Their jobs should be obvious: sell the value and unique features of their schools to the excited teenagers and anxious parents (or is it the other way around?) that troop through their offices each year as part of that modern ritual, the college tour.
But the very first two schools my son and I visited on our own college tour a few weeks ago proved something I should have known: nothing is obvious.
I’ll call them College of the Bad Example (C.B.E.) and Right University (R.U.), because they provided almost laughingly perfect examples of bad and good communication.
Lesson 1. Target Your Audience
C’mon now, you say, isn’t this a little elementary? Apparently not.
As it happens, my son is a budding jazz trumpet player who wants to go to a conservatory, so that’s where we had arranged tours. In most cases, when we set up our appointments—weeks in advance—we answered questions about his specific interests: classical or jazz? Vocal or instrumental? Performance, theory or composition? We also informed the schools that he was a high school junior, trying to decide where to apply.
When we arrived for an information session at C.B.E., dozens of other families were there. We quickly learned that they comprised a mix of high school juniors, like my son, and seniors who’d already been accepted and were trying to decide whether to attend. They also comprised classical and jazz musicians, composers, singers, musical theater types—you name it.
Rather than planning in advance for this disparate audience, the admissions staff began by announcing that they might split the group in two: admitted students and high school juniors. Shortly after that, while we continued to wait, they announced that they’d decided not to bother splitting up the group, they’d just talk to us all at once and “pardon us in advance” if some people might find the information repetitive.
The result? Well, as it turned out the admissions staffer who led the session said next-to-nothing anyway (see below). But if she had, you can bet almost none of it would have been information specifically relevant to a high-school-junior-jazz-trumpet-player. We could have gotten a lot more by spending just fifteen minutes on the website.
In contrast, when we showed up for our appointment at R.U., we found just one other family. This is not because there weren’t lots of prospective students visiting the school. As we would learn later, when we met for the actual tour part of the tour, a dozen other families were there that very day. But unlike at C.B.E., we’d each been assigned information sessions with different people at different times of day, based on the specific areas of study our kids were interested in—and where they were in the application/admissions process.
Not only that, but when my son was handed a packet of information about the conservatory, it included a sheet of paper detailing the curriculum for the specific division within the jazz department that he’d expressed an interest in.
Lesson 2: Check In With Your Audience
At C.B.E., the admissions staffer ushered us into a room packed with chairs and began by asking for a show of hands of who was a junior and who was an already-admitted senior. She apologized again in advance for saying anything some of us might already know. Then she stopped asking us anything at all and just talked. Without addressing either audience. See below.
At R.U., our two families sat down around a table and the admissions staffer asked each of the students (both boys) to tell her about their interests. She listened carefully to the first boy, without interrupting, and then said there’d been a mix-up; his interest was in musical theater and she’d thought she’d be talking to two prospective jazz students. However, she told him, she’d be able to tailor the information to fit his needs. After listening carefully to my son, who talked about his musical interests in detail, she said he may have been misled by the name of the division he thought he was interested in: she felt he’d probably prefer one of the other divisions within the jazz department and she explained why.
Then she proceeded to give us a great deal of detailed information both about the school in general (see below) and about our kids’ prospective divisions within the conservatory. She spoke about theater groups and performance ensembles they might be particularly interested in. She spoke about current students and alumni who had similar interests and what they were doing now. At the end of the hour, she led us back to her office so she could give my son a new sheet of paper; this one detailed the curriculum for the division she thought might suit him better. She also suggested two faculty members for him to talk to.
Lesson 3. Get Inside the Heads of Your Audience
For the admissions staffer at C.B.E, it was just another day. She’d woken up, eaten breakfast and come to work. At the end of the day, she’d go home again.
She failed to realize that, for the rest of us, it was a day—or more probably a week—out of our tightly scheduled lives. We’d travelled hundreds of miles, in some cases. Paid for plane tickets or gas, paid for motels and meals, left work behind and chosen not to visit another college somewhere else, just so we could spend one hour trying to get information that would affect a decision that might have an impact on our kids’ entire lives.
Sure it was nice that she was friendly and a little casual. But neither my son nor I appreciated her endless banter and jokes that had nothing to do with information-sharing. I happen to know something about this particular college. It has a fascinating history and an unusual approach to both academics and student life. Our admissions staffer mentioned none of these. In fact, over the course of the hour, it was remarkable how little information she managed to convey.
The admissions staffer at R.U. was also quite personable. But she wasted not a minute of our time, providing so much meaty information about the program, culture, curriculum, size, admissions process, acceptance rates—you get the idea—that we could hardly write it down fast enough. Which is fine, because she also came prepared with much of that information in printed form, so she could turn most of her attention to responding to our specific needs (see above) and answering our questions.
There you have it. Three good lessons learned, all during the week I swore I was taking off from work. (The problem with a career in communications is you can never take a vacation. Communications—good and atrocious—are everywhere.)
We’re encouraging our son to look past the awful job they did communicating at C.B.E., and try to find out more on his own, because the school has a good reputation.
Will your audience lend you the same slack?