Field Notes: Admissions, do you have an operational communications strategy?

February 10, 2020
  • Admissions and Recruitment
  • Communication
  • Competencies
  • Staffing and Operations
  • field notes
hands typing on laptop with email and messaging symbols floating over them

"Field Notes" is a regular Connect column covering practical and philosophical issues facing admissions and registrar professionals. The columns are authored by various AACRAO members. If you have an idea for a column and would like to contribute, please send an email to the editor at

by Nancy Walsh, Director of Admissions Operations, Office of Undergraduate Admissions,  University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

When one thinks about communications being delivered by an admissions office, you likely immediately think about promotional messages:

How great it would be to be a student at University X!! University X provides xxx majors, xxx opportunities, xxx social clubs, etc. You absolutely need to be a part of this wonderful experience!! Rah, rah, rah!

Well, admissions offices can also use communications to their advantage for contacting applicants about important steps in the application and pre-enrollment process.  

What are operational communications? 

These are not marketing-oriented communications. Sure, they may include your university’s branding, but fall more into one of these categories:

  • Acknowledgment of application receipt and information on next steps

  • Encouraging an applicant to take action on a specific task

  • Informing applicant that there is a status change 

  • Letting applicant know when a decision has been made

  • Reminding them of required pre-enrollment steps 

These types of communications are generally sent out through email, but they can also include print, telephone or text messaging. Print examples could include postcard or letter reminders in regards to incomplete application files or Notice of Admission letters and packets. Telephone and/or text messaging campaigns can also be set up to help applicants complete their application files or complete the required pre-enrollment steps. 

Benefits of operational communications 

If the communications are read and understood, it should cut down on the number of contacts to your admissions office. Set operational campaigns will ensure that all your applicants have a similar experience with the backend processing and review of the application. Analytics can also be studied to determine if applicants are reading the messages and following through on requested actions. 

Build an operational communications plan 

1. Who needs to be involved?

  • Key operational staff
  • Communications staff
  • Data/systems staff

2. Who owns the plan? 

3. Develop clear objectives

4. What tools will be needed to accomplish the plan?

  • Communication systems
  • Print materials 

5. Who is the audience?

  • Applicants
  • Admits
  • Incoming students
  • Counselors
  • Parents

Creating operational messages 

Depending on the size of your operation, messages can either be created individually or automated, using a CRM and building campaigns. In the latter, operational staff would work closely with CRM administrators and data staff to ensure that the proper admissions data fields are available to drive automated messages. Operational staff need to be precise in providing the logic needed to drive a communication and assumptions shouldn’t be made that your CRM/data staff know exactly what you need. A domestic freshman may mean something totally different to a staff member who does not work with admissions data on a daily basis. 

Operational staff would also work with the communications team in developing the tone of the messages. You will typically find the operational messages to be much more to the point and not promotional in nature, but your communications team would need to ensure that the tone is consistent among all operational messages and all admissions communications in general. You would also want to consider the subject line and look of the email. Both should be different enough from your university’s promotional emails, or they can easily be lost among all the recruitment emails and ignored by the student when action is needed. 

The marketing team would also need to be involved to ensure that the operational messages fit in with the recruitment/marketing timeline. If emails are going out about incomplete applications, you likely wouldn’t want a fun, promotional type email to be sent on the same day. And, finally, testing your messages is a key step. One data point being off could result in the dreaded – you’ve been admitted, whoops, no, you really haven’t scenario. 

Staff support 

  • Operations Staff

    • Identify needed communications, especially when processes change

    • Familiar with the data points needed to build automated campaigns

  • Communications/Marketing Staff

    • Help draft communications content

    • Establish consistent tone among messages

    • Familiar with overall admissions communications campaign & where operational messages fit in

  • Data/Systems Staff

    • Pull audience and help identify logic within message

    • Familiar with admissions data points

  • Recruitment & Outreach Staff

    • Need to understand what is being sent operationally

    • Can answer questions that the messages may generate 


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