Last month I had the opportunity to present at the SSATB Annual Conference in Las Vegas. For those who don’t know, SSATB is a member organization servicing more than 900 independent schools by offering professional development services for admission professionals. The annual conference is focused exclusively on admission networking, information, and training.
I presented collaboratively with Jill Hutchins (Dean of Enrollment at Dublin School) and Brad Bates (Head of School at Dublin School). Our topic was about finding your school’s personality, owning it, and communicating it authentically through your admissions materials. My portion of the presentation focused on this last point: how to differentiate your school through your admissions materials.
Here at Square Spot, when we begin a new admissions project with a school, part of the discovery process is to sit down and interview students about who they are, what they like most about their school, and what they like the least about their school. During this interview, the most important question we ask is, “Why did you choose this school over any of the others you considered?” Nearly 100% of the time, this last question has the same answer: “Because when I stepped foot out of the car it felt like home.”
Let’s think about that question. Why did you choose this school? “WHY?”… It’s the most important question you can ask. Simon Sinek first gave his brilliant TED Talk on the Power of Why back in 2009. Ever since, we have made it standard practice to apply his golden circle to our work. We have made it a priority to always first address the “why” and it has made a significant difference in the impact of the projects we produce.
We have found that when it comes to admissions materials, rather than identify that special “why” that makes a student prefer one school over another, schools are relying on their “what’s”. The unfortunate truth is that nearly every school offers the same core set of “what’s”. Let’s look at some examples:
How many schools make this claim in their admissions materials?
“We have caring faculty.”
“We have rigorous academic offerings.”
“We offer a variety of extra-curricular opportunities.”
What we’ve found is that when we sit and talk with administrators about what makes their school special…these are the responses we get. But when we talk to students, the answers reflect the “why”. Is the solution to have students writing the admissions materials? Not necessarily…but they are an excellent resource for ideas from a different perspective.
When creating a viewbook, how many schools consider what it feels like to be a visitor to their school? How many schools consider what it feels like to be a student at their school? Approaching from these perspectives can be a valuable tool. Otherwise, what happens is that schools begin to sound the same…and that’s because the “what’s” are the same. These are the things that prospective parents expect: small class sizes, caring faculty, amazing extra-curricular opportunities, 100% college acceptance record. These factors should be considered a baseline for a school and not a differentiator.
When starting a viewbook process last year, we decided to collect the viewbooks of a handful of competitor schools within the same general region. We were astounded by the similarities. Schools within miles from one another were using the same tagline on the cover of their books! Now imagine being a family on their boarding school visitation journey and collecting materials from these schools. Now imagine returning home and spreading these materials out on the kitchen table. Who is going to stand out? Is it one of the two schools with the same tagline? No. It’s the school with materials that authentically remind the family of the campus visit they just experienced.
So what’s the solution?
Start to approach from your “why”. Start to identify what makes you different from school “B” down the road and school “C” across the lake.
Sometimes this just takes a little shift in perspective. Ask your students. Go visit your colleagues at school B and school C. Invite them to visit you. Helping each other is only to going to help all of you to attract the right student who is the right fit for your school. Part of the process of discovering and embracing your school’s personality is to begin taking the steps of seeing your school through other people’s eyes.