I recently attended the annual conference of the National Association for College Admissions Counseling (NACAC) in Columbus, OH, and was amazed to find that, even though every organization is unique, there are challenges that just about everyone in higher ed deals with. Attended by more than 6,000 admissions and counseling professionals from colleges, universities and high schools, the event is an opportunity to share successes, commiserate over challenges and talk about where things are headed. Several themes emerged this year, including the changing role of technology in the admissions process, how texting could help with admissions yield and even the state of the teen brain. But as someone who thinks a lot about how colleges and universities can more effectively communicate with prospective students, one theme rose above the others: fit. Put another way, how can higher education institutions and prospects successfully play The Academia Dating Game? With the number of schools that the average student is applying to growing each year and the increasing focus on getting maximum benefit out of the college experience, fit becomes more important every day. The need for fit is obvious from the perspective of the student: the first place many people will live after they leave home – and the people they’ll be surrounded by – is enormously important for the four years of college and all the years (and jobs) after that. But fit is just as important to the organization. College recruitment starts earlier, has become much more complex and competitive, and has gotten expensive. So schools are under increasing pressure to “win” the recruitment process so they don’t lose their investment of time and money – not to mention all the tuition revenue and the long-term fundraising opportunities. And how do you win? By offering admission to (the right) people who are more likely than others to say yes and be happy and successful at your school. This makes the marketing of your organization incredibly important. If you paint an unrealistic picture of your school, you get students who won’t be happy or successful. That, in turn, will poison the water well at the Word of Mouth Hotel. There are, of course, all sorts of things that impact fit, but here are two things I think college marketers and admissions counselors can do to make it more likely that the right prospects will choose your institution:Use personas to really get to know your prospectsWhat are personas, you ask? They’re proxies that represent key features of your current and/or ideal customer, in this case a prospective student, and they’re meant to make it easier to answer the questions that lead to good communication. If, for instance, your target prospect is an academically successful woman of color from California, your persona should reflect the things that might impact her decision-making: Does the school have the major she’s interested in? Will she be able to do research from day 1? How easily will she be able to get mentoring from faculty? Are there other students of color at this institution, or other people from her state or hometown? How close is the nearest airport? Etcetera. [caption id="attachment_3490" align="alignright" width="333"] Strong, fact-based personas can help identify prospective students who will be a good fit for your college or university.[/caption] A good persona will capture those characteristics and decision-making factors that matter for your particular prospect. Not the ideal prospect of the college in the next town over or the generalizable prospect of universities everywhere; they should capture qualities that you are looking to add more of to your school. (Download our how-to guide on developing personas.) An important caveat is that the persona can’t be so specific that it only represents a few people; it has to represent a key strategic business objective. For instance, the persona above would represent an organizational strategy like this: recruit more diverse, high-performing, science-interested students from the West Coast. Once you’ve got clear personas for your key audiences (ever wonder how many personas is too many?) you can create communications that answer the questions they have through the vehicles (print, website, social media, etc) where your prospects like to get their information. The hope is that through this thoughtfully planned process, you’ve done a great job communicating important things about your organization to the people who will be happy and successful at your school. In other words, they’ll fit.Bring the experience to life through Virtual RealityFor me, one of the best parts of the NACAC conference was watching people try on Primacy’s virtual reality (VR) headsets for the first time. We were showing them the tour we created of Regis University and its surroundings in Denver, CO, and reactions were always the same: “Wow!” “I feel like I’m there!” “So cool!” [caption id="attachment_3483" align="alignright" width="375"] A virtual reality (VR) tour has helped Regis University in Denver, CO., show prospective students what it's really like to be on campus.[/caption] And while VR is undoubtedly cool (as are the other emerging technologies we’re working on here at Primacy), it is also an unbelievably great way to evaluate fit. Regis, for example, is a Jesuit university with a strong sense of social justice and a culture that embraces nature and the importance of every moment in our lives. Those qualities come through in the VR tour: You can tour the campus’s church, learn about academic offerings that have a humanistic element like nursing and go along on a bike road through rugged mountain terrain. After reading the previous paragraph, you might be saying, “Wow, Regis sounds like an amazing place. I’d love to visit.” Or you might be saying, “That is definitely not the kind of university that appeals to me.” And that’s the power of VR. Within moments you can get a deeper, clearer understanding of what a place is like. For example, while wearing the VR headset, I went to “visit” the Red Rocks Amphitheater, the iconic music venue just outside Denver. As I looked around, I hesitated to move because I felt like I might fall down the stairs – even though I was actually safely on the open floor of the Columbus Convention Center. I have yet to see a brochure or video that can approximate that feeling. (Read a recent article featuring Melissa Tait, Primacy’s senior vice president of technology, about the use of VR in healthcare.) That isn’t to say, of course, that VR is right for every situation or every organization; if you’re a community college that draws its students almost exclusively from a small radius of towns, for instance, it wouldn’t be worth the investment. But if you’re trying to communicate something specific to a particular audience to accomplish a specific business objective (imagine how a VR tour might help our fictitious persona above, for example), it’s an amazing option to consider.