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Personalize Your Student Engagement Process in 6 Steps

Written by: Blaine Johnson
Published on: Sep 25, 2023

Admissions advisor
Photo credit: Prostock-studio/ Adobe Stock

It’s natural for students to feel overwhelmed when they decide to seek a degree. With the proper training, your admissions team can instill the confidence prospective students need to succeed. In this article, Blaine Johnson, our Vice President of Enrollment, explains how our Student Engagement Model makes it possible.

Deciding to pursue higher education is a big decision for students. So, it makes sense for them to ask questions like this when they begin looking for an online degree program:

  • Do I have the time?
  • Can I afford this?
  • What if I struggle?

These worries likely arise during calls with your admissions team, as students ask about the fastest, cheapest route to a degree. But that isn’t the best starting point for student engagement. Instead, advisors should focus on building a relationship and learning the student’s needs so they can tailor a solution that meets them.

Strong relationships are the keystone of our Student Engagement Model (SEM). We employ it to help universities put prospective students on track to enrolling — and thriving — in online programs. Let’s walk through SEM’s six steps to show how you can personalize the admissions process for each learner.

Step 1. Discover the student

It’s common for students to feel nervous when researching college programs. Those feelings don’t just affect learners at the undergraduate level — prospective graduate students feel anxious, too. They often work full time and have families, so they may hesitate before dipping their toes back into the higher education waters.

By following SEM, your admissions advisors can show these students that the water is fine.

To help them feel comfortable, don’t focus on what makes your university great (you’ll have time to share those details later). Take time to get to know the student by asking simple questions like:

  • Where are you from?
  • Where do you work?
  • Where do you want to be in the next five years?

Get-to-know-you questions help your admissions team form a connection with the student. They can also reveal where the student sits in their education journey. This intel makes it easier to tailor guidance for that learner’s specific needs.

During these conversations, your advisors can form a connection by conveying they care about what the student has to say. SEM focuses on three themes to build rapport with prospective students:

  • Appreciation
    Your advisors can show appreciation by expressing that they’ve enjoyed meeting each student. They can also express gratitude for getting the chance to help students achieve their goals.
  • Trust
    Students trust advisors who follow through on the promises they make. On the flip side, trust erodes when advisors try to “sell” students on a program that doesn’t fit their interests.
  • Respect
    Students respect advisors who present themselves as experts and provide easy-to-understand program details. It’s also important to avoid interrupting or talking over them. In other words, when students speak, listen.

Remember: While your advisors are discovering the student, the student is discovering your university. Showing genuine interest in what the student says increases the likelihood that they’ll continue their education in one of your programs.

Step 2. Evaluate their needs

Every student has unique needs, and there’s only one way to learn what they are — by asking the student.

I’ll explain with a quick example. Imagine a prospective freshman has filled out an online form to request details about one of your university’s online programs. Based on the request alone, your advisor does not mention on-campus options when they talk with the student.

We call that an implied need. The advisor has assumed they know what will satisfy the student based on incomplete information. That could be a mistake in this scenario, as the student may be interested in both modalities, but the request-for-information form didn’t offer a way to state that.

It’s better to rely on confirmed needs — asking questions to get a clear picture of what the student is seeking. Then your admissions advisor can tailor their support to satisfy the student fully.

Here are a few questions that help confirm a student’s needs:

  • Why are you interested in online programs?
    It’s important to confirm if the student has taken classes online and how they feel about the format. Then you can clear up any misconceptions they may have about online learning.
  • What obstacles do you expect to face?
    Ask about potential hurdles, such as if they have a hectic work schedule. You can also share details about assistance your university provides, such as help with time management.
  • What options are you exploring?
    Gently check if they’re considering other schools. During this conversation, your advisors could tactfully position your university as the best option. You can also confirm when they want to start — in the fall/spring/summer.

These questions uncover whether your university and programs offer features the student desires. Don’t feel discouraged if you lose a prospect during this process. That gives your advisors more time to help other students who are more likely to enroll.

Step 3. Learn their “why”

Every learner has a personal “why” — or reason for returning to school. When your advisors uncover it, they can discover what will motivate the student to pursue a degree.

Your advisors may need to ask a series of questions to uncover a student’s why. Think of it as digging through several layers — varying the questions you ask will help break through each one. Here are three types built into SEM:

  • Problem questions
    These questions identify problems the learner hopes to resolve by attending an academic program.

    Example: Are there any goals you can’t achieve without a college degree?
  • Repercussion questions
    Ask questions that spotlight the downside of not going to college.

    Example: Where do you see yourself in five years if you don’t return to school?
  • Payoff questions
    Help the student realize how they’ll benefit by seeking a degree.

    Example: What do you hope to gain by returning to school?

Be sure to listen intently to the student’s answers. While their words are important, so are their tone and intonation. Do they sound confident? Or will you need to build up their self-esteem to keep them on track?

Step 4. Tailor a solution

Everything has led to this moment. It’s time to apply what the student has shared about themselves to tailor a solution that fits them perfectly.

At this point, presenting generic benefits will fall short. Students don’t want to know why an online program suits the average student. They want to hear personalized benefits that show your program is perfect for them.

Here’s an example: Picture a parent who is considering joining an online bachelor’s program. They’re new to online learning, and generic catchphrases like “asynchronous schedules” or “small class sizes” alone may not sway them. Instead, reference their needs to personalize the program’s benefits, like this:

  • “Because the classes meet online, you won’t have to visit campus or miss important family time.”
  • “You can control the schedule, so you can keep coaching soccer while you’re taking classes.”
  • “Our online programs have small classes. As a newcomer to the online format, you can get the support needed to succeed.”

While presenting these benefits, the advisor should pause to ask the student what they think. These check-ins keep the student engaged and let them express concerns. That gives advisors the chance to address them.

Step 5. Ask for action

Even after hearing those benefits, many students will need encouragement to apply to a program. That makes sense, as returning to school is a significant commitment, and the application process may seem daunting.

To alleviate the student’s stress, it helps to take things one step at a time. That said, the first step will vary for each student. Some will be ready to apply right away, while others will have hurdles to clear before they can. Here are some common barriers, along with ways for advisors to reframe them as a first step:

  • The student wants to explore other schools.
    What to say: “OK, your next step is to check out another school. Is that something you can complete in the next two days?”
  • The student needs to talk with their spouse.
    What to say: “Your next step is to discuss the program with your spouse. Can you talk with them tonight?”
  • The student needs to look into tuition reimbursement.
    What to say: “So, your next step is to meet with your company’s human resources team. Be sure to get a copy of your tuition reimbursement policy, review it, and give me an update about how it works. Can you do that this week?”

Did you notice how each response included a timeline for completing each task? That’s essential to maintaining momentum. It’s also wise to schedule a follow-up appointment to review the student’s progress and discuss their second step, such as gathering transcripts, writing a personal statement, or meeting another admissions requirement.

While they may seem simple, these commitments provide the tailwinds students need to complete each step. Next, we’ll discuss how accountability helps them cross the finish line to enrolling.

Step 6. Keep each other accountable

Have you ever heard that people who have an exercise partner are more successful? It’s true — accountability buddies motivate one another to stay positive and achieve their goals.

Prospective students need accountability buddies to complete the admissions process, and your advisors can fill that role. Here are ideas for providing support when students feel nervous or even question their decision to return to school:

  • Set detailed expectations
    Let the student know it’s normal to feel nervous about returning to school. To make them more comfortable, it helps to walk through the enrollment timeline and offer ideas for managing it.
  • Maintain consistent contact
    Schedule regular check-ins to coincide with important milestones, such as after the student applies. Advisors can also set a weekly phone or video call to discuss how to complete the next step.
  • Remind them about their goals
    Motivate the student by asking them to imagine how earning a degree can improve their life.

Of course, advisors don’t just hold the student accountable. They must hold up their end of the bargain, too.

In other words, when your admissions team makes a promise, they must see it through. Not only will this strengthen their bond with the student, but it also follows what Psychology Today calls the “rule of reciprocation” — advisors who meet their commitments can inspire students to meet theirs.

Personalize your student engagement efforts

When your learners succeed, your university will, too. With our Student Engagement Model, our in-house advisors can offer hands-on support that puts your prospective students on the path to success.

And our support doesn’t end there. We’ve also developed Student Journey to offer the self-guided admissions experience that many students prefer.

Learn more about our flexible enrollment services today. We can help you form deep connections with learners and achieve your student recruitment and enrollment goals each term.

About Blaine Johnson, Vice President of Enrollment and Retention Services

Over the past decade, Blaine Johnson has overseen the evolution of our OPM student recruitment. With the goal of providing the best student experience possible, his focus is on developing his team through coaching, implementing technological enhancements such as linguistic and behavioral analytics, and streamlining the student journey through the creation of resources such as a dedicated contact center. Under his leadership, the recruitment team has grown enrollments to more than 20,000 students across partner institutions.

Before coming to Wiley, Blaine was Vice President of Sales for information security consulting firm CastleGarde, Inc. and Director of Field Operations of The Beacon Institute, a company that specialized in delivering non-credit curriculum through a network of university partners. He earned a Bachelor of Science in Journalism with a minor in business from Troy State University.