The First “Digital Only” Admissions Cycle (Part 4)

Elizabeth Farrell |

Former Tambellini Author

Estimated Reading Time: 3 minutes

Part 4: Prioritizing and Personalizing for Interested and Accepted Students

For many high school seniors, there’s one rite of passage that is likely to proceed as scheduled: the bulk of college admissions decisions will come in the spring. And spring is­­ coming soon.

Part 1 of this blog series focused on the challenges admissions teams face in the first “digital only” admissions cycle. Students haven’t had traditional interactions with admissions offices (Part 2), making it harder for enrollment teams to identify prospective applicants early on at the top of the recruitment funnel. It’s been exceptionally difficult for many institutions to generate interest from low-income and international students (Part 3).

Based on application trends thus far, the numbers are all over the place and everyone is flying blind because this year is such an anomaly. The only outliers are a small handful of notoriously elite national institutions. Those colleges and universities, which few students attend but everyone obsesses over, are drowning in an unprecedented flood of applications. Of course, this news warranted media coverage from the New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal, among others, because it always does.

Regardless of their application numbers, all admissions teams are currently engaged in a delicate dance with two partners—while they are busily evaluating applications and deciding which students to accept and reject, they are equally focused on keeping their entire applicant pool interested and engaged.

In a famously unpredictable year, the uncertainty is driving enrollment leaders to hedge their bets by doing more of everything to reach students, including high-tech personalized videos and old-school outreach through phone calls and packages in the mail.

The Data Has Arrived to Help

Unlike earlier in the recruitment cycle, admissions teams now have rich predictive data to inform their marketing efforts. Enrollment CRM systems are configured to track every touchpoint with each prospective applicant, and this collection of data give admissions teams a pretty good idea of how communications should be prioritized and personalized to suit applicants’ preferences at this phase of the process.

Customized “customer journeys” are a long-standing pillar of enrollment marketing strategy, but this year, admissions offices are taking it to the next level. The stakes are higher than ever before, so they’re pulling out all the stops in their efforts to engage prospective students with compassion and empathy.

“It’s important that we use technology in a very humanizing way,” according to Stefan Hyman, AVP of Enrollment Management at San Diego State University. “We are social creatures, and we need that right now.”

That’s why Hyman partnered with BrandIQ, a branding and marketing firm based in Pittsburgh, to develop customized congratulatory videos for accepted students. The first batch went out to 10,000 accepted applicants in late December, and 14,000 more who made the cut will receive their own videos in March.

The three-minute videos are bespoke from beginning to end, starting with footage from a San Diego State basketball game featuring welcome messages flashing the student’s first name on arena jumbotrons, and ending with a graduation ceremony including a customized college diploma.

Taking the Old-School Approach

With an ever-evolving array of newfangled technology tools to try out, it may seem a bit counterintuitive, but some admissions teams are gaining traction by using traditional analog approaches to engage students.

At Western Connecticut State University, AVP for Enrollment Jay E. Murray is leveraging CRM data analytics to identify interested applicants he should prioritize for one-on-one phone calls.  

“We haven’t taken that approach across the board, but we’re letting the numbers guide us to a specific subset of our applicants to target,” says Murray. “Call it old faithful, but we’ve seen a positive response to picking up the phone and calling people. I think it’s because it feels more personal than virtual.”

Creating a memorable personalized experience is vitally important, according to Lukman Arsalan, Dean of Admission at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Throughout the applicant’s journey to acceptance, Arsalan makes a distinction between providing services and delivering hospitality.

“Providing services is the technical delivery, but hospitality is how it makes that person feel,” says Arsalan. “We strive for a one-size-fits-one approach in communicating with students, so no matter where they end up matriculating, they are left with a positive feeling about their interactions with our college.”

Though it’s been a while since accepted students expected their college admissions decisions to arrive by snail mail, Franklin and Marshall went retro for early-decision acceptance notifications by sending sleek customized packages to each accepted student.

Colorful boxes designed to reflect the look and feel of the college’s website were loaded with branded goodies, including a scarf, stickers, and an embossed acceptance letter with a personalized, handwritten congratulatory note from Arsalan, complete with details about particularly memorable aspects of each student’s application.

“We really wanted it to have a wow factor after such a hard year,” says Arsalan. “Regardless of where they decide to enroll, we want to leave them with a positive memory of our college and an opportunity to be proud of all they’ve accomplished under tough circumstances.”

Share Article:

Elizabeth Farrell |
Former Tambellini Author
Elizabeth Farrell is an award-winning communications leader with a proven track record of success in delivering high-impact results for national and global colleges and universities, Fortune 100 companies, dynamic start-ups, and influential nonprofits. She has collaborated closely with higher education institutions over the past two decades in numerous roles including media relations, branding, marketing, business development, and as a journalist for outlets including The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Wall Street Journal, and PBS Newshour.

Other Posts From this Author:

Realize Your Institution's Goals Faster with The Tambellini Group®

Higher Education Institutions


Solution Providers & Investors

market insights

Become a Client of the Tambellini Group.

Get exclusive access to higher education analysts, rich research, premium publications, and advisory services.

Be a Top of Mind Podcast featured guest

Request a Briefing with a Tambellini Analyst

Suggest your research topics

Subscribe to Tambellini's Top of Mind.

Weekly email featuring higher education blog articles, infographics or podcasts.