“The biggest challenge is just getting students to show up virtually to college fairs and to be present online. I think some students are proactive about getting out there and showing up to these virtual fairs, but coming in person is so different,” says Deborah Kwak, admissions officer at Biola University in La Mirada, Calif. In this week’s interview, we discuss the increasingly important “demonstrated interest” in admissions and how to navigate that during pandemic times. With cancelled school tours and college fairs, will attendance at virtual events and quick responses to emails become the primary benchmarks of your desire to attend?
Deborah, can you tell us about your admissions experience?
When I was in college, I worked for the admissions department as a student ambassador and I called prospective students and talked to them about what it would be like to come to Biola University. I really just found so much joy in connecting with students and their parents and navigating that college decision process with them. Being a second-generation Korean American myself, I realized in retrospect that I didn’t know a lot of things going into college.
What are examples of some of these things you wish you knew before going into college?
I didn’t know that there were scholarship opportunities and financial aid opportunities I really could have taken advantage of. Even clubs and organizations on campus or how to navigate my way through college and find internships and seek out those opportunities and relationships was something that was so foreign to me. So I really love working with immigrant families, and helping resource them in that way.
How are you involved with the application review process?
I review applications myself. On a normal year, we review 300-500 applicants and then try to secure about 100 students per territory. Being able to read their applications and hear their stories is such a vulnerable process for them. If I could, I would just meet them and have coffee with them and hear it in person. And then selecting classes with them is also part of the job. Sometimes students come in with dual enrollment or concurrent credits or transferring credits from a community college, and so we’re constantly trying to look at their transcripts, review them, see what courses are transferable to Biola, and see if they could potentially graduate earlier or maybe open up their schedule to take other classes that they’re interested in.
What are your biggest challenges so far this admissions cycle?
Because we’re in recruitment season, the biggest challenge is just getting students to show up virtually to college fairs and to be present online. I think some students are proactive about getting out there and showing up to these virtual fairs, but coming in person is so different. A large part of college fairs is just the energy, the ability to connect with the counselor, and get a sense of what that university represents due to that counselor. That’s such a big buy-in for a lot of students in the sense that once they have that personal connection.
When I do high school visits, there’s also a struggle to get students to show up. But sometimes I’m invited to a classroom setting, and then the teacher or counselor is present and the whole class has to meet for that time anyway. I get to present for the full hour, so that’s been a huge success. But in terms of being out on the ground and actually being in my region in person, I think one of the biggest challenges that we see is how can we be more creative and reach more ground.
You talked about these virtual college fairs. Does Biola track demonstrated interest based on engagement with online events?
Yes, definitely. One way that we see that is when we do a visit — a virtual visit, for example — they’ll be asking a lot of questions. They may even ask me to follow up with them. Or if I don’t know an answer to a question, I ask them if they could send an email and then I’ll follow up with them. It’s definitely important to maintain a conversation over time.
What do you think is preventing more students from showing up to these virtual college fairs?
I think Zoom fatigue is definitely one of them. They’re on their computers all day, and then having to be on their computer again in the evening for a fair is not something that a lot of students want to do; they want to have a free evening. But it’s a good question. It’s something we’re also trying to figure out, too. I think being able to catch students in the daytime, in between classes works well. When I schedule something later on in the day, there’s definitely a lower turnout as opposed to if I were to schedule it earlier in the day. We can’t see patterns yet, but we are trying to be strategic in that way. But it’s just too early on in the game for us to be able to really tell what times work best. It’s very much an experimenting “try it and see what happens,” rolling with the punches week by week. Sometimes I’ll schedule a presentation and nobody shows up. That’s just like, “Oh, come on. I’m waiting in this room for 10 minutes; this is sad.”
Gosh, that must be so disheartening.
It’s one thing if I were there in person and no one showed up. Okay, that’s fine; I could go to a local coffee shop and do some work. But when you’re waiting in a Zoom room, It’s like, “Wow, it doesn’t take that much effort to show up.” I think that has a lot to do with just how much the high school publicizes the event, too. There’s very much of a draw or pull when we know someone at that high school who can do that legwork for us.
With all of your efforts recruiting, what type of student are you looking for?
Biola attracts a very nice group of students, because one of our admissions requirements is that you sign a statement of faith and you are a professing Christian. So it’s going to attract a very unique group of students: mainly homeschool students, students that come from Christian homes, know that they want a Christian education as part of their college experience, and want that formational aspect, too, that integration between faith and discipline. We may have less applicants as opposed to a larger university. We’re about 4000 undergraduate students. But we have a higher rate of students that actually commit from applying.
How important is ability to pay?
The bigger part of getting students through the final stage is, will they be able to afford it? How can we create opportunities in which the students can come and afford it and not be in a whole lot of debt? Sometimes I have to tell the hard truth: “I don’t know if this is worth it for you to come here.” Most of my students are out-of-state, so they don’t get that financial aid like the Cal Grants that in-state students get. Sometimes it’s better to just be brutally honest in the beginning and not set up false expectations. But it’s also been incredible for me to see a lot of sponsors and donors randomly coming through and supporting students who don’t have the means. It’s a mixed bag. Of course, it’s disappointing when I have to share the news to students: “This is your gap amount,” and they’re like, “There’s no way I can do that. I have to stay in-state.” But also, that’s the reality of choosing to go out of state for university.
Are you guys looking at the FAFSA to determine this?
Stay tuned for the remainder of our exclusive insider interview with Biola University admissions officer, Deborah Kwak!