Leading through a Rough Spring in the Recruitment Cycle

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by W. Kent Barnds (Augustana College)

April is a torturous month, certainly the cruelest, for admissions leaders across the country. It’s especially hard on those who work in extremely competitive markets and endeavor to finish the recruitment cycle by early May. Directors, deans and vice presidents receive calls, office visits and notes from presidents, provosts, trustees, CEOs, any number of colleagues, all asking the same thing: “How are the numbers?”

Sometimes that age-old question is replaced by an inquiry about the discount rate or the more ominous “Do you think we’ll make it?” Most admissions professionals I know put their best foot forward and gracefully answer the questions. But the pressure does take a toll, and I know because I’ve been there.

These queries have a trickledown effect that can result in a less than ideal working environment for admissions counselors, the very people who need to stay energized during this important time of year. Given these circumstances, I have found a few ways to keep admissions staff members motivated and focused through this difficult period:

1. Regularly update people across campus.

I've found it helpful to provide recruitment updates periodically throughout the enrollment cycle. Forecasting bad or good news in a clear way is always a good idea, but doing so proactively during this critical time helps minimize the aforementioned questions and alleviate some pressure. Over the past few weeks, I have included an update in a campus-wide newsletter and have copied my staff, and others from whom I frequently hear (faculty and coaches), on memos I’ve shared to update my colleagues on the President’s Cabinet and leaders on our Board of Trustees on our progress toward our goals. This also helps your admission staff feel informed.

2. Make your admissions staff feel appreciated.

Admissions counselors are beleaguered this time of year. If you are anything like me, you’ve been barking orders, setting expectations, coaching, guiding toward resolution and reminding them of the exact same goals for the past nine months. I get tired of hearing myself, so I cannot imagine how tired my staff is of hearing me, even when I have a new idea to share. At this time of year, it is critically important for admissions leaders to acknowledge good and hard work. Appreciation can take many forms: an email expressing your thanks, hand-written notes, breakfast brought to the office, or ice cream one afternoon. In whatever way makes sense, say thank you and let staff members know you are aware of all the time and effort they are putting in.

3. Be a champion for your staff.

Admissions counselors feel the weight of the world, especially at tuition-driven and tuition-urgent schools. The conversations that begin with “Admissions said…,” are more difficult this time of year. This is a great time for you to go out of your way to make sure others on and off campus appreciate the admission staff and the work they do. I’ve found the occasional Facebook post about my amazing staff, individually and as a group, to be a helpful reminder to them and to others that I’ve got their back.

4. Create a tradition (or two).

When your work is defined the way ours often is (i.e., by the numbers), it can be difficult to find ways to celebrate between cycles. It’s easy to plan for a big champagne toast when it’s all over, but what about finding small ways to have fun in the meantime? At Augustana, for every commitment we receive, we ring a gong in the reception room of the Office of Admissions. Our partners in financial assistance and communication & marketing join us as we read each student’s name and high school (and mascot, if we know it) and ring a gong in their honor. Small traditions and celebrations like this can lighten the mood and increase momentum during this tough time. Think about a tradition that will work for you.

5. Put new challenges before your staff.

I really like to keep staff members thinking ahead, even at this time. Focusing on the future ensures everyone that life doesn’t end on May 1. I’ve found it helpful to challenge staff to think about something we’ll do differently next year. This year, even while tirelessly working on yield for the Class of 2019, staff members are being challenged to think about how to introduce an early action plan, improve traditional communications, redesign our campus visit programs, and break into California. I’ve found that new challenges can motivate rather than exhaust staff members during this time of year.

Every leader leads in his or her own way, but I think it is very important for admissions leaders, especially during this final push, to use new ways to show staff they are not just there to increase numbers. Focusing on bright moments throughout the recruitment cycle can build the energy needed to make it successfully through this busy time of year.

MORE ARTICLES FROM W. KENT BARNDS

W. Kent Barnds is a frequent contributor at Academic Impressions. You can read more of his editorials and advice on practical strategies here: