Growing Enrollment at Your University - A Conversation with Anushka Sapra

 

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I recently spoke with Anushka Sapra, who is the Assistant Director of Admissions at the Office of Undergraduate Admissions at Northeastern University. Anushka is a higher education professional who works in admissions at one of the leading universities in the US. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.

 

Ian Evenstar: Often we hear from experts who have either written books, or published papers, focused on marketing and branding in a wide variety of industries, and they're applying their thinking to higher ed. So it's rare really in a treat to have someone in the trenches, sharing their direct experience and providing that specific practical knowledge on how to grow enrollments. So this being your first year, how did you know you wanted to go into admissions or how did you decide to be involved in admissions in the first place?

AS: So to be brutally honest, I didn't know that I wanted to be involved with admissions. My first exposure to the world of college admissions was my on-campus job at the school I went to undergrad at, which is the University of Southern California out in Los Angeles. And then I see you doing the fight on, yep, we have an alum in the house. So when I was a student there, I was looking for an on-campus job, much like a lot of other students. Being an international student, I had some restrictions on where I could work as a job. There are some rules and stipulations that mandate that you have to be working for the university in the capacity of a job. You can't really, for example, I can't just work at a Starbucks or something like that. I have to work for the university in some capacity.

So I was looking for jobs that fit that requirement and came across the USC Admission Center, which was hiring tour guides and student ambassadors. I was someone who didn't have a lot of help going through the college admissions process, myself, whether that was being an international applicant, but also going to a school where it wasn't very common for students to come abroad for their higher education. I didn't really have a guidance counselor or someone to assist me with that. I'm the older sibling in my household. So my parents have never been through the process either. So I was just very new to the whole world, even when I went through the application process. And I remember feeling like I would've loved to have some assistance through it, it's just such a rigorous and demanding and long tedious process. So that was my motivation to apply it, to be a tour guide.

I wanted to have conversations with prospective students and be helpful to them through their college search process, and essentially be the resource that I never had. And I was successful in my job application there. I ended up working at the Admission Center for all four years of undergrad. I had some leadership positions while I was there as well. And I just really, really enjoyed the work. I loved speaking to prospective students. I found it super interesting, the process itself, granted I wasn't doing any kind of reading or evaluation in the capacity of a tour guide, but I was exposed to the whole process just by having conversations with the college admissions counselors at USC. So yeah, after that, I finished up my senior year of undergrad entirely online during the pandemic. And I graduated in May 2021. My original plan was to go to graduate school.

I just personally felt incredibly burnt out in a way that I had never felt before. I've always loved school and thrived in that environment, but I was so jaded and exhausted academically that I didn't feel like it was the right head space for me to enter a graduate program that would've probably also started online. So I decided to defer my acceptance and look at different jobs that I could do. I was also pretty certain that I didn't really want to do anything that was related to my academic interests. I studied economics and international relations.

I wanted to get into policy and research. I wasn't ready to be doing anything even remotely related to my academic interests. That's how jaded and burnt out I was. So I decided to tap into the other skill that I had developed over four years of working at the Admission Center, which was this kind of a role, working in admissions at a university, and Northeastern happened to be hiring. And that's how it came about. So yeah, definitely a roundabout path. Haven't been someone who's always wanted to be in higher ed, but now that I'm here, I'm glad I'm here.

IE: I love this quote that you provided. You want to be the resource that you never had. So that is a great driver. What a great piece of motivation there, and in a way you're doing international relations, right?

AS: I am in a way. Yeah. I guess you could say that I am building relationships with counselors and schools and students who are based internationally. So I never thought about it that way, thank you, Ian.

IE: Yeah, you're welcome. And it's just a delight to hear that you're enjoying the work, which I'm sure gets transferred. That sense of enjoyment that you have in your own work probably translates nicely into the process. And I'm sure that the students feel that on the other end, especially when it comes time to speaking with people and maybe getting that final letter of acceptance. Does it feel natural to you now that you've landed in this career path? You said it wasn't quite aligned with your academic interests and you're only a year out of the gate, but does it feel like a natural fit now?

AS: It does in a lot of ways. I think that I'm learning to embrace skills and practicing skills that come naturally to me and do not always feel like I need to be. I am so challenged in this role, but I'm learning to embrace the fact that I don't need to always be way outside my comfort zone to feel satisfied and rewarded with the work that I'm doing. I think there's a fine balance to that. I'm a Leo, I enjoy a challenge. I work well within a goal-oriented workspace, which all of this is definitely true for the work that I'm doing here, but it does feel natural to me. So you're absolutely right. I feel like I'm able to flex my public speaking skills. I'm able to flex my relationship-building skills and I'm able to really hone into some of the things I enjoy most doing, which is being helpful to others and going through a process that is really difficult to understand.

I'm really good, I think at being able to translate material and information in a way that is easy to understand and digestible, which is so important. If you're a family going through the college admissions process that maybe you're the first person in your family to go through that process, and maybe you don't have access to resources that can assist you with it, there's so much jargon and vocabulary and vernacular used in these fields that often goes over people's heads. So I really enjoy the process of breaking down these complex processes and making them manageable and doable for the people I'm working with.

IE: Tell us how, how have you been able to drive this level of success?

AS: Well, I don't think it has honestly anything to do with me. I think it's just that the team that we have at the university is so incredible. And the folks working in the Office of Undergraduate Admissions care so much about the students that they are working with. And I think that really helps all of the relationships that the team builds with students all over the world. And that translates to a better experience for them through the admissions process. And then that, therefore, impacts the outcome. I would have to work at Northeastern for a few more years to be able to truly comment on what are the specific policies that we're seeing as being successful. Just because for me, as I said, this is my first year. So everything that happened is all I know, but if we do have this conversation again, hopefully in a couple of years, I'll be able to weigh in a little bit more about specifics, but overall I do think it is really the people on the team and the interactions and the care with which they have those interactions with the students they work with.

IE: Well, you said earlier, a few things that I think you are directly responsible for, which are you are simplifying the process, maybe taking things a little slower, and not trying to rush people into a decision. You're communicating value propositions and reasons why to join this university over others or this program over others in a very clear way. So you're communicating clearly, and you're also making the families and the applicants feel heard and giving them the sense that they matter. So I think all of that personal one-to-one relationship building is translating nicely into your contribution to the team. That said, if you had one piece of advice to give to other admissions teams who might maybe be struggling with their enrollment numbers or concerned that they've seen a plateau or even a dip in the quality of applicants or quality of conversion, what would you say to them? What kind of advice would you give to them?

AS: Oh, gosh, I don't know if, at the age of 22, I'm qualified to give anyone advice.

IE: It's the fresh perspective oftentimes that people I think do appreciate and desire.

AS: So personally for me, what I think we do really well that could maybe be taken on board by other universities and something that I notice is different is really just accepting the fact that once you get into the top 50 universities bucket pool in the US, they're all incredible institutions. And for the most part, they're all offering a wide range of amazing programs with really renowned faculty and a really thriving student body. It's probably a certain level of competitiveness to the process just by being in that top 50 buckets. So I think embracing the fact that the peers in this space that we have are also such great universities, that it's super important to be really frank with the students you're working with about what the value add of your university is and what makes the experience that you are offering to your undergraduate students different from the one that they could find at any of those other 49.

So I think that is where working at Northeastern has truly been a treat because it is such a distinctive undergraduate experience with the experiential learning focus that every single undergraduate student has as an integrated part of their undergraduate experience. I think that that really allows us to be able to leverage that and be able to be really candid in our conversations with students about setting up expectations of what their college career at Northeastern could look like. So that we only really end up exciting the students who are wanting that kind of experience and then they end up applying, and then they end up enrolling. I think that is really helpful. So having that really great understanding of what the value add of your university is, and being open and honest about the fact that students can probably have an incredible college experience at any of those schools. They're all fantastic institutions. It just ultimately boils down to these finer details, these niches or aspects that make universities special, opportunities that they offer that others don't and really capitalizing on using that to attract the right kind of student.

IE: I love that. So I'm going to try to just paraphrase what you said here for simplicity's sake, but be frank, be candid in these conversations. I love that piece of advice. Be clear on the value that you bring as an institution. Own, and I love this one too, own who you are, really embrace the nuance of what makes you different compared to your competitors, and be comfortable with the fact that they may go on to choose one of the other top 50 universities. So all of that is just really sound advice.

AS: Thank you. And I think the last bit that you mentioned about them, maybe moving forth and accepting another offer. I think in a lot of ways, that's a win for us as well. Ultimately, it's really important that, and for me, as someone who's recently entered this space to have that separation between working for Northeastern, but ultimately being an admissions counselor and really just wanting what's best for the student. And if that leads them to a university that's not Northeastern, that's also just equally a success for all of us in this space that we've been able to inform a student enough that they're able to make a choice that feels right for them.

And you ultimately want students who are at a university because they want to be there for the reasons that you have shared as being the value add of the university. So I think that ultimately it's a success for everyone regardless of where a student ends up. And yeah, I've definitely had conversations with students where I've had to be brutally honest and say that maybe this other offer that they have is a better choice for them, based on what they're looking for from their undergraduate experience. And that is where you put on your admissions counselor cap and not your Northeastern person cap, which is really fun to do sometimes.

IE: And I think that altruistic point of view that you just shared, like, hey, although we're competing for the best fit student, we are also a global community, helping students thrive and ascend and become better versions of themself. That altruistic point of view probably also helps you not come off sales-y or pushy. And I bet students and families can also feel that. So I think that's a great point. It's one that I've quite frankly never heard before, people saying, yay we were able to help them find the university that fits them best even though they didn't choose us.

AS: Thank you.

IE: Another passion of yours includes ensuring that you get a very diverse pool of applicants and admitted students that the process is accessible and that it's inclusive. So how do those, I guess, passions or key drivers also play into your role?

AS: I think ultimately context is key. So one of the great ways that we as an office do the process, and I know that this is similar to many other universities as well as we operate on a territory management basis, which is every admissions counselor is also inherently a territory manager in that they are the primary point of contact. They are the primary recruiter as well as the person responsible for the application evaluation and selection process for students from those regions. So through that process, we're able to develop a greater understanding of the region that we're dealing with. And therefore that allows us to evaluate applications, equitably and evaluate applications in the context from which they're coming from so that we're not comparing students from vastly different experiences and backgrounds, because that just simply wouldn't result in any kind of success for us as a university.

IE: I think just considering our listener audience, being senior administration at universities, they can embrace that empathy that there is this misconception from the student perspective. So how do you break down that barrier? How do you immediately start to communicate that this is a one-to-one conversation? I am a real person, maybe I'm wearing a college shirt, but not a suit necessarily. And I do care about your success. So just having that empathy going into those conversations, I think is a great piece of actionable advice for those listening. Given your success, we've I think covered that to a good degree. How do we now evaluate the challenges that you've had? What type of challenges have appeared maybe in your first year and what kind of challenges are you looking at or anticipating moving forward?

AS: Yeah, for sure. I think one of the biggest challenges that I faced is having to learn to say no and having to learn to be okay with saying no so many more times than I can say yes. And that is a product of having the privilege of working at a university that receives so many incredibly qualified applications. It's kind of like what I mentioned before, truly is an embarrassment of riches when you look at the applicant pool and you have to make some really, really difficult choices, and that feels really hard at times. There are moments where I have to really reckon with myself and remind myself of why I'm here, and the ways that I try to get myself through moments where I am really challenged by the fact that I'm having to say no, when the people pleaser in me, all she wants to do is say yes, but I can't. The way that I try to get through that is by really having belief in this process and having a really strong sense of empathy for the student, but ultimately overall, a real appreciation and respect and belief in the process, in that it is going to lead the student to the institution that is right for them, even if it doesn't feel like that at every step of the way.

Ultimately I think that you have to have that belief because without that, and if you don't trust the process, it can be so difficult at times to have to make decisions that are so difficult, to have to say no so many more times than you can say yes. And I think that that has been a journey of personal growth for me that I've had to undergo over the past year. And I don't think it's going to get any easier. And I think every single year, it's just reminding yourself as to why you're here and keeping it very much grassroots in that you're drawing your satisfaction and your sense of fulfillment from the conversations that you're having with students as a counselor, with the goal that you're leading them towards the option that is right for them, even if that means saying no to them from as a Northeastern employee.

IE: And I get the sense that you are a true visionary. We're going to be hearing more and more from you, maybe a book coming out in the years ahead. So as we look to close, any final words, any last, I guess you have my ear, you have the ears of everyone listening, any final advice or key takeaways you want to share with the listeners?

AS: Well, this is me as an individual just speaking with anyone that might be listening to this podcast. This entire episode has been me as an individual speaking and sharing my experience. But I truly think as someone who's gone through the process myself, someone who's seen it from a tour guide perspective, I'm just trying to provide as much information about a university and resources as I can to students. And then now having spent a year working in the profession and working in this industry, I think that truly to be brutally honest, the college that you end up going to, in my opinion, is the lesser issue. I just think that this gets blown way out of proportion. And I think that students can have a really, really incredible education, no matter what school they decide to attend, whether that's the top 10, the top 20, the top 50, the top 100, or even beyond that. I think that the experience that students have in undergrad is beautiful and is incredible because of the people that they meet, the conversations that they have, the spaces that they have access to that they maybe haven't had in the past and all the growth that takes place on an individual level. That's what makes the college experience in the US at least for me so special is that these universities that exist provide spaces for students to be able to grow individually, which is not the reality in a lot of other education systems. So I do think that the school is the secondary concern, whichever school you end up at. I think it's the people you meet that really make your experience what it is and that your decisions and your reasons for picking a school are so personal and specific to you that you don't need to justify them to anybody else. I feel like going beyond just the rankings and stats and feeling like you need to pick the school that is the most selective to really demonstrate your success as a student is just not true. I think that picking a university is such a personal decision and ultimately it should be for reasons that make sense to you, whether that's for the program that you want to study, whether that's financial, it makes the most sense for you, whether it's the closest to your family.

And after going through a global pandemic and still being in one, it's really important for you to stay close to home. All of these are valid reasons for deciding where you want to go to school and no one, not even the admissions counselor, should be able to provide you with the answer to something like that. It really just has to be a personal choice. So yeah, I hope anyone who's listening to this, if you are someone who's going through the process yourself, you know that no matter what school you end up at, you can make the process incredible you can make the journey at that school incredible, and make the admissions counselors at the school that you're looking at, or the ones that you're working with through this process serve you and your needs because it's all about the student. At the end of the day, we are truly here for the students. So ask for what you need and demand it. And hopefully, those schools can rise up and meet you where you're at.

IE: Anushka, thank you. That was just so well said. You've shared your passion, your insights, and your commitment, and given us a lot of practical advice along the way. It's hard to believe you're only one year out of the gates, but I have really enjoyed this discussion. And just thank you again for your time.

 


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