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9 Mistakes Your Independent School Can Avoid This Admissions Season

Posted by on September 4th, 2017
Posted in Blog, Independent Schools, Nonprofit Communications   

Knowing how to create a great admissions experience can be tricky. You want to attract new families to your school, yet you know your school isn’t right for everyone. You want to communicate powerfully, but you don’t want to waste money on printing materials that no one ever reads. You want campus visits to provide an insider’s view, but may not be sure where to focus.

If you’re under time and budget constraints to keep things moving, you may make improvements to your admissions communications where you can, but stick to the basic approach year after year. This can lead to mistakes.

We’ve helped refresh the brands of many independent schools and have learned some important things along the way.

  • Knowing your brand – the special promise your school makes that no other does – will help you create an admissions experience that is authentic and effective.
  • Having a clear, strong set of key messages is a must for telling your school’s story.
  • Then, knowing how to share those messages effectively becomes the foundation of your admissions program.

Whether you educate students in primary, middle, or high school, whether you offer a boarding program or same-sex education, here are 9 admissions communication mistakes to avoid:

Mistake #1: Putting everything online and nothing on the nightstand.

You still need a real viewbook.

After the kids go to bed and parents want to settle into learning about the schools they are considering, they are still more likely to pick-up a viewbook than revisit the website. Because the viewbook is tangible and not virtual and has a more “real” feel to it than your website, it’s your best chance to convey the values and vibe of the campus experience.

When redesigning your viewbook think emotion, not facts. We may reach a day when printed materials are obsolete, but we are not there yet.

Mistake #2: Using the viewbook as the whole kit and caboodle.

The viewbook is for asking applicants on a first date.  The acceptance letter is the proposal.  So much happens in between.  

The viewbook does not need to be an exhaustive list of credentials, programmatic offerings and statistics. Put those on the website. Instead, focus your viewbook on 3-5 ideas that encapsulate the culture (behaviors and beliefs) that define your school. Then, include 3-5 “wow” opportunities – things you do better than any other school. These can be about facilities or offerings, and they need to be tied to your brand.

Make it clear why you offer these “wow” opportunities and always explain how kids benefit from them.

Mistake #3: Highlighting features without connecting to benefits.

Features are what you do. Benefits are why you do it.

You’re proud of your daily assembly, but what do new families hear when you talk about it? Is it a boring administrative mandate kids are forced to sit through? Or is it the heart and soul of your community because it gives kids of every age the chance to be seen, known, and supported by students in every grade? Prospective families can’t be expected to interpret the value of the features and programs your school offers.

To you it may be obvious that the state-of-the-art science lab means kids can study anything they can dream up, that the hot soup kids can serve to themselves every day at 11:00 a.m. builds community and the practice of self care, or that team-teaching means that kids get the most customized instruction possible. But it’s probably not clear to new families.

Plainly state WHY you’ve put the focus on certain programs and features, and families will be more likely to appreciate them.

Mistake #4: Speaking in code during your admissions tours.

Decode jargon, even if you think you don’t need to.

The jargon of your school community is dense and it creates a barrier between you and prospective families. Be sure to define each and every term you use that’s part of your community’s lexicon.

If you’re not sure which words and terms might be vexing, ask new families. They’re in the best position to help you see how confusing your language might be.

Mistake #5: Making admissions a one-way conversation.

This is an interactive experience, not a presentation.

Make sure that this is a conversation about “right-fit”, which is a 2-way street rather than a closed, formal, one-way presentation. Get the conversations going during open houses, phone calls, etc. Make sure that you are asking, “How is this process feeling to you?”  and “What more can we tell you?”

Use every step as an opportunity to learn more about how you are perceived by your applicants, and be nimble enough to course-correct if you must.

Mistake #6: Distancing yourselves from applicants until they are accepted.

If you want people to join your community, welcome them from the start.

Anything you can do to communicate to your applicants and their families that you know who they are and that you are interested in their particular story will feel really good to them.

  • Call them by name when they arrive on campus or when they are on tour
  • Personalize parking spaces for events
  • Remember the questions they ask and follow-up on those topics

Even if you are a highly sought-after school with far more applicants than open spaces, being too reserved is a mistake.

Be warm, open, and encouraging during admissions so the real culture and personality of the school shines through. This will help families know for sure if it really is the right place for them.

Mistake #7: Being too perfect and too planned.

Be flexible, because it can be the most authentic thing you do. 

Spontaneous acts often reveal the most about a person or an organization. Create a culture where those communications are welcome. Sure, it’s a bit risky, but the rewards can be tremendous. Spontaneous acts may mean impromptu comments at an open house or a viral video that a student posts about something they are working on.

Be on the lookout for those moments and integrate them into the admissions experience to bring it to life.

Mistake #8: Thinking you don’t have a say. 

There are ways to influence the word-of-mouth aspect of your reputation.

By having talking points and training school ambassadors to use them, you can direct parking lot and cocktail conversations. It may seem counter-intuitive, but a well-crafted set of messages that all faculty, staff, and trustees are asked to use actually leads to more effective, authentic, unrehearsed communication outside of the school community.

Instead of struggling to find the right words to express what she loves about the school, a trustee has the framework for knowing just what to say. This makes her both more confident in her abilities to represent the school and more effective in communicating its unique value.

Mistake #9: Not addressing myths head-on.

If you are thinking it, so are they. Just call it out.

Directly answer the questions that are burning in people’s minds. Can our middle class family fit in? Is it true students are overloaded with homework? How much do I have to donate in addition to tuition?

Answering these questions, or at least opening the door to them, can really put people at ease.

Has your school made any of these mistakes? Have we left any off the list? If you’re a head of school, admissions director, board member, teacher, or parent please share your thoughts.

Please explore our free resources, including our new guide for school websites, to help your school this admissions season.


Jennie Winton is a Founding Partner of Mission Minded, a 25-year marketing veteran sought for her expertise in branding nonprofit organizations, and a one-on-one leadership coach.

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