Recruiting and admissions are a lot like farming. You scatter seeds through marketing efforts and events, grow and care for your crops through the admissions process, and at season’s end when acceptances go out, you cross your fingers, hope your hard work has paid off and you’ve yielded the best class possible.
Unfortunately, unlike farming, you’re also competing with several other schools to matriculate the same students.
Every admissions team is trying to improve applicant yield. Even the world’s top schools lose quality candidates to one another based on alumni, scholarships, timing, school reputation, location, and a number of other possible factors. Harvard, for example, loses over 30 percent of the students that apply to multiple schools to competitor schools like Stanford, Wharton, and Columbia.
A once starry-eyed applicant could easily be swayed to another school sometime between the time they come for your campus visit and when they get your acceptance letter. Losing your best applicants to another school is not just hurting your bottom line, it’s hurting your alumni network.
Millennials (which comprise most of today’s undergraduate and tomorrow’s graduate-level applicants) have proven time and time again that they like to feel commitment and develop a relationship with the brands they buy. Why should their exchange with schools be any different?
As soon as a student applies to your school, you begin a relationship with them. From a “business” standpoint, this is extremely valuable; they’re invested and interested in being a part of your program.
The worst thing you can do to your new applicants is leave them in the dark.
Timing is everything
There are two standard ways schools manage application deadlines. Some schools offer “rolling assessments” where they review candidates on an ongoing basis, and others work around a hard deadline where they review all applicants at one time during the year.
Based on how your school is staffed and the review process, one method may work better than the other for you, however, response time has a huge impact on your applicants.
Sam applied to an MBA program at two schools in The United States: School A in Massachusetts and School B in Vermont. She’s a top candidate from New York and meets all of the criteria for both schools. School B is Sam's first choice, but despite applying in January, School B isn’t going to get back to her until at least April for a September start date.
Meanwhile, School A accepted her within four to six weeks of her application and invited her on a campus tour. Once she met some of the staff at School A in late February and knowing she had been accepted, she could really see herself moving to Vermont and fitting in well at the program. Sam wants to get her first tuition deposit paid and start planning her move and departure from work, so because of an earlier acceptance, School A has pivoted into the lead spot.
School B, the original top choice, lost Sam before even reviewing her application.
So what can School B do today to ensure faster decisions so candidates like Sam don’t get away?
- Add one or more rounds of early acceptances
- Review admissions process and customize to make your school standout
- Evolve to asynchronous interviews
The first rule of returning faster decisions
It’s important to preface this whole section with a very important rule: NEVER sacrifice the quality of your review process.
As we recommend ways to get back to students faster, we never mean skipping reference checks, eliminating interviews, or accepting incomplete data. You need to be efficient in your review process, but you should never stop being thorough.
Early acceptances: Easy to implement, and also effective
As you can imagine, some schools are trying to use response time to their advantage, but surprisingly few are doing so effectively. We sat down with Poets&Quants founder John Byrne to talk about this very issue.
He recommended early acceptances as an easy way to improve your numbers by making your top applicants feel special.
“It's surprising that more schools don't do those kinds of things. Particularly schools that are not ranked in the top 25. Making people feel special counts for a lot, in everything in life,” Byrne said. “It's a big deal and I think that would improve applicant yield for a lot of schools.”
Looking outside of academia, speed is a proven factor in successful sales. In an investigation of 1.25 million sales leads, Kissmetrics found the companies that contacted people within an hour of expressing interest in their product were sixty times more likely to further those sales than the companies that took 24 hours. When students apply to your school, you’re fresh in their mind. Don’t underestimate the value of that.
Divide and thrive
Rolling admissions make a lot of sense for schools that have the capacity to review candidates multiple times throughout the year. Most schools we’ve talked to have quotas they try to meet at each deadline: For example, they’ll try to fill 30-40 percent after the earliest deadline, 60-70 percent at the second deadline, then everyone else trickles in afterward. Others will try to get it completely filled after the January deadline, pulling from a waitlist if candidates drop out after enrolling.
As Wan Chen, founder of IvyClimbing Education Services, explains, many schools “admit about 40 percent of students from their early applicant pools, while admitting less than 10 percent during the regular round.” With binding early decisions, students are more likely to commit early rather than risk losing their spot at the school.
“As a result, these early decision schools end up denying more regular round students who look strong in all dimensions, superior to their parents, first-rate to their schools, and admirable to their peers,” Chen wrote.
Strategically, this makes sense. Admissions teams want to fill their classes earlier to ensure they meet enrollment goals.
Plus, working to get back to top applicants quickly can be an easy and manageable way to improve applicant yield that results in a better class next year and a better alumni pool long-term.
Don't maintain the status quo
It’s easy to say, “Our team just can’t go any faster, and this is how we’ve always done it.” However, as an admissions team, it’s critical to step back and look at your process as objectively as possible. This can help determine if your response time is causing you to lose top candidates.
Here’s an experiment. You may already be doing this, in which case you can pull the data from last year:
Next review season, take your top 50 accepted candidates, and ask any who declined their offer why they’ve declined.
For those who have accepted other schools, ask them when they decided to accept the other school and what that school was.
Keep track of your competitors deadlines and offer dates. See if you are “keeping up with the Joneses” in every sense of the phrase. If you’re not getting decisions back to students within a close proximity to your closest competition, something needs to change.
Introduce on-demand interviews
If your school conducts interviews, whether in-person, on the phone, or via Skype, scheduling and coordinating times that work for reviewers and applicants can be a tedious delay to the decision process. (Sorry for the Kira plug!)
On-demand video assessments allow applicants to complete interviews on their time, in their space. Without having to book time off from work or fly across the country to meet you.
Once applicants have completed their assessments, you can review on your schedule as well, carving off review time in small or large chunks. Whenever it’s convenient for you! Get a demo, here!
“What the video does is get you a piece of the EQ to determine whether you should put someone in the interview pool to begin with,” John Byrne explained. “I think that's actually a very valuable piece of the puzzle here as an offset to simply getting high GMATs.”
Trying to read essays, answer applicant questions, complete interviews, and build a balanced classroom can be chaotic. With asynchronous interviews, you can organize your time in a way that works for you.
The ideal admissions process
A modern admissions process does not need to be “set it and forget it.”
You can expand your application into multiple stages to keep applicants engaged and educated about your program. An ideal application process takes less than two months. From the time the applicant gets their grades and submits an application to when they get accepted or denied. Here’s a quick summary of what we recommend:
1. Student submits application: A short introductory application. Make this stage as short as possible while still getting all of the essential information.
2. One week later: The secondary application stage. Scheduling a phone interview, a writing test, or an asynchronous video interview through Kira works here. It’s an opportunity to welcome candidates and show them that you’re interested in getting to know them better. It also makes a memorable experience for the applicant and creates a more personal connection to the school.
3. One week after video assessment is due: A virtual or in-person campus visit. For the candidates who pass the asynchronous assessment stage, send a personal invitation or link for them to experience the campus. If possible, this could encompass a campus tour and meet-and-greet with a student, faculty, or admissions personnel to talk about program fit. However, a virtual tour, zoom call, or a phone call are great alternatives.
4. One week after the campus experience: The decision. The applicant has expressed interest by investing in the campus tour (online or in-person). This whole process has given you time to check references, review grades, or whatever else your school requires to background check candidates. If the student is successful, make an offer (or a conditional offer if needed) to quickly give them the response that allows them to start planning.
This is one model to accept students, and it certainly does not fit all programs or all situations. The important takeaway is that the more touchpoints the school has through the application process, the easier it is to improve applicant yield.
Keep the conversation going
If you can't change your admissions process right now, you can still engage students more effectively. Keep students interested from the time they apply to when they receive a decision with these three easy-to-add touchpoints:
1. Email updates
One common tactic graduate schools employ is an admissions blog. Here, they can post updates, application and interview tips, information about the school, and details about events for prospective students.
Regular email updates is another great way to keep prospective students in the loop. Sending useful information, like when they can expect to hear back, is a great way to keep applicants engaged with your school.
2. Campus visit/Virtual tour
Inviting your accepted applicants for a campus weekend is a great way to cement their love for your school. Give them a “day in the life” experience of a student. If possible, you can even introduce them to faculty, current students, or alumni.
If your campus isn't open or your students are facing geographical barriers, you can offer them a virtual tour or ‘welcome webcast.’ Companies like YouVisit by EAB have realized the demand and created specific products just for this need.
Screenshot of YouVisit’s Harvard tour
3. Social media posts and groups
Social media channels are another way schools are connecting with their applicants. Prospective students will often follow a school as soon as they consider attending. Keeping them informed with what’s happening in admissions is a great way to build excitement. Schools can go beyond the more traditional ‘admissions updates’ on Facebook and Twitter. Create a “Class of 20**” group and invite admitted students. Here, they can get to know each other and get excited about the school before they’ve even enrolled. Those connections, between future students and future friends, can help improve applicant yield without you doing much else.
Western University Class of 2024 Facebook Group
There's no magic trick to improve applicant yield.
Getting decisions back quickly and staying in touch with your candidates is essential to your admissions process.
These changes can significantly improve applicant yield, class quality, and alumni pool.