10 Admissions Marketing Takeaways During College Tours

Josh Friedland outlines the good, the bad and the cheesy in admissions marketing from a week of prospective college tours with his daughter.

By: Josh Friedland
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I recently took my 17-year-old daughter Anya on a weeklong excursion to Massachusetts for a parent–child rite of passage—the college tour. With a week off school for teacher conferences, we fueled up with gas (and lots of coffee) for a whirlwind tour of eight college campuses.

As someone who develops marketing content and strategies for higher education for a living, it was eye-opening to see admissions marketing in the wild and to find out how prospective students experience a college through information sessions and tours.

Below are 10 observations on the state of admissions marketing from our focus group of two.

College is cheesy. 

Nearly every school we visited touted their student-run clubs and opportunities to connect over shared hobbies and interests. But things got a little weird when the tour guides on four out of our first five visits boasted about their cheese appreciation clubs for curd connoisseurs. 

“I felt like they were trying to be quirky with this whole cheese thing,” Anya told me. “But it didn’t seem that funny anymore when almost every school had it.”

Visuals matter. 

Admissions marketers work hard to develop visual messages that communicate a school’s brand and what makes their institution different from others. The best information sessions featured well-designed decks projected on massive, high-resolution screens with professional audio, vibrant photography, and focused messaging. Context matters too. One of the weaker presentations introduced a video as “an ad” with “cool drone shots,” diminishing its value. Displayed using a crappy projector with a muffled internal speaker, this was a lost opportunity to wow prospective students.

Everyone loves a discount. 

Kudos to the admissions officers at Tufts University and Northeastern University for offering to validate parking and save parents some cash (parking in Boston is expensive!). Northeastern also offered a coupon for the student store. As a result, Anya left with a sweatshirt and some good vibes about our visit.

Printed materials are 50/50. 

I love everything about the printed word—the interplay of text and photography, innovative graphic design, and the physical sensation of paper. But Anya seemed less impressed by admissions publications. Although I appreciated Northeastern’s feat of squeezing an admissions viewbook into a Moleskine-sized little black book, she favored the simplicity of Emerson College’s folded brochure with basic details about the curriculum and QR codes to find more information online. I asked Anya if she could see herself diving into all the printed collateral we picked up. “Not really. I’d probably just go online,” she said.

There will be surprises. 

As one of our tours passed a campus cafe, a student stopped our group to deliver a diatribe about the expensive meal plans and her disgust for the food and (lack of) culinary hygiene, declaring, “Seriously, there were cockroaches in the kitchen!” Nevertheless, our student tour guide kept her composure through it all and even laughed it off as an example of a campus-wide commitment to free speech.

Food is a focus.

Roaches notwithstanding, food and dining options were a major focus on each tour. UMass Amherst touted the university’s #1 ranking for best campus food (six years in a row by The Princeton Review). We sampled lunch and were impressed by stations that included fresh-griddled arepas and steaming bowls of Vietnamese pho. At Brandeis University, we shared a path with a futuristic self-driving food delivery robot. A honey halvah latte in Northeastern’s on-campus branch of the Boston-based Tatte Bakery and Cafe chain was a nice afternoon pick-me-up after a long day of campus touring. 

Helpful hints are golden.

Anya said she appreciated the information sessions that laid out all the steps in the application process. She also liked the advice given by a Tufts admissions officer on how to answer the school’s short-answer Common App question—write about what interests you at Tufts, how you found out about it, and why it interests you. 

“Honestly, this was really good advice that I could use for any college I end up applying to,” said Anya. 

Time your visit accordingly. 

Colleges typically offer a range of morning and afternoon sessions for visitors, but arriving on a college campus at 9:00 a.m. for a morning tour on a cold fall day can be grim. Colleges tended to be ghost towns early in the morning, and the few students we did see looked to be fighting a lack of sleep as they trudged to class all bundled up. Things definitely livened up by noon. 

Tours can be messaging.

Tours are great opportunities for families to connect with current students and get a personal feel for a campus and its environs. They are also an opportunity to continue telling a story about the university’s brand. Northeastern’s tour was particularly effective at driving home key messages about the academic mission. Our tour included a series of stops where our student guide spoke to each of the four pillars of experiential learning touched on in the information session: internships, study abroad, research, and public service.

Lose the corny jokes. 

Without fail, at the close of virtually every information session or tour, we heard a variation on the same bit: “If you liked the session, my name is Julia, and if you didn’t my name is Kendall.” It was cute the first time but felt stale by our last session.

“Overall, I was curious to see what student life was like at each school,” said Anya of our college pilgrimage. “I felt like it was helpful to see the different environments, and I was happy to go on this trip and be able to compare and contrast each campus.”

As we headed home with a pile of brochures and alumni magazines in the back seat along with empty coffee cups and other detritus of our weeklong journey, I turned up the “Smartless” podcast for an interview with Steve Carell. Anya got down to the real business of college research—searching for “day in the life” TikToks posted by students at each of the campuses we visited to get a more informal, occasionally glamorous, but subjective take on dorm life and the college experience.

Josh Friedland

Josh Friedland

Contributor

Josh Friedland is a writer, editor and author with more than 20 years of experience in communications, content strategy, and content marketing for nonprofits and higher education institutions. He previously served as assistant director of communications at Fordham Law School and managing editor at Emeritus, a global platform for executive education programs and courses.


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