells them that Drake is a place where they will not just be a number, but an individual who matters. Many families also value the “financial planning” part of my title and take the opportunity to ask questions about costs and financial aid.
- The opportunity to chat with students has allowed me to re-engage with the admissions process. Too often we find ourselves looking at big-picture issues like strategic planning, fund-raising and university search committees. We forget that we are there to assist families with making very important decisions. By talking to students when they visit, I get the opportunity to hear their real concerns and questions. This information has been invaluable to me as we search for the best way to convey what sets us apart.
Some stories are best told by students
Visit day has arrived. We’ve selected our guides with care and trained them to be top-notch student ambassadors — at Drake it’s likely they can even recite the university mission statement. And yet we’re still a bit apprehensive when we send them off with our precious cargo. Though understandable and human, these fears are unfounded. Our campus guides are representative of the quality of students we recruit — and our prospects enroll when they can see themselves in their hosts. In order to offer the most positive experience to our visitors, we:
- Remind our guides that it’s okay to take some days off. As often as they have good days, they’ll have bad days, money issues, parental conflicts, or trouble with their roommates, boy/girlfriends or professors. It’s okay to admit you need downtime.
- If possible, send two guides on tours with more than two families. The more personal a tour is, the better it will be remembered. Too often I see tours with one guide and 3-6 families. There is no way even the most seasoned guide can engage in meaningful conversation with each individual. If your tour groups are large you might as well give them a map and have them wander around campus on their own.
- Encourage new faculty and staff to go on a tour. First, it gives you a “secret shopper” – someone who can provide a very important read on everything from the communications skills of the tour guide to the route of the tour across campus. Secondly, and more importantly, it connects new community members to the admission office so that when the office calls on them to help with an open house or scholarship day, the faculty and staff members will view it not as a cold call but as the next step in a relationship.
Faculty members have an important role to play
This past winter my daughter visited many institutions during her college search and she was most interested in learning about the universities from faculty members. She wanted to hear about her chosen field of study from someone other than a “salesperson” — which is what she calls me.
It was a major drawback when a campus did not have a faculty representative available. To be honest, though, some of the schools that did have faculty representatives would have been better off without them (or at least to have given the professors a bit of training before putting them in front of prospective students).
Two very different examples from my daughter’s search will illustrate the point:
Visit #1: The admission office arranged for us to meet a professor, directed us to the building and urged us to arrive on time (as the professor had a very busy schedule). Our tour guide rolled her eyes when we told her the instructor’s name. Apparently this professor had a reputation as a curmudgeon with a years-old grudge over budget cuts.
We arrived on time only to find no one there. We waited for 10 minutes before I called the admission office. They said they would try to track down the professor — we should stay put. Another 10 minutes passed. The professor appeared and, without apologizing, said he could spend 10 minutes with us.
The information he (finally) shared was fine, but his conduct was not.
Visit #2: We weren’t quite the dreaded walk-in, but we were close — we scheduled our visit the day prior. When we called the admission office, we were told that the office could not set up a faculty appointment without two weeks’ notice. Ever the independent thinker, my daughter went to the academic department website, found the faculty chair and sent him an e-mail: We know it’s late notice, but could you spend five minutes with us tomorrow? Within the hour the faculty member responded in the affirmative.
The next day, we spent a full hour in the department — first with the faculty member and then with a current student who showed us the labs. We could not have asked for a better tour.
The key takeaways from our visits were:
- It is important for the academic departments to understand how important they are in enrollment process — they’re the ones students will tell parents, siblings and friends about when they return home.
- Admission officers need to keep in mind the time commitment we are requesting from faculty and make best use of it.
- We all know that any time we are entering into a new relationship, first impressions are very important. When I advise students and their families I often tell them that they will never be treated any better than when they are a prospective student. If a school does not seem to be accommodating in the recruitment process, do not expect it to suddenly become student-centered once you enroll. In other words:
o If a faculty member cannot spare a few minutes now – don’t expect to receive their attention later.
o If students look sullen and unhappy – don’t expect the campus to be fun once you arrive.
o If the grounds are unkempt and in need of maintenance – don’t expect a resort on move-in day.
Our best selves:
Back in 11th grade, Sister Mary Agnes told me, “be yourself, but be your best self.” I go back to her advice every year as I scrutinize our strategy for effective campus visits. After I have collected all sorts of data -- yield by tour guide, by faculty member, by admission counselor, by day of the week, by fall or spring visit and more -- I remember: with a bit of style, and a hint of grace, we can put our best face forward.
Tom Delahunt is vice president for admission and student financial planning at Drake University, in Iowa, and president of the Iowa Association for College Admission Counseling.