Understanding weaknesses is strength
Counselor engagement needs to focus on the specific differentiators of your institution.
I imagine no one reading these words will disagree that your institution’s unique strengths need to play the leading role in your communication strategy.
However, that is not the thesis of this post.
Instead, I would argue that the engagement needed to turn summer melt into summer growth may not even involve the three to five unique strengths you have developed with your marketing department.
There comes the point in the recruitment relationship where it no longer matters what you want students to believe about your institution – what matters is what they do believe. If you go until the bitter end trying to persuade students to accept the set of facts you would put forward about the institution, you’re missing the late enrollment potential. In fact, you’re allowing students who were already committed to attending to drift away, leading to summer melt.
We’re doing it wrong.
We need to transition the conversation and have students who are still considering their options tell you the strengths and weaknesses they perceive about your institution. After this transition, we need to accept that we are no longer setting the terms for how our institution is perceived – the student has already decided. We can choose to engage with them from there, or they’ll turn to others to help them make their final decisions.
I understand why this isn’t standard procedure everywhere. With no control over perceptions of the institution, we could get things we aren’t prepared to handle.
What if the student’s perceived strengths are areas the counselor knows you need a lot of improvement on? How do you answer a weakness without the student thinking you’re dismissing their concerns – or worse, arguing with them? Is the counselor trained to accept a perceived weakness and, instead of correct it, build a barricade of strengths around it?
In most cases, most of us will resort back to canned messages and messaging, highlighting what we perceive our strengths to be. It’s certainly the safest option – imminently defensible if the marking office were to get a copy of an email.
But it’s insufficient if you want to grow enrollment all summer.
Counselors must listen more and present less once the student has formed a perception.
The time to help a student see a strength in your institution is before they have developed an opinion.
Failing to do so (either because your communication strategy missed it or the student stayed stealth) means you’ll have to accept the student’s opinion or convince them that they are wrong.
If you’ve not read up on Cognitive Dissonance Theory to understand how difficult that second path will be, I would encourage you to do so. When a perception is solidified in a student’s mind, changing it requires them to accept that they are wrong, as is anyone they believe agrees with them. You’re not just up against a student but their entire deck of supporters behind them.
While it’s not an impossible challenge, by the time we roll into summer, your more effective strategy will be to accept the student’s perceptions as a starting point.
If a student believes your college is too small, even though your messaging suggests your small size is a strength, you’ll find yourself in a conundrum. Many people will fall back on the pre-scripted messaging to talk about the strengths of a small/large campus and start throwing them back at the student.
The problem with this is that the student has already received those messages, and they disagree with the conclusion. A stronger, more persuasive response would be to get the student to continue verbalizing why they feel this way. You’ll likely gain profoundly individual information – perhaps dealing with the size of the student’s high school, where they fit in their community, and how much they do or do not want to stand out in college. Even then – continue drawing more information out from the student. What do they fear would be similar/different from high school? What does it mean to them to feel “on the spot” in an English class with thirteen students?
Only then, after you’ve accepted and validated the student’s concern as real to them, asked questions to understand better, then dug even deeper into their personal view can you start to respond in a way that the student is open to persuasion.
At this point, they won’t hear your responses as marketing talking points telling them they’re wrong; you have a good chance that they’ll perceive you as genuinely trying to help them better understand what their experience would be.
The perceived strengths will help guide the counselor in upcoming conversations.
After having a conversation like the one outlined above with a student, a counselor should be prepared to put together a road map of outreach efforts for several weeks. One element of this individualized communication plan should be reinforcing the perceived strengths and increasing the weight given to them.
If a student tells you that one of your institution’s strengths is its location in a major metropolitan area, it would be a mistake to presume that the student fully understands the benefits of your location. A stronger approach would be to assume that the student has some of the information you would like them to have and is open to more. If the student tells you they want to be in the heart of the city you are located in because of access to major cultural events, make a point to share additional examples they may not be aware of. Are there small neighborhood groups, cultural gatherings, or even a coffee shop nearby that would speak to them? Every example you can provide is likely to land in the pile of strengths they are building for your institution. This is probably not groundbreaking but was worth stating.
There’s more you should do with a perceived strength, however. Beyond reinforcing it for the student, you can and should increase its importance in their decision-making process. The student in the above paragraph is predisposed to agree with your arguments for why your location is a strength. Adding on top of their reasoning (cultural events) with the abundance of internship, employment, and community service opportunities will give them the ability to double down on their belief – that your location is a unique and differentiating strength to their decision to enroll at your institution.
Note the subtle shift in language – it’s no longer about identifying the strength purely of the institution but the benefits they will receive by attending.
The student will share their perceived weaknesses when they want you to help overcome them.
Finally, if you have genuinely built a strong relationship with the student and they are still considering your institution, find out what they perceive to be the weaknesses of your institution. Instead of being afraid of an uncomfortable conversation, you should be thrilled to get an answer to this question.
If the student isn’t interested in attending your institution anymore, the weaknesses are settled, they are heavier than the strengths, and there is no chance of overcoming them. Chances are they won’t bother to tell you – they’re not open to a discussion about them, and out of a sense of politeness, they’ll just give you a default answer.
The most fruitful conversations are the ones where you get a real, sincere, and heavy weakness to wrestle with. The student would only be telling you this if they want you to help them think differently about the institution because they are looking for a way to get to yes. Again, this is where proper training is critical. It would be so easy, perhaps even likely, for the counselor to reply on the fly with a quick recitation of strengths, argue against the weakness raised by the student, or otherwise indicate disinterest in what the student is saying.
When a student shares their perceived weakness, their counselor should dig deeper – I recommend two layers deeper. Don’t discount it, don’t disagree with it – take the perceived weakness at face value and begin the conversation there. Suppose their perceived weakness is that your medical school acceptance rate is lower than other places. In that case, it is not helpful to reply with how your institution calculates all applicants to medical school while other institutions calculate the acceptance rate only on a subset of students. While that may be true, it tells the student that what they know and believe is wrong, that everyone who agrees with them is wrong, and that the barriers to persuasion will go up.
Why is the medical school acceptance rate important to you? It’s more than just wanting to get in .. are they presuming your acceptance rate reflects the value of a degree from your institution? Are they worried about their academic preparedness and are interpreting the med school acceptance rate as their personal likelihood of becoming a pediatrician? Is it possible that their parents don’t want the student to attend your institution, and they found the statistic and misinterpreted it?
Once you have a clearer understanding of the perceived weakness and why it matters to the student, you can move forward. Don’t tell them their conclusion is incorrect, but help them better understand the supporting arguments and come to an alternate conclusion.
Or, as is sometimes the case, the student is absolutely correct, and their perceived weakness is one you’ve identified. Before you can attempt to neutralize or reduce the importance of the weakness in this student’s decision-making process, you still must understand why it is resonating with them.
Talking points from your website or a marketing/admissions collaboration on a pre-med brochure will not let you get to the right spot with students expressing perceived weaknesses.
Summer can mean enrollment growth.
At the outset of this micro-class series, I made the bold claim … that we have accepted summer melt as a law of admissions physics, but it doesn’t have to be that way. I stand by that statement. Collectively, we can change the reality we are living in if we build out a deep understanding of applicant behavior patterns if we learn how to identify swing applicants. We better engage with students about the differentiators of our institutions.
Once you’ve found the tools and training to create those mindset and workflow shifts, you’ll begin to see the summer months as I do: loaded with possibilities for increased enrollment.