A Look Into The Demands Placed on Modern Private School Admission Officers
Today, I recommend two recent articles from admission directors to get an idea of the demands placed on modern admission officers.
I’ll get to the articles in a bit. First some general history:
The admission office holds an interesting place in a boarding school.
Its officers are the public face and voice of the school charged with marketing, connecting with families, and building relationships.
But it’s also the part of the school with which a family is apt to have the shortest relationship and a negative experience. If school and student don’t fit well together, it’s the admission office that has to make the judgment and deliver the news- the voice of positive hope and the deliverer of judgement all rolled into one.
As if that dual role isn’t difficult enough, the demands of the modern admission office have become year round.
Back in the day, admission, like the academic calendar, was mostly a nine month endeavor.
Admission officers hit the road in the fall visiting school fairs, alumni/admission receptions, visiting with educational consultants, and other referral streams.
Late fall brought everyone back on to campus and into the office. Admission and financial aid applications rolled in. Admission decisions and financial aid decisions were made on traditions deadlines (or rolling basis if the school used rolling admission). Accepted families were cultivated. Families made their school choices. Then, you had a few beds to fill during the summer.
Now the admission calendar is fragmented and most admission offices work year round in order to make sure that the most fundamental piece of the school- full beds/seats- is in place for the fall. In the bluntest terms, a full school means everyone stays employed.
Why shine a spotlight on the admission office? I think Tom Sheppard and Mike Vachow offer a perspective about admission work that school colleagues and parents can often overlook.
An academic schedule and some summer leisure in the admission office? No way, not in most boarding school offices today.
First, Mike Vachow’s piece “The Independent School Admissions Director at Tim Wakefield’s Catcher.”
Vachow draws on the trends and shifts that he and his school have experienced during the last few years as he likens the admission director’s role to that of the specialist knuckleball catcher. The slow moving, dancing flitting knuckleball requires specialized skills and so does leading an admission office.
“…my purpose here is to suggest that the qualities that define the best catchers of knuckleballers — mental and physical flexibility, a kind of clever patience, and perseverance — are the same qualities that define the ideal contemporary independent school admission director,” Vachow writes.
The flexibility required of a knuckleball catcher is much like that required of the modern school admission director Vachow argues.
“The best catchers of knuckleballers speak in paradoxes when they describe their technique. They prepare to move rapidly, but try to remain relaxed. They talk about using “soft hands” to catch the ball, but are quick to abandon catching the ball for simply stopping it with any part of their bodies or equipment. Most important, good knuckleball catchers talk about “catching it late.” That is, they try to react only once the ball is about six feet away from the glove. From the stands, this technique looks almost as if the catcher is snatching at the ball. And even then, catchers of knuckleballers allow many more passed balls than is average. It is not uncommon to see a major league catcher move his glove to where he thinks the ball will be only to take the ball off the center of his facemask.
Since 2008, the yearly trends in the independent school admission environment have been knuckleballs, and necessarily, the most successful admission directors have much the same skill set as a knuckleball catcher. He or she is consummately well-prepared but wary of over-anticipating, imaginative enough to form a shifting definition of the new market realities but ready to abandon definitions that no longer have validity, flexible enough to arrange time and energy to follow the trends as they develop, and humble enough to accept bad guesses or to work harder to retrieve an inquiry that looked like it was getting away.”
Like a knuckleball catcher, Vachow and his colleagues have accrued their fair share of bumps and bruises as the admission world and families have lurched from trend-to-trend and event to event.
Vachow concludes that the admission process, and larger world, now throw so many unknowns and unexpected events toward a school that maybe it’s time to make the knuckleball specialist the starting catcher.
Writing for SSATB, Stevenson School (CA) admission director Tom Sheppard shares and draws on his experiences as admission officers face the summer heat.
Yes it’s hot outside, but the real heat for the admission office comes in the form of facing summer with beds to fill.
Tom’s been there and done it.
Speaking to a young admission professional audience, Tom provides insights to help young admission officers approach the grueling summer admission cycle when you can find yourself second guessing and wondering “what have I gotten myself into?”
“For any of you who now find yourselves heading into the heat of the summer wondering if you will make budget, let alone reach full enrollment, I offer the following:
You are not alone. During my first summer in admission I was often awake at 2:00 AM, experiencing real stress for the first time in my life. I was convinced no one else could possibly understand the pressures I was facing. I now know that nothing could be farther from the truth and feel lucky to have a network of colleagues who are just a phone call away, ready to share my ups and downs…
Stick with your plan. The most successful admission offices I encounter are offices that plan for the long term, know there are no silver bullets, and have a well-defined plan to see themselves through good times and bad…
Be completely transparent. Your Head of School and CFO know the pressures you are under. They also need to plan, so preventing any surprises by giving them regular and realistic enrollment updates is always the best approach…
Find balance in your life. Getting away, even when there is work to be done, is crucial. Our office is probably glad when I leave for a few weeks every summer. Yours will be too. You’ll return refreshed and ready for the challenges that never end.
Gauge your risks carefully. Meeting your enrollment goals is important, but not if it means taking unnecessary risks which will come back to haunt you…”
Colleague, or parent, it’s important to understand how the admission game changes daily. How good many admission professionals are, just how much juggling these professionals do as the knuckleball flits, floats and changes direction before diving, bounding off the plate and popping the catcher in the arm.
The great catchers shake off the pain and bruise. Chock it up to experience and look to their best on the next pitch.