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The College Decision-Making Process: Tips From the Front Line

This fall, our son will be a freshman at a small engineering school at a university in upstate New York. When my husband and I say our good-byes, we’ll also breathe one huge sigh of relief. It’s not because we’re happy to see him leave (not really, anyway), or because his partial academic scholarship makes his private school tuition just about affordable, or even because he’ll get to continue to pursue his passion for soccer at the varsity level. It’s because the college selection process – which has pretty much consumed our lives for the last two years – will finally be over (at least until our daughter becomes a junior in 2011).
Now, working at an advertising agency that specializes in higher-education marketing and influences how people make such decisions, you’d think I’d be more than ready to undertake this process. Well, you’d be wrong. Even my professional involvement – and my own college search some 20-plus years ago – couldn’t prepare me for just how involved the quest to find the “right” college has become.

Sure, I know this decision-making process on an intellectual level and the “hot buttons” we use to help convince a prospective student to consider one of our higher ed clients, but when you’re the student’s (shell-shocked) parent, you get a whole new perspective on the process. Here’s what I’ve learned.

For the parents:

  • Start early.  Fall of junior year – even if your student’s high school (like my son’s) really doesn’t start pushing the college search until senior year.
  • Cast your net far and wide, especially if your child (like mine) initially has no clue where they want to go. There are so many online and printed resources available that you have access to far more information than you’ll ever need.
  • Visit, visit, visit – and take notes (eventually, all schools begin to morph into one long, blurry campus tour). Go back to your top choices more than once and take advantage of overnight opportunities.
  • Follow their lead. Eventually, if you drag your child to enough colleges, they’ll figure out exactly what they want – and what they don’t. (At least, that’s what we’re hoping anyway.)

For college marketers:

  • Remember, bigger isn’t always better. I couldn’t believe how many huge (expensive) view books we received from schools that were not even on our radar. A little something, i.e., an oversized postcard or self-mailer, got the same attention – we were in the market, after all – and an RSVP from us if we were interested.
  • Keep your web site simple. Within a few clicks, I want to know: (a) what programs are available, (b) the size of your student body, and (c) what your tuition and fees are.  The longer I have to look for the basics, the less likely I am to keep looking.
  • It never hurts to up the ante. We did look into, and eventually apply to, a few schools that kept adding perks during the application process: i.e., no fee, no essay, immediate decision, etc.
  • Take no for an answer. Being a marketer, I felt an obligation to “opt out” of email campaigns from schools I knew my son wasn’t interested in – only to get yet another email the following week. Not only is this illegal, it’s also not smart or cost-effective and does nothing but annoy the uninterested.

Interested in seeing how my in-the-trenches insights – and agency research – translate into compelling campaigns for our higher ed clients? Check it out!


Vice President, Communications Strategist


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