Many admissions folks in higher ed would say that the admissions process begins at a college fair or with the prospect filling out the form to request a visit. Um, sorry but no. That’s at least a distant second to where the process actually begins. They already know about you by the time they attend a college fair or fill out a form.
Undergraduate prospects are very Internet savvy. They operate 2-3 devices[1. Linda Stone, Continuous Partial Attention] at a time and can text faster on a small virtual keyboard than I can type on a real one. Teens are comfortable with the Internet – they grew up with it and the conversations and resources they read and listen to are the first gateway to learning about new trends and things of interest to them. You can bet they use their custom built social network to seek out and evaluate potential colleges to attend[2. Nancy Marriot, Social Networking Sites and the Adolescent] – long before we connect with them.
So what are these gateways?
Teens are mostly using social media[3. U.S. News, High School Students Increasingly Use Social Media for College Search]. While we are all social animals, teens today are far less inhibited and more likely to converse and exchange ideas and thoughts via social media channels[5. PewResearchCenter, Teens, kindness and cruelty on social network sites]. It’s likely teens use social media to identify a college to attend AND to evaluate the quality of a college. For example, teens use Instagram to get the “unfiltered look at colleges”[6. Time, How High School Students Use Instagram to Pick A College]. And they most likely learn about resources that provide objective opinions about colleges – resources where they can evaluate real numbers like tuition, financial aid, and scholarships. Universities no longer have as large an influence in their early decision making process.
[3. Uversity, Digital, Social, Mobile: The 2014 Social Admissions Report]
Prospective undergraduates rely on their social networks[7. National Association for College Admission Counseling, Reaching the Wired Generation: How Social Media is Changing College Admission] getting an idea of which colleges might be suitable. The social networks teens have established provide a ready made college information resource library. Various names of institutions friends might attend, their parents and siblings have attended, or that did appear at a college fair. Anything from fact to conjecture is fair game.
Admissions staff should be aware of where the admissions process actually starts and consciously, gently, and intentionally seed the event horizon – social media – where prospects are introduced to potential colleges via those they trust and look up to. A teen’s social network is where the admissions funnel begins regardless of what tool is used. To get their attention we need to become a part of their conversation.