Unpacking the Campus Visit (Part I)

A few things you should know before you read this: I began my career in enrollment management as a visit and event coordinator. Those events were critical to the success of our efforts and I was put in charge because I’m…let’s just say details matter to me. A lot. I’m observant and I’ve learned over time what seems to be effective when it comes to hospitality with prospective students and their families. I pity the tour guide who leads my son Patrick and me around a campus in six years. Fair warning. Just saying.

Experience design is a concept most closely associated with technology and user experience but have you ever considered its relevance in the campus visit? Let’s assume, your email campaigns, print pieces and digital ads are all working perfectly in tandem to tell your institution’s distinctively authentic story. The design and messages are on point and align with your institutional positioning and priorities. Achieving this continuity is no easy task, but the job isn’t complete. Now it’s time to take a hard look at how you translate your story once a student steps foot on campus.

In the recruitment process, there are few opportunities where you have someone’s complete attention. You cannot control what email messages will be read or if the Instagram ads will resonate. But during a campus visit you have both the attention and the interest of your guests (okay, maybe not every guest). Don’t take this for granted. The campus visit experience should be crafted as carefully as your email campaigns and viewbook. Time and time again we hear that the campus visit was the deciding factor in selecting a college in expressions such as “It felt like home,”or,  “I just knew.” Make sure your visit experience highlights who you truly are and enables prospective students to see your campus as home.

As an enrollment and marketing professional, you know the ways in which students approach the college search are ever changing and your processes are continually shifting to keep up with the change in communication and student behaviors. You’ve, no doubt, re-evaluated the efficacy of print and email (and likely invested in digital). And although marketing strategy is rapidly evolving and institutions are working diligently to stay on top, some elements of the college search process are just as crucial today as they were ten, fifteen, or twenty years ago. Applying for admission and a campus visit may be at the top of that list. The campus visit remains a critical milestone in the college search process, but when was the last time you took a careful look at your visit experience? Has that experience aligned with all of the other changes you’ve made in your marketing and recruitment strategies?

In our work at RHB, we’re privileged to visit campuses across the country. When conducting our signature research methodology, Circles of InfluenceSM, we hear repeatedly just how influential the campus visit is when selecting a college. Following are a few things we repeatedly note.

1. Rolling out the welcome mat

The visit begins at the moment a prospective student and family arrive on campus. Yes, the parking situation matters. Ask yourself: Are parking instructions clearly provided ahead of the visit? Are there designated spots to welcome your guests? What is the path to the admission office? Is that path easy to follow? Signage should be well branded and clear. The path to the welcome center should follow a scenic route (clear of trash and well maintained). Put your best foot forward before a prospective student even arrives in your office. We commonly see parking spaces designated with guest names.

2. The first impressions

A student’s first five to ten minutes on campus will set the tone for their entire experience on your campus. When a student arrives in the admission office or welcome center, ensure they are greeted by a friendly face. A monitor welcoming the student is always a nice touch (and can be used as an opportunity to engage with the student on social media). Provide an overview of the student’s day, direct them to refreshments and the restroom. Also thoughtfully consider what you are handing out to students upon their arrival. Ask yourself: Are you providing a folder with the same viewbook or travel pieces they’ve already received? Is the packet you give visitors easy to handle throughout the day? Are the materials relevant to the day’s experiences? Is the campus map current? Do you highlight the map based on the student’s itinerary as you’re walking them through their schedule?

3. Consider the downtime

When we think about a campus visit, it’s easy to think of it as a series of smaller events; a campus tour, information session, admission interview, class observation, etc. What you may not be considering is what happens in between those events. From my previous experiences in managing these visit days, I know first-hand how much downtime there can be throughout a prospective student’s day. Provide opportunities for prospective students to be engaged while they wait for the next appointment on their schedule. Student ambassadors are a great resource. Encourage your student volunteers to stop by the admission office and visit with waiting families. Have you considered having “office hours” for your student ambassadors where they commit to hanging out in the admission office for the soul purpose of interacting with visitors? As much as prospective students want to hear from the admission team, the purpose of the visit is for them the connect with the campus community. The more you can engage them with current students, the more likely they are to see that your school is the right place for them. Simple things like having a current student walk them to their next appointment or take them to lunch in the dining hall can go a long way. (This isn’t to say that a bit of breathing room in the day wouldn’t be welcomed by all; but don’t let empty down time become awkward for guests. If there’s downtime, offer suggestions of places to go or activities to engage in.)

4. The tour itself

The campus tour is a consistently underutilized tool in the recruitment process; we observe many commonly missed opportunities. Tour guides are frequently so scripted there is no room for engagement, guides are hard to hear, tours don’t cover a prospective student’s area of interest, shortcuts highlight less-than-desirable parts of campus and worst of all, the tour is nothing more than a brief history of each building. If your campus is large, remember that not every building has to be shown. Identify the highlights and which areas will be important to the student’s life on campus. These campus locations should serve as stopping and talking points. No one is going to remember what year a particular residence hall was built. Instead they will remember the traditions that happen there. The campus tour allows you to show (and tell) your story allowing prospective students to make it part of their story.

5. The info session

Admittedly information sessions can be hard (and boring). You only have a finite amount of time to tell visitors “everything” there is to know about your school, what you have to offer and the process to get there. I’m here to tell you to forget everything you thought an information session had to be. Don’t waste that precious face time with recounting information that is thoroughly covered on your website or in your communication flow. You have a captive audience so make the most of it. Instead, spend that time sharing the key messages that tell your story. Highlight what makes you special. Dig deep. Go beyond sharing the student-faculty ratio by illustrating what that ratio really means. Share experiences faculty have with their students. Do you have an anthropology professor who takes students backpacking through South America in the summer? Do you have a biology professor conducting research with students on lifesaving Alzheimer’s treatment? Or maybe you have a faculty member who taught an international student how to drive. These stories make up who you are, beyond the facts and figures that are widely published. Prospective students (and their parents) have likely looked up all of these in preparation for their visit (or they’re looking at those facts on the handout you provided). You control the narrative in the information session. Make sure you’re leaving prospective students with the message you want them to hear. And be certain to make it more about them than you and your school.

We’ve scratched the surface here. And while these five aspects of the visit experience seem fairly basic and you may feel like you’ve conquered them all, I encourage you to take a self-examination of the actual experience your visitors are having. Yours isn’t perfect yet. I can say that because we’ve likely seen it.

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Jaci McGrew

Jaci is an Account Service Manager at RHB.