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Making sure the student is clear on the pathway that matches their goals

With the new year and the beginning of spring term, the focus moves down the calendar on new applicants for the fall. January is a great time to reflect on how you can make sure prospective students who apply at your school have the best experience possible as they move forward in the enrollment process.

Thalia Garcia-Aguilar

To help you gauge where you are in the process of best supporting incoming freshmen — and learn where you might have gaps — we’ve outlined some simple assessment questions you can use as a checklist of sorts.

To do so, we talked with Thalia Garcia-Aguilar, an InsideTrack enrollment coach who coaches high school seniors applying for college for the first time. “I love working with this population,” she says. “They’re so excited. They just want to learn — and they’re so sweet.”

The importance of coordinated messaging

One of the first things to consider before reaching out to high school seniors is how your outreach fits in with other messages they’re receiving from the school at the same time. Put yourself in the shoes of your prospective students. You’re getting emails, postcards, mailed packets and possibly even text messages from a variety of different departments on campus — admissions, student services, housing, athletics, financial aid. Does the messaging sound like it’s coming from one coordinated effort or does it come across as a hodge-podge of different voices? “I don’t want to bombard them with emails so they are overwhelmed and don’t read them,” says Thalia. “I also need to know where the incoming student is on their journey. First impressions are important, and since I’m a stranger when I first reach out, the first thing I say has to land.” For example, Thalia says, “If I start a call with ‘thank you for your interest’ and the learner has never heard of the school before, I’ve already lost them.”

The outreach: Making your initial contact count

As you’re engaging with your learner for the first time, it’s important to consider the fit. Is this student truly the right fit for your institution and their program of interest? Ask yourself:

What type of lead do I have?
  • How does my language change between a student who has shown interest in my school and a student who hasn’t heard of us?
  • What is the student’s level of interest in our school?
  • How are we sourcing our outreach lists and are they accurate and up to date?

When Thalia connects with students, who in her case are seniors in high school, her priority is to support them in finding the right college — one that will support them in reaching their educational goals. “To me, one of the first things to assess is: ‘Is this the right college for them?’ If it’s not, that’s OK. If it is, that’s great! Finding the right school makes a huge impact because that connection and sense of belonging will help mold them into the person they want to be.”

The nurturing: Keeping the connection going

Once you’ve begun to assess a student’s interest in your school and are moving forward in nurturing them, think about the ways in which you’re communicating with them — both in one-on-one outreach, as well as within the overall landscape of other communications from your school. Ask yourself:

Am I part of a larger support team that is also outreaching to the learner?
  • How can I articulate my role in the context of other support available?
  • Are we collaborating across departments for efficient, consistent communication?
  • Do we have a clear and easy-to-follow communication plan?
  • How will we determine if our communications are enough... or too much?
  • Are we meeting students where they are, using communication channels they actually use?

As soon as you’ve connected with your incoming students — providing relevant communication on the right channels — it’s now time to help them navigate the complex steps of their college application process. According to Thalia, there can be many pieces in the typical application and enrollment puzzle. “It’s my job to ensure that seniors have clear next steps, along with the due dates that go with each step,” she says. Thoughtfully consider each of these key steps:

The Application
  • Does the student know how to access and complete the online application form?
  • Do they need letters of recommendation — and if so, do they have the relationships and skills to secure them?
  • Do they know how to send their transcripts — unofficial (before they graduate) and official (after they graduate)?
  • Are they aware of the school’s priorities? For example, does your school place emphasis on the student’s GPA, written statements, and/or standardized testing scores?
  • What (if any) placement tests are required and how are they scheduled?

  • Does the student know what the FAFSA is and are they eligible to apply?
  • Do they know the FAFSA cycle that is most relevant to their start date (are they taking early summer classes, for example)?
  • Have they considered scholarships at the local, state and federal levels?
  • Do they have contact information for the Financial Aid office at the school?
  • What budget tools are they comfortable using?
  • Do they plan on working during school?

On-Campus Life
  • What non-academic interests does the student have?
  • Are there specific orientations or other programs that can support them in making a community when they get to campus?
  • How does housing fit into their experience? What housing accommodations do they need to thrive?
  • If they are an online student, what remote support systems are in place to help them make a community?

The handoff: Creating a clear path forward

It’s important to remember that the application process can feel overwhelming to students — many of whom have never been through a process like this on their own before and may not have other support systems in place. Providing students with clarity and transparency is critical to their success. While this might feel like a familiar process to you, it’s new and often anxiety-producing to them. The process can really slow down if your student doesn’t know where they are in the enrollment process, or who they should be talking to at your institution. As you move through different steps in the enrollment journey with your students, ask yourself:

Is there a supportive hand-off in this process?
  • When handing off a student to a different department, do I have a hand-off plan in place?
  • What’s the name and contact information of their next point of contact, and does the student have this information?
  • Is it clear whether the student needs to reach out or if the staff member needs to reach out?
  • Do I have a plan to follow-up with the staff member to make sure the applicant successfully connected with them?

Is the student file updated with the most current pipeline actions?
  • For example: Has their deposit been received? Are placement tests scheduled? Has housing information been sent out?
  • Do we have a communication plan to keep our learners informed of their status?
  • Does every department or enrollment team member have the ability to update the file relevant to their stage in the pipeline?

Closing gaps: Back to basics

Remember the pandemic lockdowns that began in 2020? The impact from that is still evident when you work with high school seniors. As sophomores and juniors, they spent a good deal of time doing online learning from home, with none of the usual structure or everyday life that makes up a typical day in high school. That’s why even as you gain momentum during the enrollment process, it’s also important to slow down now and then and check in on some basics.

As Thalia notes, “It’s exciting when you can see students making the connection between choosing a major and the career they envision. But I could also see that there was a lot of confusion.” She recalls working with an applicant who wanted to enroll as a double major. Typically, this is ambitious — but not impossible — for an incoming college freshman. But in this case, the student wanted to be a teacher and a nurse at the same time. “She didn’t realize that these tracks have conflicting priorities,” said Thalia. “I took the opportunity to ask questions and learn what was motivating her and why this goal was important. That enabled us to explore ways she could still honor that foundation, and I guided her to take a path that was more conducive to her success.”

Thalia talked with another high school senior who wanted to be a veterinarian. “They didn’t know they had to get a bachelor’s degree first,” she said.Yet gaps are not only evident in academic plans. “I’ve also noticed seniors seem to be delayed in social development.” Thalia notes that it is common to hear about their anxieties and mental health challenges given all the things that we've all gone through in the past few years. “As coaches,” she says, “we have to be prepared to provide resources.”

  • How will I know what they don’t know?
  • What assumptions am I making regarding the support they have received up until now?
  • What impact has the pandemic had on this year’s seniors?
  • Did they do any part of their high school online?
  • Did they have extended sick time?
  • Did their support team have extended sick time?
  • How is their physical and mental health currently?
  • Do they have a support role in their family or community? If so, how will college impact that?
  • What did they tell me without telling me?
  • Can I ask one more assessment question?

Thalia notes that typically, an enrollment coach doesn’t continue on with a learner once the term begins and they have started school. This is often true of institution enrollment offices too. Because of this, she explains that they need to be secure in their next steps — feeling confident in where they stand and what they need to do when they get to school, either on campus or online. “I do my best to make sure they have everything they need for a strong start,” she says. Here are some questions to ask yourself to make sure you do too:

  • What will support look like for my student once they start school?
  • Are they connected with an academic advisor?
  • How will they stay connected to their goals? Have their goals been recorded in their official file?
  • Am I aware of the student’s accomplishments so I can build momentum for motivation?
  • How do they access the career resource center?
  • How do they access the student health center?
  • How do they apply for any special accommodations?
  • What support is available in a crisis?
  • How does belonging fit into their success plan?

Starting college can be the biggest transition a high school senior has faced, and the level of detail required to make the transition successful can feel staggering. Partnering with the applicant to dive into these details and successfully completing the process can be a huge confidence builder. A successful start can impact their experience right from the get-go — and for years to come.

Brad Lee lost his father in his senior year of high school, impacting his outlook on going to college at ODU. Learn how connecting with an enrollment coach showed him that he was wanted at the university and inspired his determination to succeed.

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