Admission Officer: Learning Skills for a Lifetime

The three years that I spent as an admission counselor at Washington University in St. Louis included some of my favorite experiences. Looking back a dozen years later I recall that ambitious, young, eager, college graduate embarking on an exciting and life-changing first job. I attended Washington University as a double major in architecture and American history. After the long hours I spent in the studio, spending time in the admission office giving tours, meeting students, and participating in admission presentations was a welcome break. As I realized in my final year of college that I didn’t want to pursue a career in architecture, my friends (future colleagues) in the admission office saw an opportunity to encourage me to join the team. Although I didn’t attend college with the intention of becoming an admission officer who would ultimately lead a fruitful career in higher eduction, this was one of those occasions in which an indeterminate path led to great future gains. Though I’ve chosen to stay in higher education for fifteen years, colleagues in the admission office moved in many different directions. The skills we learned in our time as admission counselors arguably had a profound impact on us as professionals.

The top five skills learned in admissions (that can be transferred to other fields) are:

1. Public Speaking Prowess

I always find it amusing when someone mentions that on a survey of greatest fears, public speaking ranks higher than death. That’s how much some people hate to speak in public! As an admission counselor public speaking is a big part of the job. On-campus information sessions, group meetings and panels on the road, high school visits– these are key admission counselor duties. Getting comfortable and then ultimately getting good at giving presentations is a critical skill in nearly every profession. The ability I gained as an admission counselor to speak in front of huge audiences, answer questions off the cuff, maintain a sense of humor and composure, these are all qualities that will serve me well into the future.

2. Conquering the Unknown

There are times when everything can go wrong. I remember being completely lost in the middle of nowhere Pennsylvania, in the era pre-GPS, clock ticking away, getting later and later for an evening high school visit. Maintaining a sense of humor about the situation (knowing it would be funny someday) and using quick thinking (just keep finding those backroads gas stations) allowed me to problem solve my way out of a tough situation. I can only imagine what these situations are like for my international student recruiting colleagues. Things go wrong. Life throws some punches. Knowing how to problem solve and effectively manage the situation solo has made a huge difference in my ability to manage future professional challenges. This is a skill that must be learned through experience. As an admission counselor there are endless opportunities to learn to conquer the unknown.

3. Engaging with Diverse Populations

It sounds trite but this is a multicultural marketplace. Globalization is the game changer of the present and the future. Even as a domestic admission officer I met students and parents from around the world. I learned to effectively communicate and engage with varied families and individuals. I also learned how to be comfortable speaking with those whose background or experiences vastly differed from my own. I know plenty of adults who have yet to master the skill of being comfortable with others. To compete and be successful in this global marketplace, these skills are critical.

4. Managing Elation and Disappointment 

One of the highlights of the admission officer job is sharing in the delight and sheer joy students and parents exhibit when the admission decision is favorable. On the flip side, one of the darkest parts of the job is sheer and utter disappointment of an admission denial. Learning how to relate to a wide-spectrum of folks (guidance counselors, students, parents, alumni) dealing with frustration and disappointment is a harrowing experience. Developing the appropriate language and communication techniques for relating to the happiest of clients and the angriest of clients is a useful skill in any profession.

5. Selling Something of Value

The core of the admission officer job is selling the institution and the experience therein to prospective students and parents and high school counselors. Learning to advocate for a product in which one believes is a vital skill that can be transferred across professions. Having the ability to give the “elevator speech” about your company, your product, even yourself, can bring success and greater professional satisfaction.

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