Message Mavens
Wednesday, December 28, 2011 at 3:58PM
Andrea Jarrell

Admissions officers offer a first look at the Class of 2010

By Andrea Jarrell

Based on insight from admissions deans, this article offers a preview of tomorrow's students, alumni, and donors, based on applicants' essays, e-mails, and interviews. Some of their insights bear out Millennial trends--a generation of kids who like and admire their parents and see them as very much a part of their undergraduate lives, as well as a service-minded streak. But another picture emerges of this up-and-coming generation. It is a picture of a "message savvy" generation that would make branding gurus proud. This article gives an overview of students today and explores the traits that make the current crop of prospective students a message-savvy group who market themselves and their ideas.

File-reading season, that slice of the year from mid-October to the end of March, when college admissions officers wade through prospective student applications to select who will matriculate the following fall, has just ended. I asked admissions deans, many of whom are fishing for keepers in even larger pools of applicants than last year, to offer a preview of tomorrow's students, alumni, and donors.

Some of their insights about the Class of 2010 bear out the Millennial trends Neil Howe and William Strauss identify in their book Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation. These are kids who like and admire their parents and see them as very much a part of their undergraduate lives; they are also driven to make a positive difference in the world. But in conversations with deans, my own clients among them, another picture of these young people emerges.

Admissions officers note the sophistication with which students absorb and play back institution marketing messages and the distance they keep from college marketers by divulging personal information only when they want to. Perhaps most intriguing of all, they portray a generation of students skilled at packaging themselves, their ideas, and their creative work through Web sites like,, and Consciously or unconsciously, sometimes expertly and sometimes naively, these young people are highly attuned to what marketers call the message-theirs and the institution's.

Perfect fit

It's called the "fit" question-the application essay question that asks students to explain why they are applying. Over the past few years, admissions deans have noted a marked increase in students who replay obvious institution marketing themes in their replies. "Several years ago a student applying to Dickinson may have said, 'I see myself fitting in at Dickinson because I have always been interested in traveling abroad and have been fascinated with foreign cultures,'" says Robert J. Massa, Dickinson College's vice president for enrollment and college relations. Today, more incorporate the college's tagline to say the same thing: "Dickinson is the right place for me because I want to 'engage the world.'"

Although some of this might be the result of parent and college counselor coaching, it's not surprising that a group of aspiring college students born in 1988, never having known a world without the Nike swoosh and exposed to an estimated 3,000 marketing messages daily, would find it second nature to extract and adapt campus branding messages for their own use. Indeed, in an age when nine-year-olds create Web sites and middle schoolers regularly blog, members of the Class of 2010 are as facile at absorbing marketing messages as they are at producing their own.

On the whole, institution messaging has improved over the past few years. Scott Friedhoff, Allegheny College's vice president for enrollment, attributes the campus's 55 percent increase in applications during the past three years to doing a better job of explaining what makes Allegheny special and to greater understanding among students (and their parents) that finding the perfect institution is not as simple as ordering from a U.S. News & World Report menu.

"They're not walking in with the U.S. News rankings anymore and asking, 'Why aren't you number three?' Selecting a college requires some work," he says, "and I think families have finally begun to recognize that it should not be an easy process."

Dickinson's Massa agrees. "Students applying to highly selective colleges are finally getting the message that personalizing the admissions process works," he says. "When a college admissions officer 'knows' an applicant personally, all other things being equal, that applicant has an edge. We are seeing an increase in e-mail contact from applicants to admissions officers, as well as an increase in campus visits."

The result is a pool of applicants more in tune with the unique cultures and benefits of the institutions to which they apply and more intentional in their institution choices.

The unofficial message

In replaying college marketing themes, students might seem to be taking the easy way out, but it's possible that by the time they write their application essays, they know an institution so well that these themes are as much theirs as the campus's. Most likely, much of the research the members of the Class of 2010 did to discover their right-fit campuses happened under the radar, before they ever officially contacted institutions.

In the old days the only way prospective students could get information about campuses was by putting themselves on a mailing list. "Then you would tell them what you wanted them to know," says Barbara Elliott, director of enrollment management at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. "Now they find you and many other people who have something to say about you before they'll disclose who they are," she says. Dan Lundquist, vice president at Union College, calls this "operating at an e-distance" and says today's prospective students are especially sophisticated about how they get information.

Given that these high school students might receive 15 or 20 e-mails a day from wooing institutions as well as a slew of brochures in the mail, one can see why they would hold marketers at arm's length. And the Class of 2010 is no different from the rest of us in being suspicious of advertising. In keeping with the increasing importance of word-of-mouth due to ad clutter and a fundamental mistrust of "being sold" by marketers, students are willing to do their homework, searching out unofficial messages before revealing themselves as real prospects.

"The trick," Elliot says, "is making sure you put your story in places where the students who would be seeking you will find it." Like many colleges and universities, UArts places ads on the U.S. News survey site, as well as on various art, music, and dance sites of interest to target students. "But you have to be careful," she cautions. "Students should be intrigued rather than annoyed by this advertising."

Third-party search options that attempt to present the unmediated, real scoop abound, from the anonymous current-student reviews of campuses compiled each year by the Princeton Review to to a new reality-TV style DVD series of campus profiles called "The U: Uncut." Yet the best unofficial source prospective students have might just be the campus Web site. As Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, said in a January 8, 2006, New York Times article, "For a true sense of campus life, dig into the Web site's section that is meant for current students. Scan student services and the bulletin boards of student organizations. Read the college newspaper. Lurk on listservs for signs of what students care about."

The Class of 2010 no doubt did just that. Deans marvel at the information surfacing in applications that can only be found by digging deep in the campus Web site. They also marvel at trends that reflect changes to a campus community that are just beginning to become apparent. Colgate University's Senior Associate Dean of Admissions Karen S. Giannino was delighted by the strong showing of performing arts talent in this year's group of applicants. "It is an exciting trend for us to see," she says, "because there has been a groundswell of interest on campus in this area, with lots of initiative on the part of our students." She can't be sure, she says, but "maybe this is why the interest is reflected in our applicant pool."

Some members of the Class of 2010 took the unofficial message to the extreme, bypassing campus marketers altogether. This year UArts saw a dramatic increase in applicants-20 percent to be exact-for whom the application was their first contact with the institution. This is becoming a national phenomenon, and admissions deans are calling these students "phantom apps." They are applicants who are not in any prospect database, received no marketing materials, took no official tour, and participated in no sanctioned online chats with current students. "Our first understanding of them is their application," Elliott says.

And yet, like the new wave of performing artist-scholars that appeared in the Colgate pool, the under-the-radar UArts applicants seem to be good fits. "We don't really know yet if these students have different informational needs than applicants who have been part of the inquiry-visit-application-admissions funnel all along," Elliott says. Have they truly absorbed what they need to know before they apply? If accepted, how might they affect retention rates? The only way to find out will be a comparison study five years or so down the road.

All in the family

"Community is huge," James L. Bock, Swarthmore College's dean of admissions and financial aid, says of this year's applicants. Although the deans and admissions officers who responded to questions for this article are not an exhaustive sample, community is one of the common threads running through most comments about the Class of 2010. Some admissions officers see it as connected to the importance this generation places on family. Admissions officers have always seen application essays titled with some version of "My Mom Is My Hero," but this year they see more applicants choosing to write not only about parents, but also about grandparents and siblings.

"Today's students long for a sense of community and friendship," says Karen P. Condeni, Ohio Northern University's vice president and dean of enrollment and a 30-year admissions veteran. "Many want to trade one family for another, transferring very close ties to their parents and siblings to their college community." Swarthmore's Bock agrees: "For our applicants it's always about finding a community of like-minded students with a love of learning-that intellectual fit-but this year, more than I remember in the past, I also sense more students who are looking for an extended family through a close-knit college community."

This longing for community might even drive under-the-radar applicants to their choices because they already feel that they belong, having gotten to know current students online through blogs, official and unofficial chats, or social networking sites. "My perspective may be skewed because UArts specializes in performing, visual, and media arts," Elliott says, "but I suspect the seamless nature of technology in this generation's lives affects students at the spectrum of colleges and universities." She believes technology has made young people innately collaborative. "They put so much out about themselves, but it is very important to them to get something back," she says. In particular, she cites, which began as a way for young artists to post their work to send to multiple colleges but quickly became an online community in which students started sharing ideas and collaborating on projects.

Marketable skills

What isn't different about the Class of 2010 is that education continues to be the master key to progress. "The American Dream is alive and well," Union College's Lundquist says. "Parents want to enable experiences that will support their daughters' and sons' success." Yet as tuition continues to rise faster than the Consumer Price Index, and a degree from an institution like Union will cost $200,000 without financial aid, he says, "Angling for discounts increases, and packaging [of aid, work study, and loans] rules." Students and parents select institutions based on the best balance they can strike among cost, prestige, and the outcomes they believe will result in the ultimate goal: a successful life.

As concerned with the bottom line as this generation has to be, a successful life for many of them seems to include making a positive difference in the world. Deans mentioned this trend more than any other as distinct for the Class of 2010. "I'm fascinated by the current world and trapped by the idealism of the young who want only to improve it," writes a Smith College applicant. "I need a school that doesn't make me grow out of it." She and her classmates are likely to have a social responsibility streak as strong as the one the Higher Education Research Institute identified in its 2005 survey of 263,000 new freshmen. Service and social responsibility emerged as the survey's most significant trend, with two out of three participants believing it is "essential to help others who are in difficulty"-the highest figure in 25 years. Their idealism has a clear-eyed quality to it. They are practical in their desire to better the world, choosing service professions or "emphasizing their desire to improve the conditions of society by becoming good engineers, business majors, criminal justice majors, and pre-law students," Condeni says.

In thinking about what makes the Class of 2010 different, UArts Elliott says, "Imagine growing up with an intuitive sense that you can communicate your thoughts, plans, and aspirations to anybody in the world." What will the Class of 2010 communicate to the world? That's where the next four years come in. One campus president I know plans to make marketing one's ideas the subject of his commencement address to students this year. He might consider using the same theme to welcome the Class of 2010. They surely would get the message.

This article is from the April 2006 edition of CURRENTS

Article originally appeared on Andrea Jarrell :: The Power of Strategy and Story (
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