Starting a long-term relationship (a.k.a. the college search process)

04.19.20236 min

Lessons from dating for each stage in the funnel


Imagine you’ve just met someone you like. From what you briefly know about them, you can see you have similar interests, and you’re interested in getting to know them a bit better. They’re interested in you too, so they send you a message: “Hey, I’ve made reservations for us every Saturday for the next few months. Can’t wait to spend every weekend with you!”

Whoa. Too fast? Probably.

Yet this scenario is basically what many colleges and universities do as they try to woo prospective students into what’s ultimately a long-term relationship. If these colleges were people, we’d say they were coming off as needy or aggressive or just out of touch with the real situation. And if you’re not careful, prospects may end up with the same view of your institution. 

Like any long-term relationship, choosing a university takes time and progressive commitment. Here’s the key: When you’re communicating with a prospective student, the “ask” you make must match the level of engagement they have with you at that point. 

Let’s explore the parallels.

Determining what you’re looking for.

When you create your online dating profile, you describe yourself with a list of characteristics that you want to show right off the bat. And when you’re looking for a person, you’re looking at their list of characteristics to see if you might be compatible. If you are, you’ll exchange contact details and start communicating. This is what happens early in the college search process. Students are asking basic questions about you: Do you have my major? Where are you? How much does it cost? Can I get in? Will I fit in there? If the answers to those questions match their expectations, they’ll be interested in learning more about you (a.k.a. requesting information).

Lesson from dating:

Make sure the answers to these basic questions are the first thing students see if they search for you online, land on your social profiles, or visit your admissions page.

Getting to know each other.

In dating, if you’re interested in someone based on what you generally know about them, your next step is to find out more. With this in mind, consider the first email in your comm flow. What information are you sending? What’s the call to action? Think about this as that first message you send someone you’re interested in. Your goal should be to get to know more about them by asking questions — and you’re probably not asking them out on a date (a visit to campus) until at least a few communications after that first one.

Lesson from dating:

The goal of your first few messages is to get to know the student, not to just talk about yourself or to immediately ask them to visit or apply.

The first date.

After you’ve been communicating for a bit, and if you’re both still into it, you’re ready to go on a date. You ask, they say yes, and together you set a time and date. Often, you both make an effort to present yourselves at your very best. This is akin to that first campus visit. (Remember, you don’t ask them to meet up until you’ve developed some deeper interest in each other.) And during that first date: Is there chemistry? Do they seem engaged and genuinely interested in you? Are they nice to the wait staff? This first in-person interaction often determines whether you’ll continue seeing each other or not.

Lesson from dating:

Don’t ask a student to visit until they’ve had some regular communication with you. Then, during their visit, show genuine interest and give them opportunities to make real connections with the people on your campus.

Seeing each other regularly.

The first date went well, and you’re communicating regularly. You’re not necessarily ready to commit forever, but you’re still interested in each other and want to see how the relationship develops. So you keep talking and texting and going out, and you share deeper information. You talk about the future, trying to assess your long-term compatibility. 

Lesson from dating:

Don’t ask someone to apply right off the bat. Before you broach the topic, make sure that they know enough about you to assess the possibility of a future together.

Proposing a long-term relationship.

“Will you be with me forever?” In dating life, this question comes only after you’ve both assessed your long-term compatibility and day-to-day happiness together. To be ready to say yes, you need specific answers to both big questions and routine questions: What are our life goals? How do we want to live? How are we together on good and bad days? So examine what you communicate during this stage of the funnel — it shouldn’t be just the same information you’ve been sharing all along. 

It’s time to get more specific. Don’t just talk about your great professors: show them in class. Don’t just talk about your great community: give your prospects a way to participate. Your career services are great? Cool: give prospects a taste by setting up a pre-deposit career counseling appointment. 

Lesson from dating:

To get a yes from prospects, you need to get specific. General information has gotten you this far, but you’ll only get a commitment if they really know you, and know exactly what it would be like to be with you. Make your yield content as specific as you can.

Committing to each other (but with so much still to do).

They said yes to your proposal. Great! But the work is far from done. Finances need to be figured out, living arrangements need to be decided, details have to be ironed out. And the pressure of so much to do can feel overwhelming — it might even generate second thoughts. In higher ed, this stage of the funnel can create a lot of anxiety. It can also be very disorganized, because so many departments are involved.

So: What can you do to streamline and simplify the sequence of things that need to happen after a student deposits? Whatever it is, do it. You don’t want the lead-up to their first day of class to be a negative experience, and you don’t want them to change their mind because you failed to communicate.

Lesson from dating:

Even though they said yes, you can’t stop communicating. This part of the process includes many stressful tasks, and your role is to be a partner who makes it all as easy as possible.

Happily ever after.

This is it! You’ve committed to each other forever. From a recruitment perspective, the funnel ends here. But thinking more holistically, we know that’s not the case. Growing and thriving happily together takes consistent communication and commitment. Consider the student’s experience on your campus: Are they fulfilled academically, socially, and emotionally? Are they respected and safe?

Lesson from dating:

Good relationships take continual communication and commitment. Successful enrollment doesn’t end on the first day of class — it requires ongoing effort to create a safe, inclusive, and fulfilling experience.