By: Damian Salonick

During my time as an undergrad (I promise it wasn’t that long ago!), my extracurriculars were all focused on student recruitment. From giving campus tours and leading new student orientation sessions, to eventually interning with the admissions office — I was constantly talking to prospective students and their families about my love for my alma mater and all the reasons that brought me there.

At the end of each campus tour, we would close with what we called our “Warm and Fuzzies,” which included why we decided to attend Penn State and what we loved about it. While I would sometimes mention things like our large alumni network, high-ranking programs, or undeniable school spirit (We Are!), I found myself always boiling my college decision down to one thing: the sense of community I found.

I specifically remember a saying I used to describe the importance of community: while it’s important to find a school with good academics or the right involvement opportunities, at the end of the day, this place is going to be your home for 4 years. Whether it’s Penn State or somewhere else, make sure you find a school that you love and that feels like home.

Students on college campus

This notion of the “feeling” is even more evident with prospective students today. In fact, according to the 2017 Social Admissions Report, 92% of students expect tailored communications from college admissions offices. With such a wide range of higher-ed institutions offering great programs, fancy campus amenities, virtual options to accommodate any student’s lifestyle, or any combination of the three — the deciding factor becomes centered on how the experience of interacting with a potential university makes the student feel.

Could I picture myself at a campus event or walking the quad between classes? Do the emails I’m receiving from this school feel personalized to my interests, beyond just knowing my name and that I’ve applied? Is the admissions staff quick to respond to my questions? Do the students on campus seem friendly?

The answers to these questions give prospective students a sense of community and connection with your institution, so the question for staff becomes — how do you ensure that students are getting this feeling? Let’s dive into some best practices that can help you give prospective students the warm and fuzzies.

1. Take advantage of the campus visit and optimize the student experience for maximum delight.

While many aspects of the student recruitment experience can impact a student’s perception of your school, the physical time spent on campus is often the most impactful. Personally, my first campus tour experience completely changed my perception of Penn State and helped me identify where I fit within the campus culture… so much so, that I ended up sharing that same experience as a tour guide myself!

It’s important to think of the campus visit experience holistically to ensure that students and their families get the best picture of your school and what it has to offer. From the moment they sign up for the tour, to the moment they get back to the parking lot at the end of the day to head home, the experience should be seamless. Using robust tools like TargetX Events can bring your campus tours to the next level by providing students with pertinent information about the campus visit upfront; from intuitive mapping features for directions to automated emails sharing confirmation and parking information, to a modern event check-in process with QR code scanning. Don’t sweat the small stuff — showing a sense of organization and efficiency to visitors can be extremely impactful, especially for parents and families.

Once prospects are checked in on campus, give them as many opportunities as possible to have meaningful interactions. By positioning tour guides and admissions staff as “floaters” to make conversation, welcome the visitors, and answer questions, you show the accessibility of your team and provide a personal touch to the visitor’s experience. It’s also a best practice to host an event or bring the tour groups through a busy and active part of campus. When prospects are given the chance to see current students hanging out with friends in the student life building, it helps them imagine themselves doing the same.

A vivid memory I have from my first tour at Penn State occurred as we were heading toward the library because classes were changing at the exact same time. Seeing all of the students moving between classes with their friends is still ingrained in my memory because I remember thinking, “Wow, this could be me!” No matter what size your campus is, where it’s located, or the campus culture you offer, think about what makes your institution special and be sure to show it off as much as possible during your visits. This is your special community and you want prospective students to feel like they belong, too.

2. Make students feel like they’re on campus, even if they’re not.

In an ideal world, a student could visit campus multiple times before making a final decision, but the reality of college recruiting is that students spend most of their evaluation period far away from campus. This is especially true for online institutions, where students have to solely rely on virtual interactions to experience a sense of community and make a decision. Looking back to my undergrad career, I remember the months following the first visit to my alma mater and the impact that joining the accepted students Facebook group had on my ability to feel connected. While this experience was a positive one for me at the time, I know that it wasn’t ideal from the admissions office’s perspective since they had no control over the page. And by the time I began my first semester, the group was full of spam and inappropriate content.

While the concept of building a virtual community has been a significant challenge for college campuses historically, today’s technology has made this easy. So the question now becomes, how do we make students feel like they’re visiting campus even if they can’t?

Student texting on smartphone

The TargetX Schools App student community platform is transforming the way students connect with your institution. With Schools App, prospects, admits, and current students are able to connect with their peers and university staff through the medium they know best — social media. As an invite-only, university-branded app designed specifically for higher education, you can leverage the benefits of social media while maintaining the security and staff management capabilities of a closed platform.

Give students the campus tour experience in the palm of their hand by sharing photos of campus, information about upcoming events, student news, and fun facts about your institution on Schools App. The more content you share via push notifications, posts, or private messages, the more organic interactions become between students within the app. This engagement tool is especially helpful in preventing summer melt — in fact, the 2017 Social Admissions Report found that if a student has a connection with at least 9 students after being admitted, they are 93% more likely to enroll. The more connections a student makes, the more they feel like a part of your campus community, even if they’re not physically on campus.

3. Get your Student Ambassadors involved in the digital world.

Back when I was a tour guide, our route included stopping in a classroom to talk about academics on campus. The main point of this was to discuss the structure of classes as well as the role of teaching assistants. I’ve always found the presence of TA’s in my classes to be helpful — if I had a question or needed a mentor, the TA was much more accessible compared to the professor. With a TA, it felt like I was talking to a peer since they were in my same shoes only a year or two prior. With Schools App, you can apply this very concept to your virtual student community.

By adding student leaders such as tour guides, orientation leaders, ambassadors, or interns to Schools App, you provide prospective students with an approachable role model to connect with and ask questions they may not feel comfortable discussing with a staff member. And what better way to help picture yourself at a school then talking to someone who’s living that experience right now!

All in all, looking back at my time as a Penn State undergrad, I’m so grateful that I was able to find a school that was right for me and led me to a meaningful career I love. If it wasn’t for my first campus tour and the positive experience I had walking around campus, I don’t know that I would be where I am today. My hope is that by sharing this experience, higher ed institutions will master the art of sharing their unique story and giving students the warm and fuzzies. That way, students find themselves “at home” at a college that fits their needs best, whether they visited that campus ten times or simply interacted through a virtual community (like Schools App!) on their smartphone.