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First Impressions

[Today’s Tuesday Reading is from Sean McDonald, Vice-President of MOR Associates. Sean may be reached at [email protected].]
My daughter and I just finished a stretch of college visits. She is our oldest child, my wife and I can’t believe she is already looking at colleges. Watching her grow and explore the world has been a joy. This is, by far, her biggest exploration yet.
For those that are able and choose to pursue college, it is a big decision, perhaps one of the biggest many people make. The choice, picking a school, sets the trajectory of one’s professional career, positioning them in new social circles, setting forward their potential long-term relationships and future professional networks. This complicated, yet seemingly simple, decision declares a life-long connection and loyalty to a single institution over every other in one’s search process. It feels to me like a lot is at stake.  Though some of the decision elements are clear and less variable, others, many, as I witness firsthand, are so subtle and left to the whim of a moment. The power of a first impression is real and on full display in this college visiting process.
On our way home from this recent trip, having reflected on this topic in my own head, I asked my rising high school senior what first impression stuck with her most.  As I anticipated what she would say, I recalled the few places with really nice welcome center facilities, the slick marketing material we saw along the way, the drawstring backpacks one school gave to each student visiting, or the place that, for an early morning tour, finally pointed this coffee-drinking-dad to where I could get coffee as we waited. And then my daughter shared, “Dad, it was that place where the guy was holding the door, in a suit, on that really hot day, welcoming us.” Wow, so simple and effective. When I inquired further, she said it made her feel welcomed, and sincerely so. We were actually never introduced to this person. He could have been a long-term member of their admissions team, or he could have been a person they just hired from the nearby town, but it didn’t matter in this case, for my daughter the intentional act had its impact.
On the other hand, as we continued to talk about areas where impressions left less than favorable memories, it wasn’t the lack of a grand welcome facility, or less-than-slick marketing material, that made the difference. Again, it was usually the smaller things that mattered most.  These were seemingly done with little to no intention, like the organization of the chairs too close together in the waiting area, where we were just about knee to knee with the people across from us.  Or,  more often, the words, phrases and references speakers and tour guides used that felt off-putting and pulled away from the institution’s selling points.  I am certain these were unintentional and occurred outside the careful planning that the admissions teams put into these experiences.
It sparked a recall for me: my days as a tour guide at my own college. Knowing what I know now, and looking back, I am impressed with the amount of trust that institution had in me, and the likely benefit they would have gained with a bit more training and support. A shout out to my friend Julie, more often than not my partner on these tours. She was out front and I navigated the back of the group. She led and shared all of the details of every building. If you’ve ever been on a college tour, you’ll recall that anyone in the back of these groups cannot really hear what the guide is saying in the front. So in the back, we mostly chatted, which I enjoyed. I asked questions of these college explorers, I got to know where they were from, what they were interested in. And they learned about my experiences in return. In many cases, we made a connection.
I recently went to my 27th year college reunion, yes, my 25th reunion was impacted by covid. This was a combined reunion for the classes of 1995, 1996, and 1997.  Since I hadn’t been there in a while, I took the long way in my walk through campus.  I came upon two other people. They were looking for the new science center building on campus, where the combined reunion event was being held.  They asked me if I knew where it was. I was headed there myself, so we walked together. About 30 seconds into our journey, one of them told the other, “this guy is why I chose to go to college here, he was my tour guide.” I was impressed with his memory, and honored with such a recall and credit. Something I had adopted as a practice, to listen to others and hear their stories, was able to have a positive impact in this case.  Let’s be straight, Julie was smarter than I was and a better tour guide, but I guess one cannot question the power of making a connection as part of a first impression.
Though most of our readers are not part of the admissions team at their college, there are important lessons we can all gain from my daughter’s college exploration and this reflection on first impressions. Small intentional acts of inclusion, meant to help others feel welcomed and connected can outshine large investments meant to impress. Additionally, though we might not even remember that small act when we deliver it, it can be something that has a lasting impact on others.  We each have control of the circles we engage, and how we engage in them. Supporting others in feeling welcomed and connected is not the work of a select few, it is the work of all of us. Remember this as new team members join your organization, as stakeholders and team members return from summer schedules, and in our everyday encounters. We are all on the welcoming committee!

Bonus Insight…

If you think it is too late, and you believe you have already made an unfavorable first impression, my friend and colleague Jim Bruce wrote a great insight post in 2016 about Overcoming a Bad First Impression. Have a read, or re-read. It could help.