Practice does not make perfect: 3 myths keeping you from Peak enrollment performance

Why are some colleges attracting and enrolling more students than others? Are they inherently better? Do they have more experience? Are they working twice as hard as everyone else? The answer to these questions, likely, is no. These institutions aren’t doing anything superhuman, they’re just approaching their craft deliberately.

As the world’s best athletes gather where the Girl from Ipanema went walking, elite performance is top of mind. Not unlike today’s top athletes, higher ed today faces increasing scrutiny and competition. To compete at their craft and attract new students, colleges and universities are forced to rethink business as usual. Luckily, Anders Ericsson, who has been studying expertise for more than thirty years, just co-wrote a book about this very subject. In the book Peak, Ericsson has laid out a clear path to elite performance, just in time to help higher ed up its game.

To excel in today’s increasingly competitive environment, higher education institutions must embrace a new enrollment mindset—a mindset that envisions the goal and knows how to get there. Yet embracing this mindset requires enrollment officers to challenge some underlying assumptions of elite performance, myths about what it takes to rise to the top. For the truth is that success is not attributed to inherent talent, numerous repetitions, or Herculean effort; success is attributed to those who practice deliberately.

Myth #1 – One’s abilities are limited by one’s genetically prescribed characteristics.

All institutions have some form of inherent identity, an institutional DNA so to speak. The rich historical legacy of many colleges and universities can function as a double-edged sword, simultaneously providing the institution a prominent foundation and limiting its practices to what’s always been done. When the default settings come from what’s always been done, or when decisions are justified with the statement “it’s not what we do,” your institutional DNA may be getting in the way of progress.

If “the best way to [progress] is to challenge your brain and body in a new way,” how can your institution’s “brain” and “body” be challenged? Does your vision reconcile the institution’s history with the realities of today’s society? Do you leverage both your faculty’s expertise and emerging trends in the market when planning new programs? Have you found ways to expand your online presence while still acknowledging your campus and brand in your online platform and higher ed advertising? Confront your institutional DNA to determine what contributes to your success and what holds you back.

Myth #2 – If you do something long enough, you’re bound to get better at it.

Bad news: The old adage “practice makes perfect” has been debunked. As Ericsson explains, “Doing the same thing over and over again in exactly the same way is not a recipe for improvement; it is a recipe for stagnation and gradual decline.” Unless practices are both purposeful and informed, institutions cannot expect marked improvement.

This myth often plays out in the offices of enrollment marketers. Many higher ed marketing professionals follow the gospel of “more”; same channels, same allocation, same message, same evaluation, just more of it. Yet without a strategic, data-driven approach to allocation and integration, higher ed marketers may just be dumping more money into a broken funnel.

Yet it is easy to shift the paradigm on enrollment marketing by aggressively seeking feedback on the effectiveness of marketing activities. Does your messaging appeal to the right audiences at the right time and in the right place? Are there other potential audiences for your programs that you haven’t considered? Is your measurement effectively accounting for things like cost-per-enroll instead of cost-per-inquiry? Questions like these can shake you out of a rut and move your enrollment efforts onward and upward.

Myth #3 – All it takes to improve is effort.

There’s a reason why coaching is often central to the advancement of the world’s greatest performers—many masters turn to coaching after retirement. These masters instill in their pupils a vision that helps those students know exactly where they’re going and how to get there. Coaches help create a mental roadmap by fleshing out images of success—a method that Ericsson refers to when he discusses “mental representations.” Yet in the absence of formal marketing coaches, higher ed must create its own opportunities for learning by looking to the masters.

Luckily, higher ed enrollment marketing does not lack great masters to model. Whether building enrollment-enhancing brand awareness or bolstering all aspects of the enrollment funnel, institutions can look to those who are doing it best. By studying the masters and incorporating the best practices they employ, enrollment professionals can “develop the skills and the mental representations that make expertise possible and use that expertise to convey their own artistic vision.”

In the pursuit to attract and enroll additional students, it’s not about doing anything magical. It’s about doing everything right. By seeking to “do something you cannot do—that takes you out of your comfort zone—and…practice it over and over again, focusing on exactly how you are doing it, where you are falling short, and how you can get better,” higher ed professionals can truly optimize their enrollment performance.


For additional insights for how to improve your approach to enrollment marketing, download our free Enrollment Growth Playbook.

Danielle Caldwell

Danielle Caldwell is the Content Marketing Manager at Helix Education. Prior to her work with Helix, Danielle served as a full-time faculty member with Westminster College’s Master of Strategic Communication program in Salt Lake City. Danielle brings nearly a decade of experience in research, communication, and higher education, and she currently still teaches graduate courses in organizational communication and research methods as an adjunct professor at Westminster College.