This is a photo of the agenda for my “Admitted Day” visit to Boston College back in spring of 2019. I don’t remember learning much about Boston College itself that day. What I do remember is 5 Powerpoint presentations that dragged on for too long and nearly collapsing during one session because there were no empty chairs left in the room and I had to stand.
Funny thing is, my trip to Boston College was the most informative and well put together “open day / college visit” that I went to when I was a high schooler. All the others were almost certainly more useless and boring.
My admitted day for NYU (the school I ended up going to) was absolutely terrible. There was nothing I heard in the info sessions that I couldn’t learn from the NYU website, and doing the visit didn’t contribute to my decision to attend NYU in any way. In fact, it may have worked against my decision as I became violently ill halfway through the campus tour and it began to thunderstorm shortly after.
I still ended up attending NYU, and I’ve enjoyed it here in my first couple semesters. But I got lucky because my decision to go to NYU was not an informed one. I knew a decent amount about the academics and the reputation of the university, but I knew very little about the community and culture of the school. I didn’t know whether it was a good fit for me. The reason why I chose to do campus visits at NYU and other schools was because I thought that the visit would give me a better sense of whether I liked / wanted to attend that university.
In fact, the on campus visits and information sessions didn’t help me at all with this. I’d condense the problems with these on campus visits into 2 things:
- The info sessions and content just weren’t interesting to me as a prospective student. Unfortunately your Core Curriculum is not going to make me want to attend your school when many other colleges have the exact same thing.
- The info sessions weren’t interactive or engaging. Instead of hearing staff talk endlessly about SAT scores, I would’ve much rather talked to a current student.
The one benefit of an on campus visit was to see what the campus and surrounding areas looked like.
What Would Be Better?
Everyone’s talking about Covid accelerating trends by several years, if not decades. I believe the pandemic will change how prospective college students assess whether a college is right for them.
The reduction of in-person campus tours and admitted days because of the pandemic and the subsequent rise of virtual events exposes the reality that in person college visits / open days (in their current structure) are mostly unnecessary.
Students don’t want long and boring info sessions accompanied by PowerPoint slides. They want activities to make them feel like they belong at that school.
The importance of belonging and community in college cannot be understated. You want to be surrounded by peers who you can identify with. It’s something that I’ve come to realize 3 and a half semesters into college, and something that I’m sure is on the minds of many high school seniors who will soon decide which school to commit to.
Given how sense of community is crucial in the college decision making process, the best way for a prospective student to get a sense of that community is through actually talking to current students.
I wish I had more opportunities to talk to current NYU students before making my decision. Making that one on one connection with someone who understands the culture and community of a school can be very powerful. If you’ve made a strong connection with that current student you realize that you’ve just made your first friend there and that you can actually fit in at that school. Hearing university administrators give a presentation, a fundamentally unengaging activity, just doesn’t resonate with prospective students as much as a human to human conversation with a current student.
Disrupting On Campus Visits
The great thing about one on one conversations with current students is that now they can happen no matter where you are in the world.
A lot of this innovation is coming from EdTech startups. If I’m a high school student interested in a specific university, a platform called Unibuddy allows me to find a current student ambassador at that university who’s majoring in something I’m interested in, has the same hobbies as me, or is in a club I’d be interested in joining, etc., and start an online conversation with that student. I don’t have to physically be on campus to learn more about the culture and community of that university. Even better, I don’t have to pinch myself to stay awake like during on-campus info sessions.
The New Standard for Traditional Colleges
The idea of making college visits and events more personal may seem a small issue at first, but it plays into a larger theme for higher education.
As Michael Moe of GSV Ventures predicts,
“Over the last 15 years, 1 in 5 newspapers have gone under, the majority of which were small, regional distributors. Similarly, regional brand equity in the higher education space will also become less meaningful in the digital age. Top universities with accessible, online platforms, like ASU and SNHU, will soon replace small hometown colleges across the country. In other words, a college’s claim to fame will have to be more than its local presence.”
Because of accessible and affordable online degree programs, a traditional college’s prestige will continue to be less attractive to prospective college students, forcing colleges to find other ways to stand out. One of those ways could be making virtual recruiting events that are very engaging for high school students and allow them to speak to current college students.
It’s also easy to forget that the prospective students who are applying to college nowadays have very unique preferences.
I had the opportunity to speak with some of the Unibuddy team, and Tariq Ahmed, a University Partnerships Executive, shared an idea about GenZ prospective college students that I found very exciting.
“Branding for schools nowadays is super important because personalization is important to GenZ. It’s not enough for a school to have prestige and reputation, there needs to be specific things that speak to you as a student and make you feel like you belong.”
I find his idea to be very interesting, as research by McKinsey explains how GenZ behavior centers around shaping individual identities and high expectations of personalized products and services. Although we typically think about these behaviors in the context of buying consumer packaged goods, I believe these GenZ preferences hold true for education as well.
A college’s brand can no longer just comprise of its prestige and superior academics. GenZ students want more than that. A brand should also include things that speak to individual students, like a strong commitment to diversity and inclusion and mental health needs to name a few.
I love revisiting in person college visits and the college decision making process, mainly because the way they’ll be changed because of the pandemic runs counter to mostly everything else that’s been affected by Covid. When it comes to work or education, people dislike how remote work or remote school is just not as engaging as being in person. Many startups are trying to improve the engagement aspects of remote work / education. However, when it comes to high school students deciding what college to go to, the pandemic has helped me realize that the in-person version of open days / admitted days were actually not engaging at all, and that a much more engaging experience can be created virtually. In this case, it’s the outdated in-person experience that needs to be improved to match the quality of the fresh online experience.
We all miss in-person events and gatherings, but let’s not assume that the in-person experience was always interesting and social. Hopefully the rise of virtual college recruitment events and student to student conversations will inform colleges on how they can make their in-person events better once everything returns to normal.
*Note: I am in no way affiliated with Unibuddy, nor am I singling out Boston College. The mac & cheese in their dining hall was fantastic :)