Getting Performance Appraisals Right in College Admissions

Business Meeting

In an era in which half the post-secondary institutions in the U.S. are facing enrollment declines, performance assessment and continuous improvement in admissions has never been more critical. Even those institutions with strong enrollments, experienced staff, and strong market position need to take the performance assessment process seriously.

Why You Need to Do it Right

Many of those who have worked with me over the course of the past 20 years will tell you I take performance assessment seriously. I believe one of the most important roles of a leader is to honestly, constructively and actively assesses performance of those who form the team. However, like most leaders, I had to learn how to assess performance, think carefully and adapt.

Everyone has a different approach to performance assessment, and some will reject the notion that such assessments even have value. Those who cannot find value in this process,—or choose a superficial method like simply judging by the numbers, or having an annual conversation to ask “how’s it going”—are missing out on what can be a rewarding and integral part of effective talent development.

It’s a leader’s job to mentor and develop talent. My master’s thesis focused on the performance assessment process of admissions officers. Through my research, in 2005 and 2006, which included surveys of admissions officers and supervisors, I uncovered some things that have shaped my view of the performance assessment process:

  • Specific feedback from the supervisor is the most important part of the process for admissions officers.
  • Emotional intelligence competencies (i.e. self-awareness, self-management, social awareness and relationship management) are very important when assessing admissions counselors.
  • Too much emphasis on objective criteria (numbers) can undermine team solutions. The work of an admissions counselor should be defined by far more than hitting the numbers.

Other findings included the need for better training about the process, clear criteria and clear goal-setting.

My 2006 article, “Determining the root causes of concerns associated with the performance assessment process,” published in College & University, summarizes my findings.

How to Do it Right

Admissions leaders charged with assessing performance of staff members might try the following:

Discuss why the process is important.
If you approach the process as though it’s burdensome, it will be. Instead, take time at a staff meeting to contextualize why the organization and office value an assessment process and share your personal views about its importance. Allow adequate time.
You are busy. Your staff members are busy. But the performance assessment process requires adequate training and preparation, and you should make time for it. If there is a written component, you need to leave sufficient time to write clear descriptions for each area. If your process includes a one-on-one meeting, make sure to schedule an additional 15 to 30 minutes. If the passages you write or the conversations feel rushed or canned, the process will be compromised. Let people know what to expect from you.
Don’t be mysterious or full of surprises when it comes time to assess performance. This is particularly important for new leaders. Let people know exactly what is most valuable to you and what you will be looking to assess. The clearer you are, the more effective the assessment and the greater the alignment will be. If you don’t let people know what to expect, it will make for some very uncomfortable conversations and could have a negative impact on talent development. Coach and assess performance on an ongoing basis.
While most of us will have that annual BIG meeting that represents a formal assessment, that occasion should not be the only time you are providing feedback, guiding performance and developing talent. In order for the formal assessment to be most valuable, it’s important to providing meaningful guidance and feedback throughout the entire year. This feedback and coaching can be done in writing, verbally or simply by establishing clear expectations and following up individually to make sure your expectations are fully understood.


Based on my research and survey of admissions professionals I developed a series of performance assessment instruments, which can be accessed here.

Don’t be afraid to be direct.
When I did my research on performance assessment, I found that straightforward is most effective. For example, providing only three options (i.e. excels, meet, needs improvement) is the best way to communicate greatness or real need for improvement. Presumably, most assessments will include some sort of appraisal that includes some sort of rating, so people would have a clear indication of the areas in which they excel or need work. Cutting through the niceties and nuances is a very important part of the process and the more direct you can be, the better. Many leaders struggle with this, yet most employees really value direct feedback that is actionable.

Assessing Your Own Performance is Just as Important

Ask for feedback at the same time you are doing performance assessments—I’ve found over the years that as a leader it’s important to ask for personal feedback around the same time as the staff appraisals. Being open to constructive feedback provides a healthy balance to the process and good advice for the leader. In the past I’ve used an assessment tool, which was submitted to Human Resources and summarized to protect the confidentiality of those responding. The feedback I’ve received over the years has been insightful, revealing unknown strengths and identifying blind spots.

If you are uncomfortable asking for formal feedback, simply ask people to answer the following questions:

  • What should I do more of?
  • What should I start doing?
  • What should I stop doing, in order to clear time for the things that I need to do more of?

I’ve asked these questions of my direct reports and received very valuable feedback, including that I need to celebrate the achievement of others more often and more publicly, and that sometimes I push “too far.” This advice was not easy to hear, but provided me the direct guidance I needed to be a better leader.

Because ours is an ethnically diverse, multigenerational, well-educated, passionate and idealistic profession, the performance assessment cannot be the same everywhere and for everyone. Yet the assessment process should be clear, intentional, and data-informed.


In addition to a performance appraisal form for admissions staff, I have developed an appraisal for professionals at the director level, a supervisor appraisal and a third-party (parents, faculty, colleague, etc.) assessment. If you are interested in more information, please contact me directly: