TeensTALK™ Students Value Personal Connection when Choosing a College

Thanks to today’s Higher Ed Live broadcast from this year’s Stamats Integrated Marketing Conference, marketers in higher education were able to take part in a TeensTALK™ live panel discussion via web. The panel included 15 college-bound students from the Chicago area. Questions ranged from “When did you start thinking about college?” to “When is it appropriate for a college to contact you through Facebook or text messaging?” The group talked about which marketing materials were most effective and how they felt about all those emails colleges send.

From the moment the discussion began, I was sure every bit of information was going to be valuable somehow. I feverishly scrawled notes throughout the 90-minute session. Below you’ll find a list of common themes and quotes from student panelists. By and large, the student panelists all agreed that personal attention had the biggest influence on their college decisions.

Search Process

  • The majority of students reported that they started seriously thinking about college in their junior years, and that pending ACT testing was a prompt. Some started campus visits as early as freshman year.
  • The majority of students applied to  four-year public and four-year private colleges. None considered community colleges.

Marketing Materials

  • Most students reported feeling inundated with recruitment materials. Many received multiple copies of things. One student said: “I felt like they were just processing me and that they weren’t paying attention to what they were sending out.”
  • Some were more bothered by the amount of email sent by colleges. One student commented, “The mail was fine, but I saved all the emails I’ve gotten in my college inbox and I received 2,400.” Another said, “I’m still getting emails from colleges telling me ‘good luck on the ACT next weekend,’ even though I”m already enrolled in college.”
  • When asked which mail pieces they were likely to open, students appreciated pieces that were personalized or that offered information about their specific program, major, or interests (“not the general ones that everyone gets”). Colorful, bright envelopes grabbed attention.
  • Personal pieces were, by far, the most popular. One student referenced a handwritten letter from an Admissions counselor after a telephone conversation.

Effective Viewbooks

  • The students wanted to see photos that showed residential life, campus life, sports, and the community around the college.
  • One favorite was a viewbook that showed campus during all four different seasons. “Some colleges may gloss over the winter when it’s cold and it doesn’t look as pretty.”
  • Students agreed that photos shouldn’t depict things on campus that are hard to find or not there at all.
  • Students looked for photos of real university students, candid and not posed.
  • Photos of everyday college life were preferred over artistic photos.
  • Listed as most important viewbook content were program offerings, college “quick facts” or statistics, and campus/community maps.
  • The panel was asked if they actually read the viewbooks they received. Overall, students were likely to read testimonials, quick facts, and titles. One said, “I didn’t read the big text or chunks of paragraphs. I looked at the titles and the pictures and that was about it.”

Communication Preference

  • Students expressed that communication from a college should be personalized, especially email from Admissions counselors. They valued the personal connection and relationship.
  • Text messages? Overall, students said no. A student who’d received a text message from a college said: “I responded to the text message, but I didn’t like it.”
  • Communication via Facebook was not preferred for prospective colleges, but acceptable from the students’ chosen college.
  • Students looked for information from current college students on Facebook “class of” groups and Facebook Pages. “I looked at some of the Facebook groups because I wanted to talk to students,” said one panelist. The consensus was that Facebook interaction should be student-to-student.


  • 100% of student panelists agreed that television advertisements negatively affected their opinion of a college.
  • Seeing college T-shirts worn by other students at their high schools reminded them of colleges they may not have considered.
  • Students found value in college fairs, but said they could be overwhelming. Tables that stood out had a good presentation, staff members with good energy, or current college students available.
  • Students appreciated fun slogans, creative use of mascots, and evidence of school pride. One remarked that Drake’s D+ campaign was “hilarious.”


  • Current college students, like tour guides or overnight hosts, can sell a college if they are enthusiastic or break the deal if they’re not.
  • College Admissions counselors who build personal relationships with prospective students make them feel connected to a college.
  • High school guidance counselors help students decide which colleges to consider.
  • Students appreciate meeting personable Presidents or Deans in their chosen program of study.
  • In most cases, students’ parents offered support but didn’t direct decisions. Parent-oriented information was helpful in cases where parents were part of the process.
  • In the end, students based their college decisions on their feelings after visiting campus and meeting students.

The College Website

  • Students reported reviewing college websites when narrowing down their list of considerations.
  • Desired website features included easy navigation, audience-tailored content, ability to search, and cost calculators.
  • An “unprofessional” website was said to be a turn-off.
  • One student preferred colleges’ Facebook Pages to websites.

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