Giving Voice to Your Student Customers

Giving Voice to Your Student Customers

Published in The Yield, Spring 2014

You see them when they come to tour. You send emails back and forth. You compose personalized letters, invite them to attend a class, or even to stay overnight in your dorms. But do you really know what motivates them to apply to schools or how they learn about them in the first place?

With the help of placement directors in our network, EMA launched a brief survey in late January 2014 to find out. Thanks to these placement directors, we received responses from 478 students primarily located in California and in the northeastern U.S. Forty-eight percent (48%) of respondents currently attend a private day school, while 35% attend a private boarding/day school. Sixteen percent (16%) attend a public school, and three students (1%) report that they currently attend a parochial school. Sixty-four percent (64%) of respondents are male, and 36% are female. Most respondents (69%) are applying for admission to grade 9, while 30% are applying for admission to grade 10. Thirty-nine percent (39%) of respondents report that their families applied for financial aid. There was a fairly equal distribution of students applying for boarding and day school programs:

Thirty-eight percent (38%) of respondents applied to be a boarding student, while 33% applied to be a day student; a very small number of students (5%, or 23 students) report that they applied to a boarding school to be a day student. At the time of the survey, 24% of students were still undecided about whether or not they wished to be a boarding or day student. The results – showing no real differences between and among sub-groups – reveal why students selected the schools to which they applied, the effectiveness of various school marketing and outreach efforts, and students’ thoughts on the amount of effort required to apply to their school(s) of choice.


 Finding the Right Fit

Students were asked to choose from a list of 12 factors that influenced their decision to apply to a school, ranking their top three choices in order of importance. These factors were: location, close to home, academic program, academic support, college placement, reputation, specific sport, specific extracurricular, friend(s) applying, friend(s) currently enrolled at school, family-school history, and financial fit.

By far, students cited the academic program as their motivation for choosing the schools to which they applied.  More than half of respondents (57%) listed it as their primary factor, and 81% listed it among their top three choices. Academic support and school reputation trailed far behind, with 9% of respondents reporting it to be their primary motivation. In looking at total numbers for the top three factors, academic program (81%), school reputation (35%), and a specific sport (35%) were the factors most considered by the survey students.

Deciding Where to Apply

Students were asked to identify all the people who helped them develop the list of schools to which they applied – my family, me, placement counselor, educational consultant, teacher, head of school, friends, and other. Eighty-two percent (82%) reported that their family helped. In addition, most students said that they decided on their top choices themselves (76%). Placement directors and high school counselors were also influential, as 71% of respondents noted that these professionals helped them develop their school lists, which isn’t surprising, given that the majority of survey respondents currently attend a private school.

The people who influence the creation of the school list also influence the decision to apply, but we also found that students themselves are steering this process more and more (at least in their own eyes). We asked students who was most influential in developing the list of schools to which they eventually applied. The answer? Themselves! Fifty-nine percent (59%) of respondents said that they were the most influential decision makers in choosing the schools where they applied. This is a confident group of students who prefer making their own decisions! Fifty-five percent (55%) of respondents said their family was their second most influential factor, and 40% said the placement director was the third most influential factor.

How Are You Reaching Them?

Your school’s website was the most important source of information for this group of prospective students, with 43% of respondents selecting it as the tool they used most often. In all, 82% of respondents ranked the school website as one of the top three sources they used for information.

As one student noted, “it’s much easier to find new information quickly through websites.” In addition to websites, school tours received consistent marks as a very important resource, with 37% of respondents selecting it as their top tool, and 81% of respondents ranking it among their top three sources for information. When tools are compared by how students rated each tool’s “helpfulness,” a slightly different picture emerges. 

As noted, 43% of respondents ranked the school website as their most used source of information for learning about schools, and 37% of respondents similarly ranked school visits. Yet when asked about the tools they found most helpful, only 23% cited websites, as opposed to 51% of respondents, who found school tours to be the most helpful. Describing the benefits of school tours, one student said, “I learned more from someone who was emotionally invested in the school than I would ever learn from a website or pamphlet.” 

Interestingly, student responses indicated little to no use of social media for the purpose of school research. Of the 478 respondents, only 17 of them (3.5%) selected any social media networks – Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, etc. – among their top three most utilized tools.

They Meet You Online, They Discover You In Person

While today’s students do quite a bit of research online and get to know a school through its website, the experience of being on campus cannot be overemphasized. Throughout the survey, experiencing the school in person and interacting with current students emerged as factors that made a significant difference in a student’s motivation to apply to a school. Therefore, the more traditional methods of reaching prospective students are still effective, even as newer methods like social media lag behind. 

As noted, school visits are an important resource for students who are participating in the admission process. Additionally, 63% of the respondents attended a school open house, and most of the students who attended (87%) found it helpful in their decision to apply or not apply to a particular school. When asked what they found most useful about open houses, 52% selected, “I got a better sense of the school’s academic program and expectations,” while 20% selected, “I understood the type of student the school expects in its applicant pool.”

In addition, 63% reported that they attended a school fair. When asked why, 31% indicated that they wanted to “learn more about schools they were considering, but didn’t know enough about yet.” Another top reason was to “learn about other schools I hadn’t considered” (30%). Twenty-two percent (22%) admitted that they were required to go by their family or an advisor. In line with the increasing importance of demonstrated interest, 17% said they wanted to “really show I was interested in a particular school I had already inquired with.”

Forty-two percent (42%) of surveyed students reported that they added schools to their list as a result of attending a school fair. Nearly a quarter of all respondents visited between four and six schools. Just 3% visited only one, and 6% reported visiting more than 10 schools. While schools are communicating just enough with students (83% reported that they received about the amount of communication they were expecting), it may be time to examine ways to bring more authentic experiences to your mediums, if you haven’t already done so. When asked to relate the information they found lacking in the resources they used, 48% said they wanted more opportunities to interact with current students, and 42% were looking for more opportunities to visit classes. As one student said, “On one of my school visits, I sat in on a class. Beforehand, I had not been that into the school, but afterwards I liked it so much I applied.”

Fifty-two percent (52%) of respondents said that they did not apply to all the schools they visited, while 48% did. However, for all the schools students did apply to, 83% said that they had visited the school before sending in an application. Students who did not apply to the schools they visited were asked why they did not submit an application. The top three reasons were: “They were not a right match for me” (85%), “I didn’t care for the programs/campus/ people” (41%), and “They lacked programs/classes I was seeking” (35%).

Approaching the Test

Though testing is but one part of a student’s admission journey, the survey did ask students to best describe how they felt when they learned they had to take an admission test to apply to schools. (8% said they did not have to take a test.) Thirty-nine percent (39%) selected, “Apprehensive, but I knew I could prepare to do well.” Another 29% selected, “It was no big deal. A test is a test.” Only 24% of respondents indicated that they felt stressed and overwhelmed about taking a test. 

Though representative of a small group of students, it is encouraging to know that these students are taking testing in stride. However, although these students did not seem overly stressed about taking a test, an overwhelming 88% say that they did wait to see their scores before sending them to schools!

How Did They Apply?

In a trend that shows no sign of abating, the vast majority of students in our survey (75%) applied to four or more schools, with most applying to between four and six. Just 6% of students applied to only one school. Of these, they hoped to get acceptance letters from most of those to which they applied. (42% said they hoped to get accepted into four to six schools, with 37% hoping for two or three acceptance letters.)

Most students indicated that they preferred to use a common application to apply. Fifty-nine percent (59%) of respondents reported that they used a common application service to apply to multiple schools. Of the 41% who did not use a common application, 38% say it was because the school(s) they applied to did not accept a common application, while 18% felt they would have a better chance at acceptance if they used the school’s own application.

Students' Thoughts on the Admission Process

Asked how they felt at the beginning of the admission process, students were provided with three possible answers. The majority of respondents (51%) said they felt “excited” about the process. A similar percentage selected “apprehensive” (48%), while significantly fewer reported being “stressed and overwhelmed” (14%). Looking back at the process, 41% of respondents said that the amount of work required was about what they expected, but more than half (53%) said that the amount of work involved was either more than they expected or a lot more that they expected.

All in all, students were positive about their experiences and about the efforts made by admission officers to get to know them. In sum, they offered the following recommendations: 
• Keep your school website updated with information for prospective students, including academic information and sports activities; consider adding a Q&A feature where prospects can interact with your current students, or student blogs that give an idea of what campus life is like
• Communicate with applicants and placement directors regularly
• Use a common admission test and application
• Continue to schedule school tours and promote school visit opportunities, including shadow days and class drop-ins, with enthusiastic tour guides and student volunteers

From the Placement Point of View

Placement directors offered their thoughts and perspectives on the school admission process as well. In general, placement professionals indicated that they’d like an accurate overview of the type of student who would be successful at the admission director’s school, as well as an honest view of the financial aid available. Several said they simply wanted to keep the lines of communication open. One director noted, “The more communication with me, the better. I can always provide a clearer picture of students’ goals and families’ situations.”

Regarding how best to develop relationships with feeder schools, Tim Murphy reminded his admission colleagues that “It’s important to highlight programs that set the school apart from others,” while Helen Burns emphasized encouraging placement directors to visit, as getting them on campus is the best way to help them understand your culture. Nicole Victor said, “I really appreciate those schools who have the same admission professional interview my students. This has really helped deepen the relationship and added a lot of value throughout the process.”

In addition, placement directors expressed a desire to have a standardized application to help streamline admissions. David Hickman said, “Any movement toward a common application would be a huge benefit to our 8th grades and the effectiveness of our 8th grade program.” Another director put it more bluntly: “The stress that four application formats puts on families, students, and teachers is unnecessary.” Placement directors also asked for honest communication during the admission process, especially as it relates to an applicant’s chances of admission. “Parents can tend to hang on to every positive word you say. It’s absolutely okay to compliment the applicant, but to say ‘we want your son here’ without knowing his test scores, etc., can be interpreted the wrong way by parents,” said one placement official. Or, as Page Vincent noted, “Be encouraging of all the wonderful accomplishments the applicant brings (especially in the interview), but also recognize that families are prone to mistake this genuine praise as an early indicator of admission.”

Most simply appreciate the level of communication that already exists, and want it to continue. “Thank you for allowing our organization to advocate for our students in order to give you the fullest picture possible,” said one placement director.

A Spotlight on Placement Directors

In addition to helping disseminate the student survey and offering their thoughts on the admission process, 47 out of 180 placement directors in our network also answered a brief survey to help us better understand who they are and their role in schools. While the sample size is admittedly small, it is interesting to note some of the professional parallels to admission directors as described in EMA’s 2013 State of the Independent School Admission Industry report. Sixty-four percent (64%) of the placement directors responding work in day schools; 21% work in boarding schools; and 15% (7 individuals) work in access or community-based organizations. Sixteen respondents say that they have handled placement as part of their job for 0-4 years; 13 report handling placement for 5-9 years; 11 for 10-15 years; and seven respondents say that they have more than 15 years’ experience in placement.

Like the admission directors responding to the state of the industry survey, more placement directors who responded to this survey are female (62%) than male (38%). The majority of the 47 placement respondents (91%) are working with students currently in the 8th grade, and a little over half of them (51%) help counsel between 26 and 50 students – and their families – each year.

As for the backgrounds they bring to their current placement responsibilities, more than half (55%) of the 47 placement directors surveyed have experience in other school administration, such as admission or academics. Thirty percent (30%) have classroom teaching experience. Only two individuals indicated a background in guidance/counseling specifically. Based on the survey results, admission directors also bring significant experience in other school administration to their work (56%), as well as experience in the classroom (60%).

Placement directors, like admission directors, are accountable for a diffuse set of job responsibilities. Again, while admittedly a very small sample, only 19% (or 9 of the 47 individuals surveyed) have placement responsibilities only. In thinking about the job and its ultimate responsibility, Teebie Saunders notes: “The students place themselves; I simply help them find a list of great fit schools, help them apply, talk with them about their concerns, and advocate for them when possible/appropriate. I’d love to be thought of as a counselor for families rather than someone who places students into high schools.”


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