Organizing the Admission Team: 3 Alternatives and 1 Clear Winner

Organizing the Admission Team

Organizing the admission team is a key element in recruiting new undergraduates.  Recruiting is a complicated task with strong competition among available options, value and affordability concerns, and uncertainty about career outcomes and direction.  It is challenging for potential students to sort through the complexities and clutter and arrive at a decision which is best for them.  These complexities and challenges apply anytime, but are even more salient during times of disruption.

A well-trained admission counselor can be an important guide through this complexity, especially if they take the “counselor” part of their title seriously.  Their role has sales aspects to it, and they are paid by the institution to perform in such a way that enrollment goals are met, but good admission counselors accomplish this through active listening and careful matching of institutional strengths to student needs.

Assuming the right kind of training, a culture of accountability toward reasonable goals, and an organizational practice which encourages both growth and ongoing service in the role, what is the best way of organizing the admission team for success?  There are at least three common ways of organizing your team; let’s explore each of them, consider advantages and disadvantages, then come to a conclusion about the optimal organizational strategy.

Before we talk structure, though, let’s think about principles and what this structure is intended to accomplish.  The organizational structure should support the attraction of enough of the right students, meeting new student enrollment goals but also setting the student up for persistence to graduation.  The structure should also support the ongoing growth and development of admission counselors, giving them opportunity to hone their skills and prepare for advancement as they achieve success.  In addition, the structure should support longer-term success as admission counselors better understand their profession, the needs of potential students, and how their institution is uniquely equipped to meet these needs.

Advantages of Three Models

With these principles in mind, here are three primary means of organizing the admission team:

  • Geographic – counselors are assigned territories often comprising counties, states/provinces, zip code sorting areas, or other means of geographic division.
  • Intended major – counselors are assigned to support one or more majors/departments/schools by recruiting students interested in these programs.
  • Alphabetical – counselors are assigned chunks of the alphabet by student last name.

The territory model is both traditional and still most common.  Counselors build up knowledge of their territory over time – feeder schools, churches, and other organizations; key influencers; optimal meeting spots; the most productive college fairs  – which helps them increase their effectiveness and yield each year.  As they build connections and experience recruitment success, the current students they recruited become valuable assets in recruiting the next class (friends, siblings, neighbors).  Parents of current students can also be engaged to influence parents of potential students.  Learning to manage a territory well contributes to professional development for the counselor, preparing them to do this job even better, move up the ranks in the admission offic,e or apply these skills to another position at the university (or outside higher education).

The intended major model has gained traction recently and has intuitive appeal.  From the research we did with admitted students while I was at Credo, we know student perceptions of faculty influence college choice (The Faculty Factor in Student Recruitment), so there is power in mobilizing faculty more fully in the recruitment process.  Faculty appreciate someone who knows their program well and is focused on recruiting students for/with them, often leading to greater expertise for the recruiter and greater mobilization for the faculty.  Admission counselors in this system make regular appearances at academic department meetings to facilitate communication and mobilization.  Often admission counselors are hired, at least in part, because of their undergraduate major and their affinity for telling others about its merits.

The alphabetical model is a highly efficient means of assigning potential students to admission counselors.  My first job out of college was collecting installment loans over the phone for a bank in my hometown, and we were organized in this manner.  I had M – R and still can remember some of the stories and last names, especially about the repossession of a car from a Mr. M.  Building a relationship with the first child in a family creates traction when the next one comes along.


So, each model has some advantages; how about disadvantages?

The Alpha Model

The alphabetical model is simple to organize but is full of disadvantages.  For counselors, while there is opportunity to hone skills as a recruiter, there is no opportunity to master a territory, build a business plan, or become an expert in a small cluster of majors.  Since potential students often cluster at school, church, or other organizations, it is possible that every member of the admission counseling team could have recruits in the senior class at a feeder high school, for example.  This leads to questions like “which one of us should visit the school” and “who owns the relationship with the guidance counseling staff?”  In short, this model is simple to implement and should simply be discarded as an organizing principle.

I encountered this model on a project last fall and share this story to illustrate the inadequacies of it.  A young and highly talented admission counselor was describing his visit to a potential feeder school 150 miles from campus.  He was excited about his conversations with the guidance staff and several students, including one with whom he made a strong connection and felt this person was a great fit.  He said to me: “I got all excited about him and then I realized he’s not in my alpha grouping.”  If you’re going to visit that school and build relationships, it makes no sense to hand off those relationships to a team member simply because of a last name!  By the way, this college has shifted to a territory model as of this writing.

The Intended Major Model

The intended major model shares some of the same gaps as the alphabetical model.  The other major issue with the major model is highlighted by this NCES study published in 2017 – – the study indicates that 30% of college students had changed their major at least once by the time they reached their senior year and nearly 10% had changed their major more than once.  This uncertainty often extends to the college search process with some students changing their intended major more than once.  If students are likely to change their mind about intended major, then does this mean they get handed off to a new admission counselor each time they change?  This diminishes some of the value of this model.

In addition, every admission counselor needs to know enough about all aspects of college life, including the entire mix of majors and programs, in order to engage in helpful conversations at any point in the funnel.  Potential students and their parents don’t want to be handed off in mid-conversation to another team member; they expect a college representative to represent the college, all aspects of it!

The Territory Model

One of the critiques of the territory model is its focus on travel.  If travel becomes less important as a strategy (especially during a global pandemic), then does geographical territory management still matter?  Besides, too much travel contributes to burnout and turnover of admission counselors.  For this reason, some campuses have invested in fall semester “road runners” who are hired to cover the fall travel season only, sparing the wear and tear on their admission counselors in hopes they will stay on the job longer.

Knowledge of a territory does not have to equate to a heavy travel schedule, though.  The point of a sound recruitment plan is not to travel everywhere but to do so strategically, constantly measuring effectiveness and return on investment of budget dollars and staff time.  I worry about the transient nature of short-term road runners and the potential gap in building strong relationships with key territory influencers.

A Blended Solution for Organizing the Admission Team

No model is perfect, but is there a way to blend the best of two of them into an even stronger option for organizing the admission team?  I believe there is!  Since we’re in an academic context where majors and minors matter, what if territory was the organizational “major” and subject area expertise was the “minor?”  Counselors are organized by territories but also assigned a department or cluster of majors around which they hone expertise, build strong connections with faculty and serve as a resource to their admission colleagues.  This contributes to professional development in multiple ways, eliminates the awkwardness of handoffs when majors change, and builds great bridges to key faculty partners.

Is there a moral to this story?  I don’t think this is a moral, but the discussion reminds me that often blending the best of tradition with innovative approaches creates more powerful solutions than sticking to old models stubbornly or embracing new options without full examination, just because they are new.  Regardless of the principle you choose for organizing the admission team, the relationships built with potential students remain the most important of all.  If you can build great relationships with potential students and those who influence them while, at the same time, provide a valuable professional development experience for your counseling team, even better!

Want some help talking through organizing your admission team or other enrollment servicesLet’s talk!