Today’s admissions cycle may be year-round, but the fall admissions open house remains a powerful recruitment tool. And just because it’s a traditional time for prospective families and students to visit your school doesn’t mean your open house should be traditional.

If your open house retains the “same old, same old” of student panels, teacher presentations and tours, it’s time to change things up.

Your open house needs to showcase precisely what makes you unique — and why you stand out from your competition. Yes, there still will be traditional elements, but think beyond the open house to wow prospects and have them excited for the next step (a shadow day, individual visit, etc.).

Focus on what makes your school unique.

A great open house is one where the school’s distinction and brand clearly are on display. Brainstorm with your leadership team about what to showcase and how it connects to your brand.

Prospective families need a clear message about the value you offer and what makes your educational program different from your competition. A themed open house that showcases your distinctions will stand out — and help you stand out from other schools.

  • Is project-based learning at the heart of your program? Invite prospective students to do an actual project with current students and faculty and immerse themselves in the process. Have parents watch for a little, then send them on a tour before the finished projects or presentations are revealed.
  • Are you a STEM or STEAM (adding arts) school? Plan a hands-on program to showcase your program, facilities and faculty. Do you have an amazing outdoor classroom, new student center or maker space? Make that the center of your open house with activities focused on what happens in that facility.
  • Maybe your school has a well-known tradition that could be replicated for prospective families — or, if feasible, invite prospective families to the actual event (rival football game, for example, with special tailgating and tours with current families).
  • Embrace the DIY culture and host a workshop for prospective students and their parents. Make something in your maker space or arts center. Or have your current students and digital tech faculty teach a podcasting or vlogging workshop with prospective students, who could interview current students about the school and get instruction on editing and producing. Then screen the finished results, complete with popcorn. Check out The New York Times advice for teaching podcasting to teens.

Many of the elements of the more traditional open house still can be part of your event:  faculty, administrators and current students and parents to speak with, tours, etc. Have key administrators on hand to mingle, instruct for any projects, but not give PowerPoint presentations. Show don’t tell!

Think beyond fall. How do your fall events build on each other and move into winter and spring, as your prospects are hopefully moving through your admissions funnel?

Know what parents and students really want.

You’ve planned a great event that showcases how exceptional your school is. Make sure it includes what everyone looking at your school really wants: happiness. Parents want to know that their son or daughter will be happy at your school. Contented. Fulfilled, even. Students want to know that they will have friends and fit in.

If this basic need isn’t front and center at your admissions event (and throughout your admissions strategy), your event won’t produce interested prospects ready to take the next step in the process.

Learn tips and ideas to showcase what parents and students really want at your event.

Make the best first impression.

Planning a great open house is no different than when you invite guests to your home.

The “no-brainers” list:

  • Keep it spotless: classrooms, hallways, bathrooms, walkways, everything. Take your own tour the week, day before and day of. If things are messy (overflowing lost-and-found boxes, neglected bulletin boards, weedy flower beds, etc.), take care of it. If your event is after school hours or on a weekend, ask a member of the housekeeping staff to be on hand during the event.
  • Ask your student, faculty and parent volunteers to wear branded school spirit wear or T-shirts made for the occasion (“Ask me about NAME OF SCHOOL” work well), or, at the very least, school colors. This makes it easy for prospects to connect with your community. And name tags for everyone!
  • Choose your dates carefully. If you’re located in a college town or NFL town, an open house during a home game is a no-no. Same with a long holiday weekend. Be sure to see what dates your competition has chosen and avoid those dates. This isn’t a cage match. If you force prospects to choose your school’s event over another, you might not be happy with their choice.
  • Have parking guides greet visitors as they come onto your campus and direct them to the parking lot and place volunteers on any pathways. It’s a small gesture that makes a great impression and immediately lowers anxiety about where to park and what to do.

Get feedback that really counts.

You have a focus group ready and willing to share their feedback on your open house events: first-year families. Reach out via email, Survey Monkey, by phone or in person to those new, current families (parents and students) who just completed their first, full year at your school.

Their feedback on what they liked, what they wished they had learned at that event and what could have been better is invaluable to planning this year’s event. Why not ask them to attend as volunteer hosts? Some of your best ambassadors are your newest families.

Be sure to thank all volunteers with a handwritten note from you or your head, a small gift (coffee shop gift card), if your budget allows, and a shoutout of thanks in your weekly parent e-news and student announcements.

Next week, we tackle Marketing Your Admissions Open House in this two-part series.

Need to infuse strategy and creativity into your admissions program? We can help! Contact Kalix Marketing.

Sarah Achenbach is director of communications at Kalix Marketing. She has nearly three decades of experience in communications and advancement at independent schools and universities.

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