It can be hard to stand out from the crowd. You know what makes your school special, but when you stroll into a big empty gymnasium that is about to be converted into a school enrollment fair or expo, it’s easy to get lost in a parade of similar pitches, slogans, and PowerPoint presentations.
However, despite the crowds and confusion, school enrollment fairs can be an amazing opportunity to meet new students, woo prospective parents, and spread the word about the amazing things you’re doing at your institution. If only you can get people to listen.
Be Seen and Heard
First, the basics. Nobody is going to walk up to your booth or table if they don’t know you’re there. Standing displays and custom table cloths or runners featuring your school’s logo and slogan might be unwelcome upfront expenses, but eye-catching, professional-designed and printed signage is the first thing new families will notice about you. These items can be used for years if cared for properly, and whatever they cost pales in comparison to losing recruits because families couldn’t find you.
“Do You Have Any Questions?”
That’s the most common opening line echoed by the school representatives at these fairs. And surely, almost every parent or student has a boatload of questions. They have questions about academics, arts, sports, and volunteer opportunities. They have questions about admissions, testing, and financial aid. They have questions about homework, the length of the school day, and the quality of the hamburgers in the cafeteria. However, while the specific answers to these questions are important, there’s an implicit question behind them all: Do I trust this school with my child’s education?
The fact is, most questions asked at school fairs are answered on the school’s website and in the brochures on the table (you did bring the brochures, right?) And in the unlikely event a question isn’t answered in one of those places, prospective parents could just as easily get an answer by phone or email. However, the reason why parents decided to give up an evening to rub elbows with a bunch of admissions officers isn’t because they’re on a fact-finding mission about test scores and pedagogical practices.
In fact, many of the prospective parents already know a lot about you, either through your website (you’ve worked on your website, right?) or by reputation. Parents come to these fairs to shake a person’s hand, look them in the eye, and get a sense of the people who make up the institution. It’s the personal connections, not the data, that will leave the biggest lasting impression.
Of course, in a big crowd, it’s difficult to make these connections. That’s why…
Don’t Go at It Alone
Even though we like to think of ourselves as rugged individuals, humans tend to have a herd mentality. We’re more interested in a movie once we learn that it’s sold out, and we’re intrigued by any restaurant that has a line out the door. If everyone else seems to like it, it must be good.
On the other hand, a lonely recruitment officer at a school fair can seem like a wallflower at a school dance who’s hiding in the bleachers. You could be the most amazing school in the world, but if it looks like you’re off in your own world, new families might not want to approach you.
Fortunately, you’re not alone. Your school is a community that brings together administrators, teachers, coaches, parents, and, of course, students. Find members of this community who are excited about your school, and bring them along to spread the word. If possible, have at least three people at your table so it doesn’t look empty during the slow times, and you have enough capacity to give everyone personalized attention during busy times. Also, having three people ensures that your booth will still be fully staffed when someone has to run back to the car to get more brochures (you did bring extra brochures, right?)
Also, since the goal is to make personal connections, remember who’s attending these fairs: prospective parents and students. Who will they identify with most? Current parents and students, of course. You want the principal or recruitment officer there to make sure all the information you give out is accurate. However, a nervous 5th grader trying to pick a middle school will be more comfortable talking to a smiling 6th grader than a middle-aged administrator. Similarly, a prospective parent is interested in more than what goes on in the classroom. They are deciding if they want to become one of the parents in your community, and the best person to offer insight into that experience would be another parent.
Moving Pictures are Worth a 1,000 PowerPoints
PowerPoint is a great communication tool for business settings. You can use bulleted lists to make clear and concise points about complicated issues. However, to a parent dealing with an emotionally fraught decision like where to send his or her child to school, a PowerPoint presentation can come off as formal and alienating.
Video, however, is much more engrossing. A video can show your school in action – teachers teaching, students learning, coaches coaching, and orchestras performing. You can have students talking about what they love about your school, and you can bring families inside the walls of your school to see what you’re really about.
Please, whichever you do, make sure to work out any technical bugs beforehand. Have a backup of your video or presentation on a flash drive and in the cloud.
Words Are Not Enough
You can explain at length your school’s great athletics or STEM program, but words will only carry you so far. Just as a video can make your school come alive, showing your school’s awards and accomplishments is much more effective than just talking about them.
Is one of your alumni playing in the NFL? Bring their jersey! Do you have an amazing jazz ensemble? Play their music! Did your robotics team win the State Championship? Bring the trophy! Better yet, bring the robot!
Yes, you list these accolades in your brochure, but now you have them in person. Saying you have an amazing visual arts program has a fraction of the impact of displaying some of that amazing visual art.
Finally, Follow Up
Congratulations! You set up a compelling booth, made real, human connections with prospective families, introduced people to members of your community who are just like them, and showed off your school with a great video and concrete examples of your accomplishments. However, all of this effort to make the school enrollment fair a success may be wasted if you don’t follow up. For tips on how to follow up on leads, click here.