Campus visits are high-stakes performances. With every school delivering a similar show, you not only have to be good, you have hit the mark with students. According to Eduventures Survey of Admitted Students, 84% of students find the campus visit to be a very or extremely useful information source . What makes for a great visit, though?

For me personally, this past summer brought the opportunity to conduct some informal, firsthand qualitative research. Our family’s circuit of New England colleges and universities did, in fact, prove to be extremely useful. The eight visits were largely informative, sometimes repetitive, and occasionally transcendent. Some were definitely better than others and some just really hit home with our particular student.

Knowing that they are all fine schools, I couldn’t help thinking that on a different day, with a different cast of characters or a different script, the performances would have been different. The resulting effect on our daughter might have been different, too.

Five Most Useful Sources of Information During College Search

Let me start by providing some context for my family’s experience. First, all summer tours have their challenges: the lack of students on campus to add life, the ever-present campus construction, the sheer volume of families making the rounds, and the blistering heat, to name just a few.

Second, we visited private institutions in New England—urban, suburban, and rural. If you use your imagination, you might be able to guess which ones, but I’ll leave out their names to protect the innocent!

Third, some of these campuses deal with an incredibly high volume of students. Others work at a more manageable scale for intimate-sized groupings. Still, despite these differences, I’ll try to draw out the most universal takeaways to improve campus visit performance.

Here they are:

1. If the form of the performance is traditional, you must differentiate on execution.

The package of information session followed by a campus visit is an established art form, like the latest Hollywood romantic comedy. You know exactly what you’re getting, it’s just a question of whether or not you’re going to enjoy the particular performance. The execution, sharpness of message, and subtle nuances of delivery matter a lot within this format. Many schools talk about similar topics in information sessions and travel to similar destinations on their tours. If your school follows this flow, your execution has to be impeccable to stand out.

2. Consider whether or not you can break out of the traditional format.

Some schools can alter the fundamental rules of the performance while others must follow them as structural necessities in order for visits to make sense. Is there room to play with the format of your campus visit? Do all students need to follow the same tour? What do you cover in an information session? There are risks and rewards to this approach. The risk is that your campus visit will seem strange and different to families who’ve been on other visits; the reward is that it will be refreshing and stand out from the crowd.

3. Keep in mind that not all families need the whole backstory.

Families who have been on few campus visits and are still learning the language may need to hear detailed explanations about varsity, club, and intramural sports. But those who’ve seen several performances can recite them verbatim. How can schools consider the differential basic informational needs of families? Schools should consider ways to offer this important backstory of non-distinctive but necessary information to families who are new to campus visits while respecting other families’ prior knowledge base.

4. Your campus visit doesn’t need to be an epic.

An information session followed by campus visit can clock in at almost two-and-a-half hours at some schools; two-and-a-half hot, sweaty, repetitive hours. Reinforcing repetition might be the goal, but more often, it seems like schools are hedging their bets in case students only attend an information session or a campus visit. The better visits forgo the desire to ensure that all students have all of the information all of the time.

In our case, one school reduced its information session to a spritely half hour and shifted much of the key information into the tour itself. Another used the information session to make three key points about the institution prior to the tour. Our last stop offered no information session, and instead answered specific questions one-on-one at the end of the tour. In this era of easy access to information on the web, sharper, more efficient in-person information sharing is a viable strategy.

5. Build the story and make the emotional connection.

Every tour ends with the student guide standing in the shade of a tree explaining “why I chose [insert school name here].” These explanations ran the gamut from breezy and fun, to polished and practiced mini-Ted Talks, to stories that drew tears. Capstone statements that hit home drew on the key points made in the tour, but the student somehow brought it together in their own unfiltered authentic words. That’s magic.

But, it’s tough to get to that magic. First, the tour must have a narrative. That narrative has to be authentic to what students experience. Guides have to understand it, and have the freedom to interpret it through their own experiences. These elements depend on how well trained and trusted the tour guide is.

6. What role should students play? The starring role.

This one seems obvious. Students lead tours. Many schools, however, expand the roles that students play. The moment current students take over, prospective students take notice, and with rapt attention. The risk is having ill-prepared students as independent campus ambassadors or not providing an appropriate mix of students across the range of student mindsets.

We saw schools pair a student with an administrator in the information session, which was somewhat effective, but the administrator ultimately controlled the narrative. We saw schools providing multiple tour guides so that students could “choose their own adventure” and follow a student with similar interests. We took a tour led by a pair of students, which allowed us to see how these classmates interacted with each other. One school had an entirely student-run information session and campus tour, with no administrator involvement – a feat requiring a lot of trust. This route might not be right for every school, but fundamentally, prospective families want to see who their students might become if they choose to attend this school.

The Bottom Line

Many institutions try to make the most of campus visits by providing as much information as possible—after all this may be the only opportunity to influence a family in person. They would do well, instead, to remember that students attending a campus visit are hoping to see evidence of fit, not seeking every last piece of information. If your campus visit tells a sharp story with a powerful performance, you’ll make an impact. The students will come back to learn more information.

Like many others across the country, campus visits worked for our family. Schools rose to the top of the list and schools fell off. Yet, one or two schools could have given better performances and improved their chances of staying on the list.

Is your institution ready for Gen Z?

Thursday, October 18, 2018 | 2:00 PM EDT

Generation Z is here and enrolling! Is your institution prepared to give Gen Z students the experience they’re looking for? This presentation, based on the Eduventures Prospective Student Survey, explores the key distinctions between Millennial and Gen Z students and the implications those distinctions have on student expectations.

Join Eduventures Principal Analyst Kim Reid and Ellucian Director of Solutions Consulting Kim Fisher on Thursday, October 18 at 2 p.m. ET as they discuss how to serve Gen Z students better in recruitment and enrollment, as well as the role that technology will play in the overall student experience for this new generation.

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