The college search process has been flipped on its head as a result of the coronavirus pandemic—and this might just become our new normal. However, as we’ve seen from the great amount of data that’s emerging this week from high school student surveys, social listening reports, news updates, and student conversations, what hasn’t changed is that college-bound high school seniors are still planning on attending college this fall, and juniors are still researching schools like crazy—the process just looks a little different.
As we all know, the key to yielding students and making an impactful connection with them has always been to get them to campus. How many times have we all said, “If we can get them to campus, we can convert them…”? Guess what—that’s no longer on the menu, so you’d be wise to have a plan in place to make that same connection with them online. How can you do it? We’ve outlined a few tactics to think about.
I consider myself lucky; I’m the mother of a high school junior, and for the first time in my career in higher education, I’m on the other side of the desk. I like to refer to my daughter, Laney, as my very own test subject. She has entertained hours of my questioning about school websites and my dissection of letters and postcards that come to the house. She even made me an outline of the things she loves and the things she dislikes about the college search journey. This includes schools that stand out because of little things and those she feels aren’t worthy of her time because they don’t make her feel special. It’s truly been a phenomenal research project!
My daughter has also stressed the importance of feeling at home while away at school, as well as getting a general understanding of the “look and feel” of a college campus. How can you show students their future home when they’re all stuck at home?
Virtual tours and on-campus videos need to be front and center. Up until two weeks ago, it was nice if you had a good virtual tour or a few YouTube videos of students walking and talking on campus. With COVID-19, it’s evolved from bonus content to an absolute necessity. CollegeXpress surveyed ~5,000 high school seniors about the impact of COVID-19 on their college search, and virtual tours were mentioned over 900 times! These students need to have a clear picture of what campus is like—and I don’t mean just drone footage. Let’s go through the elements prospective students want to see the most.
Your campus (obviously)
Highlight places on campus that make your school unique. Have a big green where students spend a majority of their free time? Show it! Is there a pedestrian mall in the middle of town with restaurants and shops where people play music, students hang out, and local families picnic? Did you just build a state-of-the-art student center modeled after a small village, complete with a movie theater and diner? These are the types of places on campus that give prospective students that “wow!” effect and make your school more memorable…so highlight them! Check out this great Marist College campus tour that was done from a current student’s perspective.
Many students are already anxious about leaving home and having to live somewhere unfamiliar. If you don’t have a virtual tour of your dorms, use photos to put together a slideshow that features different aspects of the buildings. This might be the one thing that helps a student pick you over another school—if they can actually picture themselves there.
Who wants to see construction on campus? Students may not, but higher education professionals know that a sure sign of a thriving institution is campus construction. Having ongoing development means your school is growing, expanding, and improving…so showcase it! Building a new multimillion-dollar fitness facility or a new engineering building? Throw on your hard hat and record a video telling students what’s being built and how it will benefit them when they arrive on campus.
Not every school has a nationally ranked football or basketball team, tailgating, bowl games, and NCAA tournaments. If you do (and it’s a huge part of your school), that’s awesome, and you should definitely have a video of what it’s like on an average Saturday so students can get a feeling for what it’s like to be on campus. You don’t have to have Division I athletics either. Whether it’s an NCAA-sanctioned sport or a popular club team, let students know what you have and what it would be like to be part of it. Many of your coaches and student-athletes would probably welcome the chance to make a video about their programs!
This is where your students have the chance to shine! Nothing is more relatable and important to prospective students than the voice of current students. Second to your website, students look to people they know and other students for recommendations. Everyone has a video camera now on their phone, and it’s easy to put together some organic videos of students talking about their past experiences. What’s their favorite memory of their time at your school? What are their favorite parts of campus? Where’s their favorite place to eat or hang out with friends when they’re there? What do they miss the most about campus, and what can’t they wait to do when they go back? Keep a video library of student stories, talk to all types of students, and keep it authentic.
The college town
Since they can’t visit your town, bring the town to them! Showcase the place they will be living for the next four years. Highlight the things that make the town unique, go over the township history, shine the spotlight on the local community—how does your school contribute to the culture? What community outreach do you have in place? Create a “highlight reel” for future students to get excited about.
Majors and programs
Aside from the buildings, labs, and other campus amenities specific to particular majors and programs, utilize your current students and alumni to talk about their experience as an Art History major or Pre-med student. Why did they choose your program? Did they know what they wanted to do when they started? If not, how did they find out about the program? Employ your vibrant alumni network to talk about how your school’s resources prepared them for their current job, including any challenges they’ve faced and real-life outcomes.
In sum: Be authentic
This is your chance to showcase not only the good (or great!) parts of your campus but also to be candid and honest. Point out potential challenges. Be forthcoming. Gen Z is the savviest generation we’ve ever interacted with, and they can see right through pandering. Be authentic in your voice and who you are. The more genuine your story and the more vibrant and dimensional your representation of campus and student life, the more likely they’ll be able to relate—and hopefully see themselves walking on your quad with books in hand.
We don’t know when COVID-19 will release its grip on the world, and prospective students aren’t going to wait until it does to make their college decisions. If you can’t get the students to campus, then it’s your job to bring campus to them.