College admissions ‘road warriors’ offer advice for travel season

August 27, 2013

The start of the academic year marks the beginning of “travel season” for admissions recruiters, who are mostly low-paid, recent college graduates in their 20s. They spend months on the road, living in hotels off the interstate and driving from high school to high school to promote their institution, answer questions and gather contact information for potential applicants.

I wrote an article last year about these recruiters, shadowing a brand-new recruiter from the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksberg,Va., and interviewing dozens of recruiters, deans of admission and high school counselors. In the process, I learned a lot about the life of a “road warrior” and pieced together this list of tips for newbie recruiters. (If you have more advice to add, please do so in the comments section.)

1) Actually know something about the institution you represent. Many recruiters have the advantage of having graduated from the school they now work for, but if you are new to campus, learn as much as you can. Listen closely and take notes during training sessions. Go to sporting and arts events. Read the school’s strategic plan. Keep up with campus news. Talk with as many professors, students and alums as you can, gathering stories that you can tell on the road. So much of college recruiting revolves around this question: What makes your school different?

2) With that said, it’s okay to not know the answer to every question.You can always do some research and follow-up with the student later. Do not make stuff up about your school. (That actually happens. Frequently.)

3) Make “road friends.” If you are given a state or region of the country to cover, you will likely see the same recruiters over and over again. Get to know them. Stay at the same hotels. Organize group dinners or other gatherings. This camaraderie will make the road much less lonely.

4) Don’t embarrass yourself. As one recruiter told me: “Always play nice and always be on your best behavior.” The college admissions world is a small one where people frequently change jobs and gossip travels fast. That weird older recruiter in the booth next to you might be an old friend of your boss -- or might be your boss in the coming months. Treat everyone with kindness.

5) Get an advanced degree. Many colleges offer their employees major discounts on tuition, so take advantage and get to work on a masters degree. It’s difficult to do this during travel season, so make sure that you can commit to the classes before you enroll -- or see if you can take them online. Load up your schedule during the spring and summer.

6) Schedule school visits early in the semester. If at all possible, try to front-load your travel season. Students will have yet to hit the stressful part of the semester, and you will be fresh and more energetic. Plus, that frees up the late fall for rescheduling visits.

7) Get organized and stay organized. Every recruiter I met had an elaborate system of keeping track of school visits, college fairs, class obligations and other appointments. I saw binders filled with spreadsheet print-outs, color-coded calendars and complicated smartphone apps. Figure out what works best for you and stick with it.

8) Sign up for hotel, airline and rental car rewards programs. One of the greatest perks of travel season -- which I was lectured on at great length by many recruiters -- is all of the loyalty points that you can quickly rack up. Those points can finance a future vacation and they are the source of endless conversation with other recruiters while waiting for fairs to start.

9) Drive safely. Every travel season in every admissions office, there’s often one recruiter who gets into a fender-bender or serious accident. With so many people logging so many thousands of miles, it’s bound to happen. But try not to be that person. Give yourself more than enough time to travel between appointments without speeding. Pre-program your destinations into a GPS or mapping program. And, seriously, don’t text while driving.

10) Remember that your age is an advantage, not a disadvantage. Some of the newbie recruiters I interviewed felt self-conscious about having graduated just a few months ago. Trust me, high school juniors and seniors would rather talk to you than a high-level university official who is the age of their parents. Be yourself. Be authentic. Be honest. Be funny. Be humble.

11) But dress like an adult. Flip-flops are not appropriate attire for a college fair or presentation, even if they are nice flip-flops. Invest in some comfortable shoes, as you will likely have to haul boxes of brochures across parking lots and spend hours standing at college fairs. Skip the super-high heels. This doesn’t mean you have to buy a lot of new clothes: You are at a different school, and perhaps in a new city, every day. No one will notice if you wear the same thing every day.

12) If you are flying, carry on and never let a professional outfit and important documents out of your sight. I know of at least one recruiter who had to give a presentation in yoga pants because the airline lost her luggage.

13) Give these high schoolers a break. Yes, they are young and naive. Yes, they ask somewhat dumb questions. Yes, they need to learn that leggings are not pants. Yes, their parents are overbearing and annoying. Yes, they make somewhat embarrassing grammar mistakes and have ridiculous e-mail addresses. Get over it. Don’t talk about them behind their backs or post their mistakes on your Facebook page. These petty distractions can cause you to overlook a student who would be a great addition to your student body.

14) Do some advance research. Before you visit a high school, learn about it: What sort of students attend? What is it known for? Does it ever send graduates to your college? Ask around your office or query recruiters from other schools who have visited before. See if any graduates of that high school attend your college now and might put you in touch with current students. (Along with this research, you will likely also learn important intel, such as which schools feed recruiters breakfast.)

15) Don’t get to your high school visits too early. At the height of travel season, some high schools will have dozens of colleges visiting each week. Something that shocked me was just how unexcited some high school counseling center employees were to see another recruiter walk through the door. Don’t take it personally. Get there on time, but not too early, so they don’t feel the need to entertain you. And try your best to make their day a little better by being as kind and low-maintenance as possible.

16) Listen to other college presentations. If at all possible, try to observe other recruiters give their pitches. Chances are, you will notice what I noticed immediately: Nearly every college pitch is nearly the same. You guys provide the same sort of information, make the same jokes and get the same awkward reactions. Try to be different.

17) Follow the rules at college fairs. Arrive early and set-up before the fair begins. Don’t be obnoxious. Don’t trash-talk other schools. Don’t leave early. And don’t organize push-up contests that make it impossible for students to get to the tables of other schools. (I’m looking at you, military school recruiters.)

18) Don’t forget a phone charger. Seriously. I forgot mine while following a recruiter through New Jersey a couple years ago, and it was miserable.

19) Load your phone up with apps. Now days, you can do nearly everything on your phone: Book flights and train tickets, cancel hotel rooms, pay parking tickets, keep track of expenses, track the weather or find the closest free WiFi. Find these tools now so that they are at your fingertips when you are pressed for time.

20) Make the most of your down-time. During travel season, recruiters spend a lot of time waiting. Always have homework or a novel to read. Do some sight-seeing in between appointments. Listen to audio books or language tapes while driving. Try not to waste this time.

21) Don’t gain a “Freshman Recruiter 15.” The life of a traveling recruiter is not usually the healthiest one with nightly buffet dinners, counseling center candy dishes, burning time at Starbucks or McDonalds, sugary margaritas at chain restaurants and hours of sitting in the car. Look for hotels with fitness centers and try to go every day. Keep track of your calories and opt for healthier options where you can. Don’t drink alone in your hotel room.

22) Try to make the road feel like home. Find a hotel that’s centrally located to several of your appointments, that way you can stay there for more than one night. Pack little comforts, like your favorite shampoo or tea. Get a room with a kitchen, or a least a fridge, and buy some groceries. Unpack your bag.

23) It’s okay to get homesick. Make sure to stay in touch with your friends, especially significant others, back home. FaceTime and Skype are great for this. Carve out time on the weekends to catch up and relax. If you start feeling truly burnt out, let your boss know. And remember: November will be here soon.

24) Don’t get frustrated. Constant travel comes with constant frustrations -- flight delays, traffic, over-booked hotels, lost luggage and appointments that fall through. No matter how well you prepare, things will happen. Take a deep breath, make some phone calls and deal with it, but don’t let it get you flustered.

25) Oh, and don’t show up to presentations hung-over. It’s no secret. Everyone can tell.

Jenna Johnson writes about Maryland politics, including the General Assembly, the administration of Gov. Martin O'Malley and the 2014 election.
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