How 7 simple tips smoothed admissions process at Holy Cross

Responding to a pandemic with a closed university presented a challenge for this elite private college in New England. But it had a plan reach students in unique ways.
By: | November 4, 2020
Photos courtesy of the College of the Holy Cross

April was on the horizon and the frost was lifting from the lawns at the College of the Holy Cross on a brisk New England day. In a few short weeks, prospective students would be arriving in droves on their spring break for campus tours and interviews with officials.

Drew Carter, Senior Associate Director of Admissions

A committee had gathered to discuss future plans. That’s when Drew Carter got the word.

COVID-19 was forcing the shutdown of the ivy-covered buildings on this hilltop college in Worcester, Mass. No visitors would be welcome. No tours would be held.

For this Senior Associate Director of Admissions, it was a heart-stopping moment, one that provided a test of nerves and flexibility – how would Holy Cross impart its vision and allure to those who couldn’t see it firsthand?

“It was obviously terrifying. … At the same time, it was kind of exciting,” Carter recalls. “Two of the things that draw people to Holy Cross are the campus and the kids, and we were not really able to deliver either of those. The challenge was to figure out how could we deliver those to our prospective applicants and their families as fast as possible.”

Like many leaders across the country, that first jolt of panic gave way to a lot of questions. And then, trial and error.

“There were a lot of times when we’d say, here’s this idea, I don’t know, will it work?” Carter says. “There were times where we were discouraged. But then there were times when we just felt free and said let’s give it a try.”

Ultimately, it led to some very unique, very hip solutions. This 177-year-old institution found some magic in brainstorming and marketing. Over the past eight months, it has delivered simple and effective messages, made videoconferencing a centerpiece, and connected its own students to those interested in this elite liberal arts college.

“In April and May, I did probably did 30 webinars for school districts and private schools and boarding schools, where their students and parents were asking questions,” Carter says. “We sort of got this idea for a video, and marketing said, do you think you come up with a list of tips?”

Laying a new foundation

Before Carter got to work on his “7 tips project” that would address student questions, there were questions that Holy Cross had to answer: namely, those big information sessions and tours on campus. What would they do with them now? What would they do with other events like open houses? And most importantly, how would any of it translate to a virtual space?

“Those were dark days as far as remote virtual programming back in March and April,” Carter says. “But we adjusted pretty quickly. We were looking at what other schools were doing for ideas. We thought, let’s open as many different valves as we can to interact with families. Let’s try as many different things as possible.”

They hosted essay and interview workshops every day and discussed best practices. They did general talks featuring admissions information.

And then came the lightbulb moment. They noticed that in all of the sessions they were hosting, the ones conducted by students were getting a lot of attention.

“We saw from some of our early programming that far and away, the highest interest with any Zoom or webinar was when our current students were speaking,” Carter says. “That really educated us. As much as people come to campuses for tours and the buildings, they’re coming to hear those students, those tour guides. And as we continue to look at surveys from all of our sort of virtual programming, almost every single survey says, ‘I love the part where the current students spoke.’ ”

So they added more student voices. And they let them have drop-in chats with prospective students. Most of all, they tried to make it informal to take the anxiety away from students.

“What we saw was that there was a market for this, and kids were showing up to the program,” Carter says. “They were eager for connection.”

And when it came time for interviews, that was easy for the Holy Cross admissions team. Conduct them on Zoom and keep an open mind.

“The quality is actually just as good, if not better, over Zoom,” Carter says. “Kids are more relaxed, they’re more themselves. It’s more conversational and less presentational. Almost every kid shared some story during their interview, something that’s been really great [since the pandemic started]. It’s one of the reasons why we do value interviews as part of the process. We’re a small school [just over 3,000 students] and character matters. We want to get to know them a little bit better to figure out what kind of community members they would be.”

The Seven Steps

Of course, not every student has the time to ask every question they have about a college on a chat … and not every college can respond in kind either. And while it’s nice to have students talking with students, the real tough questions should be answered by an admissions representative. That’s what the team of counselors told Carter.

So he got together with the marketing team and they asked him if he could come up with a series of tips to help in the process and remove some of the anxiety that could be building with students who couldn’t come to campus. So he came up with 7 Tips For Applying to College During a Pandemic. In the video, Carter addresses the questions likely to be on the minds of students.

They include:

  1. Take advantage of virtual sessions
  2. Choose your essay topic wisely
  3. Focus on what you have done
  4. Sign up for college admissions mailing lists
  5. Focus on your senior fall classes
  6. Don’t stress (too much) about standardized tests (Holy Cross has been test optional since 2006)
  7. Keep the college admissions process in perspective: This is an unprecedented time.

By delivering in this way, Carter says Holy Cross has eased some of the stress involved with admissions.

“Any chance to demystify and reduce anxiety around the college certification process, it is in the best interest of us as a country, our institutions, our counselors and your own college. The more accessible you can be, the better. College admissions creates a lot of anxiety. We can fight against that. That’s why we created the seven tips.”

The admissions office still isn’t open, and Holy Cross still isn’t welcoming visitors. Coronavirus cases again are rising in Massachusetts … and a certain alum, Dr. Anthony Fauci, might have something to say about them gathering for tours. And yet the admissions staff is doing well.

Looking back, Carter says three important decisions his team made were critical in outreach to students: “reevaluating the recruitment practices we’ve done in the past, identifying what the goals were, and then thinking about how to transition those goals.”

He uses the example of a traditional open house.

“It’s easy to say, OK, in the fall for open house, we’ll just do that online,” Carter says. “Really, is that going to work? Let’s go back. What was the point of fall open house? What was your goal, and how is that best transitioned? For us, at an open house event, one of the goals was to get people on campus. OK, that’s not going to work. So, the next goal was to hear from our students. But it’s probably not going to be a 3 1/2-hour event like it was on campus. It needs to be smaller. It needs to be several 30-minute events over six weeks. How can you accomplish that goal in the virtual space?”

As for any other tips he can impart from the past eight months?

“We learned a lot of lessons, but the biggest was to put our current students at the forefront of our recruiting efforts,” he says. “We also really tried to simplify some of the messaging. Virtual programming has the appearance of being more accessible. But if you create a webinar and call it “Co-curricular Opportunities to Matriculate”, you have not made that more accessible. You’ve just used college language that high school kids don’t understand.”