When I was an admission counselor, one of the most challenging parts of my job was building relationships with high schoolers.

I remember contacting a particular student for months. I’d talked to his parents a handful of times and they said he was really interested in the college I worked for — he’d applied and everything. I texted, emailed and social media-ed. In a last-ditch attempt, I even called his cell. (What teenager answers his phone?) 

I never heard from him. In fact, he remained elusive to everyone at the college. Finally, he visited in March, barely talked throughout our meeting but ended up enrolling.

It’s so important for kids to develop relationships during the college search process — and it’s a good idea for parents to do the same! It can work wonders for their college search and help your child hone in on the right college match. 

Why? Building relationships allows you to get an idea of the character of the people at that school — and that’s just one reason why building relationships is a must-do. 

Why it’s Important to Build Relationships During the College Search 

Jessica Quintana Hess, director of admissions at Lycoming College in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, says, “Families sometimes think, ‘We have all the information we need on the internet. Why do we have to talk to anyone?'”

She says there’s real value in building relationships with the admission staff, financial aid office, coaches and more. She says that, unfortunately, students often don’t take advantage of that or think that the colleges should only exist to serve them. Think of it this way, though. How can an admission counselor help you if he or she doesn’t know what you need?

“Relationship building can help you in the admission process, but if you’re not giving me anything, I can’t advocate for you,” she says.

Building relationships can:

  • Help those at colleges do active work on your child’s behalf. So, what I mean by this is that people at the college can advocate for your child, go the extra step and help your kiddo with whatever he needs. Quintana Hess shared this story with me:

    She says a young man enrolled at another college (not Lycoming) and got into a bit of trouble during his pre-orientation sessions. He could have stayed at the college but didn’t feel comfortable there anymore. He reached out to Quintana Hess because he had applied to Lycoming. She says he ended up enrolling because she was willing to give him a chance.

    “If we hadn’t built a relationship when he was an applicant, he wouldn’t have felt comfortable coming to me,” she says. “I get Christmas cards from his family every year,” she adds.
  • Cement relationships for down the road. This process is all about finding the match, right? You want to find the right place for your child — and that means interacting with the actual people at the college. Not the buildings online or the list of classes. The college experience is about the people.  
  • Help your child learn about opportunities. You hear about the heart and soul of an institution from the people who work there. You’ll find out how the robotics instructor hosts dinner at his own home or how the journalism professor stays up till all hours of the night to help students put the finishing touches on a fantastic article.

How to Start Building Relationships with Colleges

There are so many people you could start building relationships with — even before your student arrives on campus. There are three key individuals you’ll want to build a relationship with, plus, one more.

Admission Counselor 

The admission counselor’s job is to build relationships with you, particularly if you’re looking at a small private liberal arts college. Even if your son or daughter is looking at a state school, it’s still a great idea to build that relationship. 

How do you know who your admission counselor is at each school your child is interested in? Great question. 

All it takes is a little poking around on the internet. The country is typically divided up into a giant jigsaw puzzle. Just click on your area and you’ll find your admission counselor.

Coaches (Including Assistant Coaches)

Coaches want to get to know your child, obviously. Your child definitely wants to get to know coaches, too. Just don’t overlook getting to know assistant coaches. They’ll be able to answer a lot of questions that the head coach might not know, including about different aspects of team dynamics.

Definitely build a relationship with players every time you and your child is on campus. Have lunch with team members. Have your child do an overnighter. Make sure your student feels 100 percent comfortable with the team.

Financial Aid Professionals

Financial aid professionals are VIPs. Who else holds the key to knowing everything about institutional scholarships, the FAFSA, grants, work-study, loans and more?

Always make an appointment with the financial aid office when you visit any school. It may not even be an offered option online, so call and ask for an appointment.

School College Counselor

Right, school counselors aren’t at colleges. However, this is a great person for you and your child to get to know at her high school. School counselors can clue your child in on scholarships, connect her with must-know people in the community (scholarship opportunities!) and help navigate the college search.

They wield tremendous power. A dozen cookies and weekly drop-ins from your student will go a long way.

How to Build Relationships

You may know exactly how to build relationships, but your kiddo might not have any idea. Kids spend hours each day engaging with ideas and one another through screens, but do they have good practice honing their interpersonal communication skills?

I noticed this when I greeted hundreds of high school kids over the years — they just don’t know how to talk to adults.

Some parents are whizzes at teaching their kids to interact with adults. I’m always impressed when I say “Hi” to kids and they look me right in the eye, shake my hand and engage in simple small talk. 

Teaching kids how to do this gives them a lifelong advantage — I repeat — a lifelong advantage! They’ll be able to ask questions in college, do better in college, and succeed in college! They can sell themselves in job interviews after college (see the theme here?)

Now’s as good a time as any to encourage your child to start learning how to do this, especially if you know it’s kind of difficult for him. 

Fortunately, you can start small. Building relationships with colleges happens in more ways than one. You can:  

  • Email
  • Call
  • Text
  • Communicate via social media
  • Conference calls 
  • One-on-one meetings

And more! (I think the COVID-19 crisis will give admission offices even more ideas about how to communicate with students throughout the year.)

So, knowing there are lots of ways to communicate with colleges, I think it’s worth mentioning what your son or daughter can practice.

You want firm handshakes, eye contact and more when he or she interacts with adults — yes, even if your child is naturally shy. Here are some things you can work on.

Initiate Contact

Teach your high schooler that it’s a great idea to initiate contact with an admission counselor. Trust me, guys, I was an admission counselor for years and admission counselors are hungry to hear from your child. It’s the best day ever to open up an email from an interested student or get a text that says, “Hey! I’m interested in your college. Can you tell me more?”  

Trust me, most admission counselors will fall all over themselves to answer your child’s email or text.

Respond to Questions

The only way to get better talking freely with adults is to practice. Even among peers, is your child uncomfortable responding to questions or never pipes up in a group setting? It’s okay to be shy, but encourage your child to contribute if he or she is burning to say something. It’s a great idea to practice doing this among friend groups first, then translate it to adults. 

On the other hand, your kiddo may find it super easy to interact with peers, but not with adults at all. Encourage your child to practice. Say “Hi” to people at church, have her call up for pizza delivery. Ask your daughter to make her own appointment to get her hair cut — over the phone, not online.

Then work up to calling someone in the admission office to get information. Even better, have her set up a college visit. That’ll require a dexterous blend of having to schedule, coordinate and make decisions. Great practice! 

Sustain Conversations

Teach your child how to keep a conversation going and more importantly, be sincere in the questions he’s asking.

Gah, it can be such a thing to teach a high schooler how to have a conversation that’s not one-sided. Kids are so used to adults talking and asking the questions — do kids ever practice asking the questions? No. Teach him the art of the open-ended question.

A good suggestion is to talk about the things your child is passionate about — sports, hobbies, goals, dreams. A college professional always wants to hear about a kid’s goals and dreams. It’s what they live for!

I remember a 30-year-old nontraditional student I talked to in the admission office who had a dream to still go to medical school. At 30! I was entranced by his story — I could have listened to it all day.

Admission professionals lap that stuff up. Make sure your child knows how to talk about his goals.

Practice it Yourself

You may cringe if you notice that your child doesn’t interact well with adults.

But what are your own habits? Do you go out of your way to make small talk with strangers at the grocery store or waiters at a restaurant, or do you just exchange acceptable pleasantries and nothing more?

Your child picks up social cues from you. Remember that.

Continued Communication

When people like you, they want to continue chatting with you! The best thing you can do is have your child continue to stay in contact with prospective schools for an entire year. (Yes! A whole year!)

If your child’s no longer interested in a particular school, it’s important that he tells them. Reach out to admission counselors to let them know they no longer need to recruit your child.

(It can be frustrating for admission staff to have to keep reaching out blindly because they have no idea your child’s no longer interested.) 

Have your child send an email or text to the admission counselor to let them know they’ve chosen a different college.

Start Building Relationships Now

Don’t waste any time! Start building relationships with everyone you can at all colleges, whether your child is a sophomore or senior. Make sure your student does, too. It’ll serve your child well later.

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