I have somewhat of a lead foot. My kids (and their mother) will tell you that behind the wheel I tend to push the limits of speed. As my son has been learning to drive—and looking at colleges—I have reminded him of the wise words of my father: “Do as I say, not as I do.”
This double standard is especially prevalent in college admission. Colleges expect high school students—who have been conditioned to be humble—to identify what they want and how they are unique. Then applicants are asked to eloquently articulate that which makes them special and a good addition to the school community. Meanwhile armed with a team of marketing professionals and consultants, colleges and universities seem ill-equipped to hone in on what sets them apart.
After a multi-day trip through the mid-Atlantic, an exasperated father sent me a message saying “every school pitched the same damn thing. Their messaging was virtually indistinguishable.” Meanwhile, his son shared what he heard again and again in presentations: colleges want him to communicate his unique experiences and distinguishing characteristics that make him a good match for that school.
As a high school counselor, I regularly receive feedback (both solicited and unsolicited) about the experience of searching for and visiting colleges (especially this year, as my son is a senior). Throughout the pandemic, as most colleges shifted to virtual tours, information sessions, and other online events, the resounding complaint has been that these programs are too similar and it is difficult to gain a full sense of what makes a school special. There was a shared hope among families of high school seniors that a return to in-person events would provide a more rich and distinctive experience. When I met with my seniors this month, it became clear that they were faced with disappointing, generic messaging. Students agreed that as they toured campuses and sat in presentations, they found themselves simply anticipating the checklist of repetitive highlights at each school. Often the flow of information was almost verbatim, as they repeatedly heard cliche phrases like “our students work hard and play hard.”
Colleges, we get it. You need to build a wide applicant pool and be as inclusive as possible. But in doing so, you are often missing the mark. Admission officers decry students’ bloated college application lists, which can swell to over 20 schools, as an indication of poor research and/or self-awareness. Yet, even as schools try to protect and enhance their yield (the percentage of admitted students who enroll), they try to be everything to everyone. The result is indiscernible marketing that is uninspiring and has little appeal to the TikTok generation.
Brian Zucker is the President and Founder of Human Capital Research Corporation, a private education research firm in Evanston, Illinois that consults colleges and universities on “enrollment management, market development, curriculum innovation, pricing policy, sustainability planning, and long-term outcomes assessment.” He argues that colleges are trying to cast the net too wide and are therefore losing focus. He describes it as the “monocropping of admission.” The Monsanto’s of education—large enrollment marketing firms—churn out messaging that is nearly identical in format and feel. Many of the emails that my son receives are clearly generated by the same company with the colleges’ names and logos simply swapped out. When students do this with their involvement, applications, and essays, we roll our eyes, yet with huge marketing budgets, schools are wasting time and money with an inarticulate approach. Using another metaphor, Zucker says, “colleges have increasingly placed themselves in the hands of the experts, who have, ironically, only contributed to their homogenization—not unlike how Panera has seemingly come to replace the thousands of truly unique independent ma and pa bakeries that once dotted our communities.” He adds, “colleges need to do a better job of layering the information provided to applicants rather than being just another franchise.”
Students, given this reality, you need to be better consumers. Zucker explains that the “median time spent on any given college URL is literally under 10 seconds.” He bemoans that our culture is “so frenetic and always onto the next thing—the more shiny object,” adding, “it stems from not knowing what we are looking for.” While perhaps you don’t know exactly what you are looking for in a college, there are strategies and resources for thinking through it.
Armed with some of these initial thoughts, make the most of your college research and visiting—be unwilling to accept generic. If you are visiting college campuses in person, and you start to hear the franchised spiel, don’t be passive. Instead:
Remember, you cannot control how colleges market themselves, but you can control how deep an understanding of them that you demand, and then how you show them what is unique about you. Do what they say, not what they do.