Taylor Willis: My Experience as a Bronco Student Ambassador

Taylor Willis, a member of Versation's Student Advisory Board, is a Bronco Student Ambassador at Boise State University. She recently shared with us about her decision to become an ambassador, and what her experience as part of this group has meant to her: 

It was two weeks into my freshman year at Boise State, and I was having my weekly FaceTime with the empty-nester parents. After asking a million-and-a-half questions, my mom asked if I was interested in giving tours on campus. Questioning and a little curious, I replied half convinced that I wanted to, and she told me about this opportunity to be a Bronco Ambassador. Having my new profound independence, I decided to take her advice, and I sent in my resume and cover letter. Before I knew it, I got a group interview, and somehow, I was offered the job (it wasn’t a paid position, just community service, but I was still shocked). They hired a little freshman with only two weeks of experience as a Boise State student. And if I’m being completely honest, I knew nothing about the campus or Boise in general because I’m originally from Washington. 

So now, here I was, a little baby college student, training to give tours on campus and wearing the classic khaki and polo outfit. About two months in, it was time to give my first tour. It was during one of the biggest events that Boise State Admissions puts on, called Discover Boise State. I was expected to guide a group of 30 people through campus for two whole hours. This might not seem like too difficult of a task, but let me share that I am a fast walker and talker. Usually, I can do the whole campus in an hour and a half flat. Also, keep in mind that there are 35 other tour groups going around in the same amount of time. It was a lot of pressure for the first tour, and to say that I was nervous is an understatement. I don’t remember much from the tour because of all my nerves, but I do remember one high-school senior, Camille, who was with her aunt. You can ask any tour guide – what makes a tour are the people (usually, funny dads are the best). Camille was energetic, excited, and down to earth. She was from Washington as well, and I honestly just talked to her the majority of the time. When it was the end of the day, they thanked me, I waved goodbye, and I went on with the rest of the event (aka: eating free food). 

As the year went on, my love for giving tours grew. I, then, applied to be a Resident Assistant (RA) with the housing department on campus, and I got the job. I received my assignment around July 1st and, shortly after, got a Facebook message from my future roommate, talking about how excited she was to live together. I dropped the sad bomb that I was her RA, and she immediately wrote back, “Do you give tours on campus?” After my sigh of relief that she still wanted to be my friend, we got up to talking, and I realized my new roommate was Camille. She then proceeded to tell me that she picked Boise State because of the awesome tour she went on at Discover. This is the moment when I knew that this job was worth more than the free polo’s and food. Now halfway through my sophomore year, Camille lives in the room right next to me, and she is my rock. Her positivity keeps me going through my busy schedule, and our conversations just seem to flow. I’m grateful for her everyday and so thankful that she decided to sit at my table at Discover. 

Being an Ambassador not only means that you get to brag about the school that you love, which is my favorite part, but it also gives you the opportunity to get to know these prospective students. I went on 10 campus visits across the west coast, and Boise State was actually the last school that I visited. I had already decided on a different school, so my mom had to force me to get out of the car for the tour of Boise State. I stepped out, and I got that cliché feeling that I was home. 

Some people might not think that college tours matter, but I am a firm believer that they do. I love spending time on my tours trying to get to know every person. People come on tours to see the campus, but subconsciously, they want to feel the atmosphere of the campus and the attitude of the people they are going to be spending four years with (maybe, five – I won’t judge you). No one cares about what year the Student Union Building was built, but they do care about the community, the people, and the opportunities that this place is going to offer them. I fill my tours with awful jokes, personal stories, and amazing restaurant recommendations for when they are bored in their hotel rooms during the afternoon. This makes the tours less rehearsed and more of a conversation with some family friends. 

I now work in Admissions as a Student Recruitment Specialist (a fancy title for a Bronco Ambassador who now gets paid), and on a daily basis, I get to talk with prospective students. Whether its giving an actual tour or answering phone calls and emails, I get to interact with these people who are so excited to come to school here. The amount of pride and positivity in the Admissions office is unreal, and I’m forever grateful that they thought I was a great fit. 

I never thought that I would have ended up where I am, but I’m incredibly happy that I did. I love being an ambassador and all that comes with it. And I’m so appreciative of whoever decided to take a chance on little, freshman Taylor and give me this job.

It has been so worth it, and it’s crazy to think that none of this would have happened if it weren’t for that person. I can’t think of a better way to end this other than to say thank you, and of course – Go Broncos!



Student Ambassadors Help With University Recruitment Travel


It's that time of year again! Now that this year's current class is all settled in, it's time for admissions counselors to hit the road. You can take about 5 seconds to breath before you're thrown into another season of the admissions cycle. Traveling to high schools, college fairs, and admissions events can be an incredibly rewarding, if exhausting, experience. Make sure you're using this time to not only connect individually with prospective students, but to connect those prospects to your current students. 

We got the chance to speak with some high school guidance counselors at NACAC last month, and they consistently told us that the most impactful experiences their students had during the college search was the chance to speak with a current student at the school they were looking into. Some schools are lucky enough to have ambassadors do some fall travel with them. For those of you who can't, how are you connecting those students you meet on the road with the students that are back in your office? 



Lifetime University Student Ambassadors

Schools spend enormous resources finding, training, and managing student ambassadors to mold them into one the most powerful components of their recruiting strategy. So why, when ambassadors graduate, don't schools ever talk with them again?

Great question. Why don't you?

Hands down, the biggest idea in peer recruitment is Lifetime Ambassadors. If you currently have 50 ambassadors, why start from 0 each year? Think of your program as adding 50 ambassadors each year. After 5 years, you'll have 250, with 200 of them spread around the country as your virtual marketing team.

The day that students graduate and only hear from schools wanting donations will come to an end soon. While alumni might not want to donate money, it's amazing how many want to help in other ways. Including recruiting. And helping find people jobs. They just need to be asked.

So why hasn't it happened more often? Most people say time. You barely have time to manage your current group of ambassadors who are focusing on school tours and reaching out to prospective students.

But now, with PeerPoint, adding alumni to your online ambassador lineup is as easy as asking them.

For the past 4 years we've worked with Syracuse University on a system that links graduating students with alumni to help them find jobs. When they came to us to ask for help, we talked a lot about their alumni and if enough of them would want to volunteer to help graduates moving into the work force. Within just a couple of months of asking, they had thousands of alumni sign up. It was game-changing.

And they aren't unique. Our research shows that people feel emotionally connected to their alma mater and remember how hard it was to find a job at graduation or decide on a university as a high school student. They want to help.

Here's how you can make it work. Keep a record of your ambassadors as they move on from the program and work through completing their degrees. If you use PeerPoint, keep them in the system and email them occasionally to check in. Their graduation dates in the system will inform you when they are leaving, which is when you can reach out and ask for help.

When asking for help, explain that you'd like to profile them on your site as an alumni ambassador. Their duties will include answering emails from people with questions, and maybe even getting together with people in their current city to talk about the school. It's as easy as that.

Let us know if you'd like to learn more about what other schools are doing. With a little effort, you can build your ambassador team into the thousands.

Student Ambassador Advisory Board

We're pleased to announce the formation of the first Versation Ambassador Advisory Board, which will be made up of student ambassadors from different types of higher educational institutions across the country. Our conversations with school administrators often lead to conversations with student ambassadors and their input has been tremendously valuable. No one knows the mindset of a prospective university student like a recently admitted student who just completed the college choice process.

We'll form a group of 5-10 of the most dynamic ambassadors in the country, connect them with each other, and produce a creative environment that fosters new ideas and industry collaboration. These ambassadors will share ideas proven at their institutions and help drive the future of peer recruitment.

Versation will facilitate 4-5 phone conferences per year where recruitment concepts will be discussed, including detailed roadmaps for the future of our products. Board members will have the chance to help develop our strategy and be involved with a company that is redefining how students connect with prospective students to facilitate authentic dialogue regarding one of the biggest decisions of their lives.

In the end, the board will help students network with their outstanding peers around the country, give them an opportunity to drive strategy for an industry innovator, and get valuable professional experience as they consider their life after school.

If you know a student ambassador you'd like to nominate for the Student Advisory Board, please send an email to info@versation.com with their name and a brief reason why they'd be a good choice. We'll be interviewing candidates in August and forming the board shortly thereafter.

Thank you for your support with this great opportunity.

John Hayden

Student Experiences Beyond The Tour


The Week wrote an article that identified 4 ways that technology is "upending" college admissions: Virtual Visits, Live Chats, Social Media, and Innovations in Applying. We think upend might be the wrong word. How about: grow, expand, enrich, advance? Technology is providing schools with more ways to connect with prospective students. Making sure that those interactions are authentic and meaningful is key. 

Technology is allowing students to connect with colleges in ways that weren't possible until recently. The article's author Shira Boss notes that being able to create "a sense of community before a student even enrolls is believed to increase their comfort level with the school — and the likelihood they'll accept an offer of admission." If a prospect already has a feel for what a school's culture and environment is like, they're more likely to be able to picture themselves there. 

Providing a way for prospective students to get connected with current students on campus is a great way to make a meaningful connection. Boss says "if students make those connections with future classmates, it makes a difference in their decision-making." Prospects want to get a student's opinion on the school; they want to know what real people think of their experience. 



Should Student Ambassadors be Paid or Volunteer?

It's been very interesting talking with university admissions offices around the country about their student ambassador incentive strategies. Some swear that money is better, and others think volunteer pride can't be beat. Is one really better than the other?


Most of the programs we talk with that have paid programs have a specific goal in mind. They use words like "accountability" and "predictability" and say things like, "it's easier for us to make requests of them." These programs typically have a smaller, more targeted group of students that help with trackable admissions goals. Students might answer phone calls during a specific window of time and do so from inside the admissions office. They might travel with counselors to high schools to speak with prospective students and sometimes they have direct access to the school's CRM where they can input information they've collected.

The managers of these paid student ambassadors tend to see them more as workers. They like that they can count on them for a specific number of hours each week and that they don't have to worry much about incentivizing them beyond their paycheck. The school is paying them, so they should do the work.

When we find schools who switch from a volunteer to paid model, we love to ask why. The most common answer? Because they wanted a more focused approach, which can often mean fewer ambassadors, but clear goals and often more business-like tasks.


Volunteer ambassador programs are a different animal. Student ambassador managers use words like "emotion," "passion," and "pride" when they talk about their teams. Student ambassadors are often self-governed with ambassadors choosing their own leaders and getting involved in many different types of projects around campus. We often hear admissions officers say that they need to run ideas by their student ambassador boards first.

The managers here have a different strategy in mind. Theirs is more about fueling student interest and success with authentic stories and energy. There is less oversight and more self-empowerment. Incentives focus more on the prestige of the ambassador roll and professional experience. Ambassador programs like this can often grow into the hundreds.

The programs who have switched from paid to volunteer tell us that they wanted "broader" programs that were more "robust" and able to handle a diverse set of needs. They also talk about how these volunteer programs make themselves feel more like they are giving students life-changing opportunities, which is a very powerful thing.

Which Is Best?

While it might not be black and white, perhaps the best solution is the hybrid model that we've seen at a number of schools where specific tasks that are more work-related are done by paid students, while other brand-building student success activities are conducted by volunteers.

What really seems to matter, just like in any organization, is what the leadership is most comfortable with. A pro-pay ambassador manager might have a hard time in a pro-volunteer environment and vice versa.

For what it's worth, to us it seems volunteer programs have few drawbacks and don't bog down the budget. Harnessing the natural passion and drive of students is a tremendously powerful thing and when it's done correctly, everyone wins. The school's budget isn't touched, the ambassador manager is giving students an opportunity, the student ambassadors feel ownership of their experience at the school, and the prospective student gets authentic conversation. We like the idea of volunteer programs at every school, and then those who can afford it, adding paid teams where they strategically fit. The student engagement world is big enough for both.

Student Ambassadors for Yield

This being yield season, many of the schools we're talking with are trying to find ways to increase the number of admitted students who choose to enroll in their school over others. With tools like the standard application, it's easier for students to be accepted by more schools than before, leaving them with choices when it comes time to commit to one. Admissions office schedules are packed with events and activities designed to help prospective students make one of the biggest decisions of their lives.

U.S. News surveys schools for yield information and we thought we'd share their latest report to show you how universities stack up. Some of the numbers might surprise you, and we found it very interesting that of the 265 schools surveyed, only 25 could say that they enrolled more than half of the students they accepted.

But whether yield is high or low, every school is striving to improve conversion. Schools with high yield rates try to get the best of the best. Schools with lower yield rates are trying to position themselves as unique compared to the others in their category.

Whatever the goals may be, student ambassadors offer one of the most powerful tools available. If a school is looking to be different than the one down the road, connecting a prospect with a like-minded student can start a personal relationship that an admissions officer can't provide. If a school is trying to get the best students in the country, they probably should have one of their own reach out to their prospects and explain why the smartest decision is to join them at their elite institution.

As budgets are cut and more pressure is being put on institutions to improve enrollment numbers, personal connections are becoming a critical aspect of recruitment. A school's brand itself is no longer enough. Students want to know who they will be learning with and what they say about their experience.

Cornell Ambassadors Help Students Find Their Way

Cornell University's Graduate School is discovering the power of student ambassadors. In an article published in the Cornell Chronicle, some of the key players driving this recruitment effort shared their experiences about the new program. 

Oftentimes students can gather most of the basic information they need to decide if they're interested in a school from the website and course catalog. After that initial interest is piqued by the engaging courses and beautiful campus, their decision making becomes more critical, and more personal. At Cornell, they're finding that the best person to give a prospective student an idea of what their college lives will be like is a current student. And their enrollment numbers back up that idea. 

Student ambassadors are an incredibly powerful recruitment tool. Anitra McCarthy, the Graduate School’s Director of Recruitment, finds that ambassadors can "connect with prospective students by sharing their personal experiences directly and honestly." Prospective students want the "inside scoop," not a canned response about how great a school is. They want to know about a real experience from a real student. 

Student ambassadors are an amazing resource beyond the recruitment stage into yield and retention. Ambassadors Katherine Herleman and Aaron Joiner have found that they "often develop ongoing relationships with prospective students and serve as informal mentors," helping prospective student become current students, and making them feel welcome and wanted beyond their initial deposit. 

Ambassador programs also help ensure the quality of applicants and enrollees. Barbara A. Knuth, Senior Vice Provost and Dean of the Graduate School, said that "recruiting and retaining the most talented and diverse graduate and professional students is critically important to the overall success of our graduate programs.” From the initial inquiry to graduation day and beyond, making students feel not just admitted but accepted and supported increases the caliber of your student, and alumni, population. 

And the benefit does not just lie with the prospective students. Ambassadors at Cornell have “the opportunity to have ownership over how the graduate community identifies and cultivates relationships with talented prospective students." Being involved with the process of recruitment, enrollment, and retention leads to a partnership between ambassador and administration that helps create a unique college experience, and successful alumni. 


Student Ambassadors Are Your New Brochures


You know that slick brochure with the photo of your school’s first building on the cover? While parents might be impressed, 18 year-olds, your actual customer, are wanting something more.

Baby boomers have always appreciated thoughtful marketing. Heavy paper with a glossy finish is expected from higher education institutions. But millennials are putting more pressure than ever on schools to update their marketing strategies. Trust in your institution is now earned more through authentic feedback from experienced consumers (your students), and less through your brochures or web site.

While most universities are struggling with this shift, others are answering the call. When we started promoting student ambassador programs 15 years ago, there weren’t a fraction of the programs that exist today. Schools are realizing that their best marketers are their own students and have done great things with their student ambassador programs. And now, a growing number are empowering their student ambassadors to go beyond on-campus tours by extending their reach through direct online communication with prospective students as they look for new ways to share authentic experiences.

For years we've seen the powerful impact on conversion rates when prospects are given the opportunity to speak with students. And don't think the media hasn't taken notice, either. Forbes recently helped produce a study that demonstrates some great points about millennials, your prospective students, that can help university marketing strategies adapt to the new standards teenagers are holding them to. Forbes mentioned 10 points in their article, but here are the ones we think directly apply to higher ed:

1. Prospective students aren’t influenced by advertising

Just 1% of millennials surveyed in the Forbes study said that an ad would increase their trust of a brand. They simply don’t trust traditional advertising and avoid it at all costs. They want to hear about your brand from someone they trust, which will lead to them trusting you. And only then will they listen to your message.


2. Prospective students review online content before making a purchase

33% of millennials rely mostly on blogs or social content before they make a purchase decision, compared to 3% for traditional advertising. Authentic blogs or Instagram posts by experienced consumers (your students) is no longer a “nice to have.” If you don’t have authentic material on the web, and a lot of it, prospective students will probably be looking elsewhere.


3. Prospective students value authenticity over content

43% of millennials rank authenticity over content. They’d rather spend time hunting down authentic posts by other students talking about your school than reading your About page. It might take a bit longer, but the value of aggregating multiple opinions into one cohesive perspective is something they've been trained well on. Of course you need to have strong messaging on your marketing materials, but you also need to encourage your students to be producing content about you and having conversations with prospects online. Without it, you end up being just another glossy brochure.


Student Ambassadors Driving Efforts to Expand Online Reach

When it comes to choosing where to attend college, students have said that getting the inside scoop from other students was fundamental to their decision. When it comes to doling out the inside scoop, student ambassadors have said that connecting with prospective students was their favorite part of the gig. Getting these two groups together online has become a no-brainer. We got the chance to speak with David and Andreina, student ambassadors at Portland State University, about their experience using PeerPoint to connect with prospective students. They shared some of their key insights and inspirations with us. 


Student ambassadors find it easier and more convenient to connect with prospective students online. Andreina thinks that “the benefit of communicating online is that it’s fast. It’s easy. I’ve always got my phone with me. I can easily pull out my phone and respond to an email really quickly and just get it done.” This goes both ways: prospective students don’t have to wait until a campus tour or phone call to be able to connect with the ambassadors. 

Many prospective students can’t make it to campus for tours or recruiting events, which limits their chances to connect with their peers; they don’t have the opportunity to ask the questions that are crucial to their decision making process. Oftentimes these are questions about culture, campus life, and student activities rather than academics and prerequisites. Andreina thinks that giving these students the opportunity to connect with peers online is “important in order to get that personal touch, put a face to the school and get that inside perspective about what’s going on, especially if you can’t see it." 

David has found that communicating online is especially important because “in this day and age everything is done online so it’s extremely important to have an opportunity to communicate virtually; if you limit somebody’s ability to communicate virtually you’re essentially missing out on a large portion of our population today." Having the chance to connect virtually allows both prospective students and ambassadors to connect in a way that they’ve become accustomed to.