An Admissions Director’s Reflection on Recruiting and Retaining Students in a Pandemic
Seriously. What happened? I am hesitant but starting to unbuckle my seatbelt to get off the biggest (and longest) roller coaster ride of my life. I’ve been “white-knuckling it” for six months, looking for a non-existent oxygen mask, tap dancing like a professional dancer, and selling a school to hundreds of parents, all from my home office on Zoom.
To say it’s been a lot, is an understatement.
Application numbers were up, my Zoom tours were packed every week, and I felt optimistic about my ability to sell a school in a pandemic. After nine years of leading the school’s enrollment efforts, I deeply know my product and can sell it with joy and confidence.
All across the country, families on the fence about private schools came out of the woodwork, flocking to private schools en masse. It was exciting to share my school with new families and dream about the possibilities of increased enrollment. And what about all of our current students who have been navigating on-campus classes, hybrid programs, masks, COVID-testing, and the emotional and academic uncertainty this year? What impact this experience will have in the short and long term remains to be seen. Will my work yield more students? Will current families stay the course? While awaiting the answers to these questions, I’m pausing to take a breath, step away from the carnival rides, and celebrate my accomplishments.
- Yes, like everyone else in the world, I pivoted too. Selling a school to parents with young children from my basement office was a huge lift. The pressure to convey to parents that our school is the right one for their young child without them setting foot inside a classroom, talking to our amazing teachers, having the chance to envision their child at our school, or seeing the school in action was brutal and exhausting. I offered group virtual tours every Friday for six months non-stop, and somehow made the tour feel “fresh and exciting” each time.
- I rallied, got creative, and had laser focus. For years, I dreamt of offering a virtual tour for more parents to access our program with the goal of increasing awareness and applications. My dreams became a reality with Zoom, a gorgeous Google slide deck, and meticulous, controlled messaging. As a result, I fine tuned our brand message to articulate what made our program distinctive.
- I moved through the uncertainty with grace and humor. This year, the information about COVID and our program changed every few weeks. And I had to stay on top of every detail in order to confidently communicate to parents. Some grades learned on-campus, others off-campus. Currently, we are in a hybrid model after multiple schedule changes, no After Care, spring sports are now starting back up, we are back to mixing cohorts, using Zoom and Google platforms, the list goes on and on. And in the midst of these ever-changing details, the questions from prospective parents kept coming! Without definitive answers (or that crystal ball that I keep searching for), I kept my cool, provided insights into our school’s intentional approach to COVID-19 (and all aspects of our school community), and communicated what the future might look like given my school’s values and the ever-changing world. WOAH.
- I brought more families into the private school world and expanded the market. Inundated with new prospects, our applications increased by 30%. Families who had never considered private schools, and some who might have chosen private schools in the upper grades, were now showing up in my virtual tours, eager to know more about what makes our program special. While the volume nearly crushed me, it was exciting to see more parents and students considering private schools. Whether they attend my school or not, I made an impact in not only building awareness, but expanding the local market.
- I built confidence in my skill sets. This has been one of the most exciting elements of my reflection. Seriously. After this year, what can’t I do?
I know our jobs are 365 days a year and we are starting to shift our thinking to spring and summer admits. With that in mind, I encourage you to take some time to reflect. For me, it has been cathartic to think about what I overcame this year and how I’ve grown both professionally and personally. I know what you’re saying, “Who has time for reflection, Liz!?” I get it. Here are 5 tips to get you started:
- Put it on your calendar. Seriously. I will do anything my calendar tells me to do–she’s in charge. Show up on a Zoom call, pop into another Zoom meeting, call a friend, go for a run, walk the dog, or give a tour–if I’ve booked it, I will do it. Set aside 30 minutes a week for one month on your calendar. Scheduling only 30 minutes will ensure that it feels doable and you’ll be surprised what you can discover with just a few focused minutes of reflection. Don’t double book yourself and don’t overthink it: trust that you put it on your calendar for a reason and stick to it.
- Make buckets. List all of the categories of your job—what are the main focus areas? This year, your roles may have expanded or shifted completely. Use those “buckets” to guide your thinking process and identify the areas of strength, growth, and challenge that you experienced this year. Think about:
- Retention: Messaging, Re-Enrollment, Understanding the Culture
- Marketing and Brand Management
- Internal and External Communication
- Tours, Open House and Visit Opportunities
- Parent and Student Interviews
- Student Assessments
- Data Analysis
- Academic Program (pre-, during, and post-COVID)
- Financial Aid
- External Relationship Management: Feeder Schools, Consultants, Realtors, Psychologists
- Admitted Families/Yield Efforts
- Database Management
- Faculty and Staff Relationships
- Next Year’s Budget Planning
- Admissions Decisions and Notification
- Board and Head of School Management
- All things COVID: Program Changes, Infrastructure, Technology, Facility, Health and Safety, Budget Needs, Faculty/Staff and Current Parent Concerns, School’s COVID Approach, Testing and Vaccinations, etc.
- Start a Document. With your buckets outlined, make a bulleted list of everything you’ve done this year. What did you add, change, rethink? What was challenging or frustrating? What remained consistent? What makes you especially proud? What gave you energy to keep showing up to work every day? What surprised you? Let the ideas flow freely. Once you start, you won’t be able to stop!
- Ask for feedback. For this exercise, we are looking for kudos! You might have been receiving positive insights along the way this year (dig them up and add them to your doc). Ask a few prospective parents, faculty, administrators, or current parents to share feedback with you about what you’ve done well. In a year that has felt especially isolating, put out a few feelers to folks who know your work well, who partnered with you this year, and who can share some positive insights.
- Share it. Yes, you read that right. This document is a great reflection tool, but it’s also a great mechanism to share with your Head of School, other administrators, and colleagues. I am sure that the faculty will reflect and share insights after the school year wraps up. Share yours too. Our work is vital to sustaining our schools, and you’ve worked tirelessly to meet your goals. It’s important to validate your work, and pull back the curtain on what your roller coaster ride has looked like too!
Finally, take some time for yourself. We have a long spring and summer ahead of us friends. Now is the time to pause, reflect, and celebrate your strength, commitment, and passion for your work. And keep taking your vitamins—the roller coaster is still going and we’re in for a wild ride!
About Liz: Whether she is working in PR, marketing, communications, development, or driving enrollment, Liz combines her passion for people and an award-winning marketing background to ensure success. You may find Liz observing in a classroom, giving a tour, crunching numbers, or strategizing around brand goals. Liz earned her BA in English and Communication Arts at North Park University in Chicago, IL, and her Masters of Public Administration with a specialty in Marketing Research at the University of Illinois at Chicago.