Flipping the Admissions experience

Once upon a time, I took my kids to Disneyland Paris. The day was filled with a mix of thrilling rides, overpriced fast food, long queues and the inevitable stop at the Disney store, perfectly positioned by the exit so that the kids could pick up a small memento to take home.

From a psychological point of view, it could be argued that these take-home gifts are transitional objects that bridge the gap between the make-believe world of a Disney theme park and the rather more mundane reality of their bedroom.

Adults can similarly be prone to these devices. Think back to the last time you went to a sporting event or to the theatre and ended up spending twenty dollars on a program. We often purchase such items, not because of the information they contain, but because they act as mementos when we get back home — a physical memory of the experience that we were fortunate to enjoy.

It’s the same with school brochures. Even though they are not as common as they once used to be — and even if, dare I suggest, they are rarely read from cover to cover — these glossy booklets have often been a visual, tactile device reminding families of an experience they had when visiting a school.

The problem with transitional objects, however, is that they are exactly that: transitional. So, the soft toys more often than not end up being forgotten at the bottom of a toy box and the school brochure collects dust under a pile of other papers.

So, what if we flipped the experience for families visiting our schools? What if we thought less about what they were taking away and more about what they were leaving behind?

For several years now, at the International School of Brussels (ISB) we have been thinking about how to intentionally design the experience of school for our families, including prospective families visiting our school for the first time. We decided to ditch the glossy brochure and focus instead on providing families with a means of leaving us with something by way of a trace or memento of their visit.

And all it takes is a Post-It Note, a pen and an empty wall.

Imagine that a family has just walked around your campus. Each member of the family has had plenty to take in and their senses are still busy processing everything they have seen and heard. In fact, they are actually trying to make sense of it all by running it through the conceptual framework of previous knowledge and experiences they may have had.

The problem, though, is that sometimes this kind of sense-making is harder than we imagine.

At the ISB, each time a prospective family walks around the campus, we give them a Post-It Note and ask them to leave us with an observation, a feeling, a reflection or a suggestion. Both adults and children alike write or draw their ‘impression’ and then place it onto a wall of others’ impressions (one that now has hundreds of entries).

Individuals respond to this simple activity in different ways. Sometimes they jump right in and know exactly what to say. They comment on the perceived kindness of our teachers or the quality of the school facilities. They mention a piece of playground equipment that looked particularly appealing or how they wish that they were a child again so that they could attend the school themselves. Others, however, hold back — clearly still processing what they’ve seen — and spend time reading the hundreds of comments that others who came before have written. Some write in English, others in a different native language. Children often decide to draw a picture that captures their own impression.

In the end, though, it doesn’t actually matter what kind of memory or impression they leave with us. It is more the fact that they have spent time with us and are now leaving a trace of their visit for us to remember. Even if they never come to our school, we want to acknowledge they were a part of our story, even if only for a brief moment in time.

One of the interesting things we have noticed by flipping the admissions experience in this way, is that sometimes a family will be intrigued by this wall of impressions even before their tour has begun. Often, we find families standing in front of these Post-It Notes reading hundreds of impressions, each one framing the experience of the school they are about to enjoy; each one building anticipation and excitement for the learning environment they are about to see.

And, in the end, there is perhaps no better or cheaper marketing than that.

Dr David Willows is the Director of Advancement at The International School of Brussels, Belgium and was listed as one of the world’s Top 10 Global Education Influencers in 2021. In 2022, he co-founded new venture [YELLOW CAR], aimed at helping schools stand out. fragments2.com

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