I am entering a new phase of life as a parent of a future college student. My daughter, Kylie, is currently a high school sophomore. She is a good student and is very involved in music and theater activities. Having a parent working in higher education consulting has increased her awareness of the college selection process, and—not surprisingly—she has started her college search. (Kylie had a light bulb moment last summer when she finally understood the higher-education meaning of “retention”!) She has visited Web sites of schools she is aware of, utilized www.MyCollegeOptions.com and is now receiving unsolicited mailings following her completion of the PSATs and PLAN tests.
She is focused on four-year private liberal arts colleges in the Midwest. (I have had some influence on those criteria). I check in with her frequently to see what she is thinking about the information she is receiving. In addition to being curious from a professional perspective, it is interesting for me to observe what has changed in the admissions process since I was a high school student 25 years ago.
- It is all about your Web site. Kylie is quick to decide if she is interested in a college based on the quality of their Web site. She wants to form first impressions based on visuals of different aspects of the campus. She is also interested in honest student feedback on their experiences, including a few quotes that may not be 100% positive. Kylie becomes frustrated if the link for requesting more information is not clearly visible and if the Website is not ready for her high school graduation year. In fact, many of her expectations were similar to the students we surveyed in our Noel-Levitz E-Expectations study.
- Suggestion: Be sure your Web site is prospective-student friendly and realize that many students are searching earlier than their junior year.
- E-mail is a key next step for colleges, but it may not have the impact you expect. E-mail is becoming an “old school” communication. Kylie set up a Gmail account just for college communications, but like other high school students, she doesn’t check this e-mail every day. On a couple of occasions, she has received the same email from a college several times in one week, which is annoying. I have also heard comments from her friends that indicate their frustration with colleges sending multiple e-mails with the same message. One other note, one college keeps encouraging her via e-mail to apply for this fall, completely ignoring that her high school graduation year is 2013.
- Suggestion: Be sure your e-mail communications are relevant, well-timed, unduplicated, and personalized. You may also want to have the student take action to continue to receive your e-mails.
- There is a balance between too much direct mail and too little mail. This is a tough one. Kylie is really excited to receive multiple mailings from the schools she is interested in and not influenced by mailings from schools that are not on her radar screen. How do you know what is the right mix? She also waited and waited for an information packet from a top school on her list and we had to finally call the admissions office to see if they had her in the system. They showed her in their database and they thought she was receiving mailings; they couldn’t explain why she had not received anything yet. Maybe they could have sent an e-mail asking her to confirm that the materials were received?
- Suggestion: Look for ways to stand out with your direct mail and communicate through a variety of methods.
- Special offers can grab their attention. Kylie gave serious consideration to a special on-campus summer program on her career of interest—at a school that she had not previously considered. She ultimately decided not to attend because of the program cost and competing priorities this summer, but still, the offer grabbed her attention because of the chance to learn more about the career area. Kylie also logged on to complete a personality test offered by another college that was a new possibility for her.
- Suggestion: Incorporate special offers that benefit the prospective student and the college.
While the methods have evolved in the past two decades, the bottom line is still the same: how can prospective students learn if your college will be the right fit for them? Kylie and I will continue on this journey together. I just have to remember that in this case, she is the driver and I am the passenger.
Next step: The first round of campus visits this summer.
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