It is mid-December. We are sitting in our office with a student and his parents struggling to assess the meaning of a deferral letter from his first-choice college. The family is quite put out.
"Just listen to the tone of this letter," they say. "It is so arrogant! It's all about numbers, and how great they are. They just didn't seem to understand the application at all, and don't seem interested in hearing anything else from us. Forget about them! Didn't want to go there anyway."
Later that day, we hear from a student deferred from another college's Early Decision plan. "You know, this was a really nice letter," she says. "They really seem to have read my application, and are encouraging me to send new grades and information about what I'm up to in the spring. They even offer to read another teacher recommendation or a paper I wrote! It sounds like I might still have a chance!"
Reading a deferral, wait list, or rejection letter is just about one of the toughest things a student and his or her parents must deal with during the college admissions process. Writing a good letter, one that is honest but encouraging, personal yet applicable to most of the applicant pool, gentle but firm, has got to be one of the hardest tasks in any college's admission office. These days, many admissions personnel send out these letters with great trepidation, fearing the inevitable phone calls, letters, and e-mails from irate, confused, and pleading parents, students, and high school counselors. Many admission officers lock the doors, shut off the phones, and turn on the out-of-office auto reply on their e-mail accounts. Some send the letters, e-mails, or website admission decision postings on Friday and then disappear for the weekend, much like the White House releasing its most damaging news before a holiday weekend or during a Congressional recess. At least one selective college admissions dean this fall went on vacation immediately after decisions were posted in mid-December, notifying families and counselors he would not return to the office until after the New Year.
High-impact letters like those announcing a rejection, deferral, or waiting list decision should clearly be subject to careful attention by admissions personnel. Yet in many cases, like the one with our first student this past fall, it seems unbelievable that a college admissions officer would write something so insensitive, dry, and, yes, in some cases arrogant to a student who has put so much on the line in an application. If such significant letters as these, sent directly to the most interested, and thus most important potential members of a college's community, are often written with so little regard toward the feelings of the family, what can be said about the raft of other communications with which families interact during the college admissions process?
Communications seem to have an attitude, again, either intentional or ill-considered. Take the recent spate of information sessions on campus, which suggest to students and parents that a college's numbers are so strong, and the bar so high, that they would be lucky even to get through an initial sorting of applications. In an attempt to impress families with the super high-quality of the institution, and how "competitive," "selective," and "desirable" the college is, the college risks turning off most families, even those with students who would be a great fit personally and academically. They conclude either that "I'll never get in" or "that college is so arrogant that even if I did get in I wouldn't want to go there" or both.
The opposite tack, of course, is the "really, we're not that tough--we're looking for lots of individual qualities and don't worry too much about test scores." This approach might increase application numbers and the selectivity rating of your college, but risks long-term school and family frustration as it becomes evident that no student with lower than a certain SAT or ACT range ever seems to get in, despite what the college has promised. This air of false non-selectivity is just as dangerous as implied superiority.
We find the approach that sits best with families is good old honest, objective information. Give families access to the real freshman class profiles for the past few years on your website. Put these in your brochures, and hand them out during campus tours and information. Emphasize the range of students you enroll, the real numbers in terms of grades, courses, and standardized tests, as well as highly angular students who bring special qualities to campus. Families will find themselves, or not, in the profile, and thereby determine if the college is a good fit. Discuss entrance and graduation requirements, in terms of high school and then your college's curriculum, so that students will understand what they need to aspire to, and what they would have to do to graduate from your institution. They'll know if they can get there. Be honest about financial aid. How much discounting goes on? What is the average financial aid package, and how many students receive aid? What is the average amount of debt families incur?
Families start the college admissions process earlier than ever. Yes, we are very consciously including students and parents here, since the college admission and decision process is usually a family one. Impressions they form about IHEs can be incredibly hard to change. Recently we mentioned a well-regarded selective liberal arts college to a family for consideration, a college not that different from a list of six or so colleges we were batting around for a spring visiting schedule. Mother and daughter exchanged a familiar knowing look, one that we see all the time.
"OK, who went there and what happened?" we asked.
"Well," said Mom, pursing her lips. "I hate to say this, but a friend of my sister's daughter went there, and she had a miserable time. It seems a sorority--which are not national sororities there, you know--made her eat all kinds of degrading things and just generally made her life miserable. There was tons of drinking, and the administration didn't do anything about it. Now, I know there's partying at every college..."
We didn't get very far trying to persuade this family to visit campus and evaluate the college for themselves.
Whatever role you play at your college, you should realize that, from high school freshman fall--or earlier--each and every communication with a family--your potential matriculants--needs to make a positive contribution toward your efforts to enroll the students who fit your institution best. Your communication strategy should be inclusive and ongoing through the summer after a student graduates from high school and into the fall with parents after a student matriculates.
We encourage you to conduct a comprehensive review of all contacts your college has with families, and to identify as broad and inclusive a definition of "contacts" as possible. For example, a family's first tour of a college campus is another high-impact opportunity for you to make a good impression. Too few colleges train tour guides adequately, making for ruinous experiences, following which many families apply to the college despite the tour, rather than because of it. Some IHEs are beginning to pay their tour guides and professionalize the service. As you train and recruit tour guides, however, consider bringing students into the decision making process. A well-meaning attempt that goes wide of the mark can subject you to ridicule or contempt by prospective students. We had a student deride one college for making its tour guide students wear "ridiculous fast-food uniforms" and what did that say about the college's approach to individuality anyway?
You can't please everyone with your communications, reaching parents and students on the same wavelength--or attracting conservative and liberal, alternative and traditional, small town and urban--all through the same well-crafted letter, tour routine, home page, or informational discourse.
The more personalized your communications are toward particular students and types of students, the more successful you will be. Personal forms of interaction, such as phone calls from current students and local families, e-mails, calls, or meetings with faculty in a student's main area of interest, one-on-one meetings with more senior admissions staff, and interest-specific admissions office letters clearly written to that student have had, in our experience, the greatest positive and durable impact on families' evaluations of and feelings toward a college.
Secondly, since you can't have one message for everyone, make your communications intentional. If you want to appeal to everyone at the same time, you risk becoming "just like every other college." A less risky proposition than sticking your neck out with a highly identifiable mission or program, perhaps, but one more likely to lead you to get or remain lost in the sea of seemingly identical colleges on families radar screens. If you want to appear more "traditional" to families, make the decision intentionally and be aware that you are doing so. If you want to offer maximum flexibility for highly individualistic learners, go for it, but understand how a family seeking structure and a conservative approach might react.
In the long run, we don't believe flashy, slick, slangy, or "teen-oriented" communications will serve most IHEs well. As soon as you think you have that youth-speak figured out, it will change, and kids will just laugh. Students today are far more inured to advertising appeals and are highly cynical and suspicious of attempts to "reach them." Secondly, parents have the greatest influence on a student's choice of college, and start watching, listening, and planning far earlier than their sons and daughters. Honest, direct, personalized, content-rich, respectful, and educational communications will have the most positive and lasting effects for your college. Think how you would react as a parent to what your college is communicating, and ask your kids what they think about some of your materials. We suspect the answers will be obvious.
Howard Greene and Matthew Greene are independent education consultants, and the authors of Greene's Guides to Educational Planning. To contact them visit www.greenesguides.com.