As Arun and I gear up for our annual trip to NACAC, I remembered a conversation I was lucky enough to have with Llloyd Thacker of the Education Conservancy at last year’s conference. The subject was college fairs, and how so many admissions officers are under enormous pressure to generate student interest in their schools. Given that the vast majority of admissions officers we’ve met are smart, likeable people with a genuine interest in education and students, how could these reps use a college fair to really help kids make even better decisions about their educations and their futures (if these reps were allowed and encouraged to do so)?
Here were some of the ideas we discussed, (though I’m sure the best ones are probably all courtesy of Lloyd).
1. Don’t focus only on the features of your college–share the real benefits of the process of education (this one was definitely Lloyd’s).
Many students think of college as a means to securing a good job or an admission to a top graduate school. You can do a lot of good by reminding them that the process of learning and discovery is the real benefit of college. And the availability of that benefit has a lot more to do with a student’s willingness to seek it out than it does the name of the college that student attends.
2. Resist the urge to appeal to a broad audience.
Pitching a college as all-things for all kids may increase application numbers, but it also raises the frenzy by encouraging kids to apply who will likely never enroll as freshmen. Instead, speak candidly about the type of students who are happy and successful on your campus. You might lose some potential applicants, but we think you’ll gain eager freshmen next fall.
3. Acknowledge that you aren’t for everybody.
There is no such thing as a perfect college. And teenagers appreciate honesty, especially that which comes when they least expect it. Kids are likely to remember and appreciate the one college rep who had the guts to admit that his school isn’t perfect and that not every student would necessarily thrive there.
4. Position yourself as a resource.
What students want to know is often more important than what you have to say. Tell them that you are there to help them make good choices, not to convince them to apply to your school. Kids today need advice from those who know, and the more honest you are, the more likely they will be to take your advice.
5. Remind them how much they have to look forward to, no matter where they go to college.
As adults, we know that good kids who work hard will always be OK. That’s why when you are forced to deny a good kid, you know he’ll ultimately be fine wherever he attends college. But a lot of kids don’t know this about themselves–so tell them. Students are under a great deal of pressure these days. You can play a role in alleviating some of this pressure by acknowledging how many great colleges there are for kids to consider (and how many of those great colleges might not appear on the US News list). Remind them how much they have to look forward to wherever they go to college.
These ideas won’t necessarily stick with all kids, but the student who will really flourish on your campus will remember you (and your school) as they compose their college list.