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Brendan O’Connell

Special Correspondent

It’s a topic that comes up in nearly every casual conversation for nearly every high school senior – the college application process and the impending decision that will affect his or her next four years and beyond.

Applying to, deciding on, and ultimately attending a college, however, is a process that encompasses much more than simply signing a dotted line or making a deposit.

“I started looking at schools around late fall to early spring of junior year,” said HHS senior Elizabeth Regan. “I would go on tours and stuff, so around then I would start getting things in the mail [from colleges] and emails about upcoming dates of certain events.”

When asked about when she started her own college search, fellow HHS senior Katie Salley answered that it was during the beginning to middle of her junior year that her process really began. She added, “I got materials [from colleges] after writing my email on the PLAN and PSAT tests sophomore year.”

And then came the onslaught.

Materials came rolling in. The University of Wisconsin’s 34-page viewbook, featuring its beautiful Bascom Hall on the cover and college basketball star Frank Kaminsky in the Athletics section, shown below; Northwestern University’s 58-page brochure, with its mesmerizing cover and dozens of eye-popping images of campus life, also shown below; Amherst College’s 72-page viewbook, filled with lovely pictures of its grassy, rustic campus and active student body, and packed with information on academic offerings and clubs. Forty-five emails from schools such as Neumann University, Plymouth State University, and King’s College. A full-on attack on prospective students.

Visual advertisements from the University of Wisconsin and Northwestern University.

Visual advertisements from the University of Wisconsin and Northwestern University.

“Once a student is on a school’s communications list, the student will receive an abundance of emails from the college,” said Katherine Miele, Senior Regional Admissions Representative for the University of South Carolina, in an email interview. Miele’s job is to work with prospective students, guidance counselors, and high schools across New England in regards to marketing and recruiting.

Miele and other college officials realize that there are plenty of choices for prospective students, and therefore act early and often to get students interested.

“Colleges know there is a plethora of opportunity for students to pursue their goals in higher education. The individual schools try to cast a wide net of information to help students learn about their school in hopes it will be the best match for the student,” said Miele.

Steve Condon, a marketing consultant who works with about 15 New England- and New York-area colleges and universities, describes his work in the following way on his LinkedIn page: “I am currently building the Higher Education Division at [The Allied Group]. This division works with colleges on their printing and marketing programs. Goals of the division include working with Admissions Departments in their effort to attract, acquire and retain their target students. I consult with the colleges to determine their “ideal” student, how to market to them, and execute the agreed marketing plan.”

In a phone interview, Condon said that colleges are looking for, in a word, “enrollment” from students. “They want [students] to inquire, go on their website, fill out a card, show interest… then apply, get accepted, and enroll,” Condon added.

As a consultant, Condon works with schools to find their target audience, which is often based off of other students who have been successful at the school in the past. Once the school finds this demographic, they begin sending material to prospective students whose contact information they have access to, through inquiry cards and tests such as the SATs, and whose grades and other individual information match the school’s qualifications and values.

When asked what materials she received from schools when first starting her college search/application process, Regan said, “I got a bunch of emails and stuff in the mail.”

Salley offered a similar response, saying she got “a lot of pamphlets, booklets, and letters with information about the schools.”

Pile of materials sent by colleges to students.

Pile of flashy pamphlets and packets sent by colleges to students.

“Colleges send all sorts of material to students throughout their college search process,” said Miele. “Colleges will mail prospective students letters from the Director of Admissions, introductory letters about the University, general information packets about the college… To spruce up the information packets, some schools are able to send bumper stickers with school logos, holiday cards and pens, keychains or lanyards.”

Moreover, the materials come in countless formats and sometimes include an overwhelming amount of information and incentive. For example, Hamilton College provides a 36-page “PROMISE” brochure, in which they invite students to “study what you love”, “be who you are”, and “find your future.” As part of Hamilton’s Promise, the school explains that “at Hamilton, you can study what interests you, be accepted for who you are and what you believe, and prepare to be the person you were meant to become.” The packet also includes a spread packed with facts and statistics, shown below.

Information spread found in a packet sent by Hamilton College.

Information spread found in a packet sent by Hamilton College.

Whether it be a bulky brochure in the mailbox or a repetitive email in the inbox, students receive more and more material each day.

But do these materials and these formats help achieve the colleges’ goals and provide beneficial information and other helpful uses to the students?

Regan said that she got materials “from schools [she] hadn’t looked into – from random colleges – that weren’t even informative… It was mostly publicity, especially at the beginning.”

Regan’s mother, Diane, added that they received “plenty of materials from schools that we didn’t apply to,” and said that the materials that they found helpful often came from schools that “were already on our radar.”

In fact, Diane said that the vast majority of materials have had “no influence” on the college search that she and husband Wayne have helped Elizabeth with. “It’s not like we got a brochure and we said, ‘Oh, we definitely want to go here.’”

Although Elizabeth acknowledged that she “felt like the school wanted [her]” when she received materials from a college or university, she added that she “definitely got useless things in the mail,” describing some materials she received early in the process as “pictures of people around [the school’s] campus” or other information “not [related to] the school’s academics.”

Some schools’ materials even gave the Regans such a “bad vibe” that they lost interest in the school altogether.

Salley found herself in a similar situation, noting that “[the material] did start to pile up and it kind of became annoying because there were some schools that I knew for sure I wasn’t going to apply to or that I just wasn’t interested in… However, when I got something from a school I really liked, it was a great feeling and I got excited about that.”

Speaking about the more general information and publicity she received, Elizabeth and Diane agreed that they could have found the information on the school website, and also would have had the same ability to access information and material through email and other technology.

Nevertheless, Elizabeth and Salley did find the material helpful as a whole.

Over time, the materials Elizabeth received became “more in-depth”, “more focused”, and “more important,” especially from colleges she applied to and was accepted to. There was more information on “special days and events, deadlines, and contact information.”

As for Salley, she received information about “the majors/minors/programs [the college] has, statistics like retention rates, how to apply, stuff about where to live, and anything unique to the school.”

“I liked knowing what made each school unique,” Salley said, “because after going on a bunch of tours, they kind of blended together. So I guess it helped me differentiate between schools.”

Though many seniors at HHS are done applying to schools at this point in the academic year, there remains a group of these students who are still waiting to hear back from schools and are in the process of making their decisions.

The long process that began with countless brochures, emails, and letters is nearing its close.

But in the end, are the materials that schools are sending and the other methods in which schools are reaching out to prospective students now effective, or should they be changed?

“Overall,” Miele said of South Carolina, “I believe the content that currently exists in our admissions brochures covers the majority of questions that students ask right away – academic programs, student life information, the admissions process, deadlines, requirements, financial aid and scholarship information.”

“The stuff now is working fine,” Elizabeth concluded. “College is more expensive than ever, people need to go to get jobs… There’s no real good way to [market], though, because you can’t please everyone no matter what you do; but it is necessary, because college is still a business, and every business needs to market themselves.”

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