The Colgate Scene
September 2002

The personal touch

For Vanessa Weller '06 (shown with her family at their home in Whitesboro, N.Y.), the personal attention she received from the Office of Admission helped convince her to attend Colgate. [Photos by Timothy D. Sofranko]

It was how Vanessa Weller learned she had been accepted to Colgate's Class of 2006 that as much as anything told her she had applied to the right college.

Weller was waiting in James B. Colgate Hall for a ride from her father after an overnight visit to campus one weekend last March. Before she could leave, Weller was asked to wait because Dean of Admission Gary Ross '77 wanted to talk with her. A few moments later, Ross handed her a large envelope. Weller opened it and immediately learned she had been accepted to Colgate.

"I started crying and all the people in the [Admission] office came over and hugged me," Weller said. "That was the warmest reception possible and it said something about Colgate to me. Colgate set a standard that the other schools I applied to didn't meet."

Class of 2006 by the numbers
A statistical breakdown of the incoming class, from gender to SAT scores

An admission glossary
Learn the difference between "Early Decision" and "Early Action," along with other admission lingo

"It was remarkable," said Den Weller, Vanessa's father. "Ever since then, we feel like Colgate connected with us on a personal level. We weren't just a number."

While it's obviously not practical to personally deliver acceptance letters to incoming students, Ross's action reflects a fundamental philosophy of the Office of Admission -- that as much as anything else, direct and personal contact is crucial for engaging prospective students with Colgate. Despite advancements in mass media, particularly the Internet, and the increased weight given to statistical ratings of colleges and universities such as the U.S. News & World Report Guide to America's Best Colleges, interaction with faculty, students, staff and alumni is the best way to build a sense of connection with an institution.

Not so long ago, selecting which colleges to apply to involved consulting with a high school guidance counselor and one's own family, and then filling out applications at the kitchen table. Since the explosion in Internet access during the past decade, the process of college admissions has changed so fast that prospective students, parents and college admissions officers have been hard pressed to keep pace. The Internet has empowered students to take control of where and when they get information about the colleges in which they're interested, while at the same time colleges have become much more aggressive in their recruitment of the most-qualified students.

"Colgate connected with us on a personal level. We weren't just a number."

Getting started
A recent survey by the National Association of College Admissions Counseling revealed in a random sampling of 250 colleges and universities nationwide that 81 percent recorded an increase in applications for admission in fall 2002, with only 14 percent reporting a decrease. The survey also indicated that the use of e-mail correspondence and interactive web forms continues to grow, increasing overall student satisfaction with the application process. College admissions officers have been saying that the Internet has changed the dynamics of how colleges market themselves. Whereas face-to-face communication or good word of mouth with prospective students was once the most effective marketing tool for colleges, these days the first time students "visit" a campus is often through a college's website. A survey two years ago of "potentially admissible" students, Ross said, showed conclusively that the Internet is second only to an on-campus visit in terms of influencing an applicant's choices of where to apply and attend college.

"There's no question that there is a tremendous dependence on the Internet as a source of information," said Ross. "Many of our applicants are exceedingly busy young men and women and may not have time during conventional work hours to conduct a successful college search. Now they can sit in front of a desktop computer at 10:30 in the evening and still take a virtual tour of Colgate."

In addition to the virtual tour, prospective Colgate students may also fill out an online application form, with the normal application fee waived. This is how Weller chose to apply.

"I had no intention of going to Colgate, but my parents wanted me to apply to one school in state," said Weller, who hails from Whitesboro, N.Y. "When I saw there was no application fee, and because of the ease of filing online, I decided to go ahead and apply."

The college search process brings more than 7,000 families to Colgate for campus tours each year. Colgate's location is one of its advantages, says Dean of Admission Gary Ross, and campus tours are an effective way to demonstrate that to prospective students.

The way to choose a refrigerator, not a college
In addition to the impact of the Internet, it is undeniable, many admission professionals say, that the annual U.S. News & World Report ratings carry a lot of weight. To Ross, that isn't necessarily a good thing.

"I realize I'm going to infuriate some people by saying this," Ross said. "I do not recommend the U.S. News & World Report ratings or a series of ratings as a good way to go about selecting a college. But to deny that they are not extremely important, and something that we need to be aware of, would be a disservice to Colgate."

A look inside the vehicles of families visiting campus offers anecdotal evidence of the impact of the ratings, said Ross. It seems almost every vehicle in the parking lot will have a copy of the U.S. News & World Report ratings and one or more of the other popular college guides.

"Of course, there were college guides when I was looking to find a college, but they ranked colleges in more general ways, such as competitive, highly competitive or most competitive," Ross said. "But now the ratings guides offer a list of numbers that are supposed to tell you something about a college. That's how you might want to shop for a refrigerator, but that would be a terrible way to go about choosing a college."

Ross believes that in recent years parents seem to have asserted more control of their children's college selection. On the one hand, Ross said, this is perfectly understandable because of the investment involved.

On the other hand, he said, "It's not at all uncommon to hear a parent talking about how `we' have been admitted to College X and College Y, and `we' were turned down by College A, College B and College C. That's unfortunate. This is all about a young adult making a major decision. While the parents should certainly become involved as counselors in that decision, I would hope that ownership would reside with the student, the one who actually has to take the exams, write the term papers and handle all the other obligations of being a college student."

Ross remembers one particular incident from his early days in admissions that illustrates the folly of being too faithful to numerical college ratings and of parents who place too much importance on them. A young woman who was very interested in attending Colgate had been accepted, and from time to time Ross looked to see if her deposit check had been sent in. One day in late April he received a call from her. She tearfully informed him that she wasn't coming to Colgate.

"I asked if we had done anything wrong. We had stayed in touch with her. She wrote several letters to us saying that Colgate was her first choice," Ross said.

Colgate was still her first choice, but her parents had made her promise to attend the college ranked highest on the U.S. News & World Report ratings that she was admitted to. The college she attended was ranked two spots ahead of Colgate until the next survey, when it fell to two spots behind.

"Does that mean `ha, ha, ha,' we're better than the other college? No," said Ross. "But it shows how ridiculous it is to choose a college based upon what many consider to be a very poorly designed ranking system."

Byron Starns, right, and his 17-year-old son, Ted Starns, of St. Paul, Minn. look over profiles of successful alumni in the lobby of James B. Colgate Hall while waiting for a campus tour to start.

Visiting campus a must — most of the time
"We believe that our location is one of our great advantages," Ross said, "because of the opportunities that a student has to learn in ways that are highly personal, because of our outstanding faculty, because in and out of the classroom a student at Colgate has the opportunity to impact more than a college campus. They have an opportunity to impact a community."

Stop by the Colgate campus on a typical summer day and you are likely to see groups of prospective students and their parents on student-led tours. Each student guide is given extensive training in Colgate's history and its programs. An extra element of casual geniality is added with the distribution of chipwiches (ice cream sandwiches made with chocolate chip cookies) at the end of each tour. The tours and activities such as April Visit Days or the Colgate Connection (a reception held each fall) are effective in large part because they offer prospective students a chance to experience a measure of what makes the Colgate community attractive, said Karen Long, associate dean of admission.

"They have to be here to experience that culture in person, to pick up on the tremendous sense of school pride and spirit, to really see for themselves what it's like to be here," said Long. "One thing Gary [Ross] tells people when they're comparing Colgate with another institution is not to just take our word but to go out and wander the academic buildings and talk with some of our faculty, to spend some time with students and get a feel for what makes this community so special."

Such feelings about Colgate are what motivated Charles Wright '03 to become a tour guide for the admission office. Wright said leading tours reminds him of his own college search.

"It's important to help [prospective] students figure out where they want to be. Visiting a school is very important because it will make a difference whether or not you feel you want to attend that school," Wright said. "Hearing a student's perspective gives you a sense of what a school is really like."

In his own experience, Wright said campus visits helped him to realize where he didn't want to attend college. Relying solely on his own research, Wright chose Colgate even though he never visited the campus until he arrived for first-year orientation. He decided to become a campus tour guide because of what he's found and experienced as a Colgate student.

"I felt this was the place I wanted to be," said Wright, who is also one of the new guides for the virtual tour. "No school is perfect, but nothing has disappointed me about Colgate."

Secure in her belief she has selected the right college, Vanessa Weller '06 prepares to open a new chapter in her life.

A spectacular job
Little, if anything, has disappointed the Weller family about Colgate either. Since being accepted, Vanessa has received several phone calls from faculty, students and staff who asked if she had any questions. It's a level of attention that Ross strongly encourages.

"Each staff member is delighted to talk with any person involved in the college search process and answer those questions that might be important to them," Ross said.

During a six- to eight-week interval each autumn, members of the admission office staff travel extensively to meet with prospective students at college fairs and high schools, sometimes making as many as 25 visits within a week.

"Admission staff are paid to represent the school in the best possible light," Ross said. "I wouldn't trade away any member of our staff. I may be biased, but I still firmly believe they do a spectacular job."

The admission office's efforts are expanded through the contributions of alumni volunteers, who participate in and help plan events for prospective students in their particular areas, as well as representing Colgate at "hundreds" of college fairs, Long said.

"The presence of alumni helps to illustrate the facts we're putting forth about the value of a Colgate education because their stories are so powerful," she said.

Long believes that the college selection and application process is "an exciting time" for families and the institution alike as the applicant's decision is played out.

Looking ahead, the Office of Admission will be making significant changes in its communications strategies, Long said.

"We want to develop a unified communications plan that's targeted to the right audience, that makes sense to that audience and provides the right information to a high school student. We want to capture what's distinctive about Colgate," she said. "We want to have purposeful and frequent communications with each student while they're in our database."

While participating in Wilderness Adventure a few weeks before entering Colgate, Weller said she and her fellow first-year students discussed what had motivated them to choose the school. In almost every instance, she said, the students cited the personal connection encouraged by Colgate as making the difference, such as personal notes on each acceptance letter and phone calls from students, faculty, staff and alumni.

"After the reception I received, I realized I had to go to Colgate," said Weller. "It wouldn't have made sense to even consider going anyplace else."

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