Most of the acceptance letters have gone out from colleges and universities to expectant students around the country, and the Class of 2015 is taking shape everywhere. It’s a big time for admissions offices to make new students feel welcome and involved in their new life on campus, and many questions exist as to how to do that most effectively.

Students at most schools have until May 1 to respond to acceptance letters, and institutions face a long road of converting and increasing their yield of students until classes start at summer’s end. Schools can choose one of several excellent online aids for this, such as Inigral or Varsity Outreach; but as Mike Petroff, Web Manager for Enrollment Management at Emerson College in Boston, recently pointed out to Higher Ed Live, some of the best practices for using the latest in Web technology don’t require a large outlay of money.

The whole effort to welcome and engage these students starts with the initial acceptance letter. Some schools send that notification out electronically, others by regular mail as part of an information packet, and still others send some combination thereof; Petroff simply urges that the message include not only the statement that You’re accepted, but also, You’re invited into our college community. Newly accepted students at Emerson, for example, are given online several suggested next steps, such as getting connected with other new students or current students, so as to welcome them in to the campus fold via Facebook or Twitter.

Schools must communicate a few key messages to new students over the summer. Between the acceptance letter going out and May 1, Petroff explains, admissions offices are asking themselves: “How can we make sure that [those] student[s] know enough about us to make informed decisions about where they want to go to college?” After students have made their big decision, he adds, admissions people next ask: “What do [we] send out to students over the summer to make sure that they know what happens at orientation, that they know what their housing is, that they know what student organizations are going to help them when they get to campus?”

The advantage to notifying students of their acceptance electronically is that the university can see if and when students see the message, and can respond rapidly with follow-up calls or online invitations to engage socially—precisely when students are most excited and willing to do so. Connecting with other students, faculty, and admissions or student life officers can help new students feel more informed and comfortable about their decision, and the possibility of developing friendships can help them feel already involved on campus before classes even begin.

Schools now are setting up Facebook pages and groups for the incoming class; one excellent example is Indiana State University’s Facebook invitation page; schools with fewer than 250 incoming students might find benefit with a Facebook group, such as Belmont University’s Class of 2015 group.  Some schools might want to experiment with a combination of the two options, setting up a page for the whole class and individual groups for specific interests within it. Having currently enrolled students or campus organization leaders welcome the new students online can also help build excitement for their arrival on campus in the Fall.

Some students connect up with new roommates via a matching program called RoomSurf.  While RoomSurf has incurred a considerable amount of criticism (well-deserved, we think), particularly for some of their marketing strategy choices, we still believe schools should have some way of giving students a feeling of control in finding compatible roommates.

Beyond Facebook, we believe every school should have a social media directory of some kind, wherein a school can give both accepted students and others in the general community a number of options for how to connect with the institution regarding their own interests. For a good example of this, check out the University of Kansas’ Connect to KU page. Another excellent example comes from Petroff’s own Emerson College, where an on-campus group has created a welcome video for incoming students via the school’s Emerson Channel. Besides requiring relatively little work directly from Petroff’s admissions office, the video provides a very authentic way for new students to connect online with the students involved in the project.

We also encourage the use of paper-based mailings that encourage new students to engage online. As an example, the admissions people at Emerson have encouraged students to post pictures of themselves wearing an Emerson hat, sent out by the school, on the incoming class’s Facebook group page; the idea has taken on a momentum of its own. This year, almost 90 students have posted pictures wearing an Emerson hat so far, Petroff notes.

Westminster College in Salt Lake City has come up with similarly creative engagement strategy. In its ”Trippin’ with Griffin” contest, the school sent out a small paper figure of the school’s mascot to new students and invited them to post a picture of themselves with the bird on the school’s Facebook page, for a chance to win a Flip video camera. Projects such as Emerson’s and Westminster’s create an excitement about an institution and help students create a sense of community online.

Rather than simply providing them with various choices of what they could do to get involved, the secret to these projects’ success lies in challenging students to do a single, real physical activity. Petroff agrees: “When you’re auditing your website, every page should have a ‘call to action’.” Giving students a definite, specific—and perhaps a little corny—task opens the door for them to have fun, get acquainted, and become a part of their new class. We believe having a content calendar and sending out weekly or bi-weekly announcements helps sustain that connection throughout the summer.

Another key component of engagement involves the students’ parents.  As most are financially and emotionally very involved in their children’s college education, parents should be involved via their school’s admissions office as well. Giving them an online forum to share concerns and questions both with the school and with fellow parents helps increase their buy-in, and in the long term, creates another layer of support for the school.

How does an admissions office measure the results for such efforts? One way is to pair information gathered from a Facebook class page or group with the data already available in admissions records. A simpler option might be to ask students a fill out a quick survey. Petroff notes being pleasantly surprised to find how many students have responded to his surveys, especially to his open-ended questions. Google Analytics can be of great service in these efforts. Comparing your own results to competitor schools or to national trends can yield insights as well. Petroff suggests checking out WICHE Publications for help here.

Regardless of what specific strategies your admissions team decides to take, what’s important in aiding retention of newly accepted students is going the extra mile to make them feel welcome and involved throughout the summer.

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