Doing It Right: School Visits, Cate Style

Doing It Right: School Visits, Cate Style

From Memberanda, Fall 2011 

The Cate School (CA) admission staff has spent considerable time creating a campus visit program that has yielded results. Assistant Director Kyle Mason reports that 98% of students who visit Cate apply for admission. At the recent SSATB Annual Meeting, Cate’s entire team shared their recipe for success. All six were involved in their workshop to emphasize the importance placed on the school visit program at Cate. Every workshop attendee received a warm, personal greeting as they entered the room. It was later revealed that this was intentionally designed to replicate the experience of every family who arrives at Cate. Once they were settled, attendees were given a card and asked to reflect on the following about their school visit program:

• What are the top three goals of your visit program?
• When people leave the visit, what do you want them to do?
• What are the biggest obstacles or challenges in building the visit program you want?

Charlotte Brownlee, Director of Admission, shared Cate’s answers to these questions:

• Goals
- Create a connection to the school
- Understand the applicant
- Instill desire to apply and attend

• Cate wants visitors to:
- Apply
- Speak highly of visit
- Stay in contact

• Obstacles / Challenges
- Maintaining faculty buy-in
- Creating consistency while on the road
- Physical plant limitations (interview space & reception area)

The book, The Dragonfly Effect, by Jennifer Aaker and Andy Smith, inspired the Cate staff. The burning question they faced: how to make people remember their school? The four principles employed in designing the Cate visit experience then emerged: tell a story, be empathetic, be authentic, and match the media to the message. Mason spoke about the importance of using carefully considered storytelling to impart information – stories should tell families what they want to know, and what you want them to know. Mason emphasized that stories must be memorable, concise, and relevant, incorporating humor where possible and appropriate.

Consider the tools you need/have to tell your story:
• Website & publications (big picture)
• Narrow with specifics (things like sample schedules)
• Use every opportunity (e.g. while waiting for the interview)
• Student tour guides (tell the real story)

Associate Director Gwendolyn Pierce seizes every opportunity to help people forge relationships with those already at Cate. She emails a list of the visitors to the entire Cate community and is always amazed at the instant connections. People who know each other, or who are from the same town, generally make a point of stopping by to greet families. Pierce describes this as going after the “low-hanging fruit,” adding that it helps visitors connect and feel more comfortable.

Pierce spends considerable time on the student tour guide program, and it shows. The admission page of the website prominently displays photos of 40 tour guides with their names, photos, hometowns, and narratives about them and their experiences at Cate.

When visitors arrive, they complete a short questionnaire and are then matched to the appropriate tour guide. This means that, at any given time, Pierce has a gang of tour guides in the admission office. Those guides not touring act as “chatters” with families to provide more information about the Cate experience. Faculty members are asked to serve as chatters as well. Every student who visits Cate also visits a class.

Long-time admission office staffer Bryan Rodriguez, Director of Diversity, talked about the importance of “keeping it real.” Showing your best and most true self is the goal of the visit. Note: this doesn’t mean that you show the dorm room with the dirty laundry! Admission Associate Vanessa Cruz-Santana, a 2006 Cate graduate, was a head tour guide while enrolled and brings a terrific perspective to the admission office. She mentioned that training tour guides on “tour show and tell” is critically important – they need to know facts about the school and how to present information. Cate tour guides have business cards that they give to the families they tour (or meet during chatter time), allowing visitors to get in touch easily. Visitors also receive follow-up postcards from their tour guides.

Office Manager Lynn Dinning concluded with tools Cate uses to measure the effectiveness of the visit program. A survey of all accepted families (with extensive questions for those who chose another school) has been extremely helpful in tweaking the experience every year. They also use focus groups for enrolled families and listen carefully to the feedback provided. Above all, the group emphasized embracing their visitors: treat them like guests in your home, with warmth, empathy, and a sense of humor.


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