Q&A with Melissa Kotacka on college admissions and social media

Melissa Kotacka is assistant director of admissions at UNC-Chapel Hill. She is known on campus and beyond for her active and lively use of Twitter. In this interview, conducted by email, Kotacka talks about her job and how college admissions is changing in the era of online and social media.

Q. Describe your job. What do you do on a typical day?

A. Oh, boy. Honestly, there is no “typical day” in college admissions. Our work is so cyclical that what we’re doing in September is vastly different from what we’re doing in April or November or June or January.

Our office has about 50 full-time staff, plus another 16-ish seasonal readers. I work on the recruitment side, which entails counseling students and families through the college search and application process; conducting information sessions and events on campus; staffing fairs, school visits, and events off campus; reading applications as a part of the admissions committee; and any “other duties as assigned” that pop up on any given day.

We refer to the fall as “travel season” because our recruiters are doing just that: traveling around North Carolina, across the country, and even internationally to meet and recruit the best and brightest students to Carolina. This is by far my favorite time of year, because while students (and parents) might be nervous, they’re mostly excited. We get to have conversations about goals and aspirations, and we also get to dispel some of the urban legends that float around among PTA circles.

Yesterday, I was in the office as one of our “deans of the day” (our equivalent of being “on call”). I met with a few students and a principal who visited our office, plus talked to many people on the phone who called for assistance. In between, I scheduled out-of-state school visits and college fairs (my colleague Damon schedules our N.C. travel).

Through the end of September, I’ll be in New York City and on Long Island. A day on the road usually entails three to four private visits to high schools, where we meet with students and counselors for anywhere from 30 to 60 minutes to talk about Carolina and our admissions process. More often than not, we also attend college fairs in the evening, so our days can stretch pretty long, since visits usually span the full school day and fairs usually run until 9 p.m.

Travel season also entails a lot of time in cars, airports and Panera/Starbucks. George Clooney’s character from “Up in the Air” has got nothing on your average admissions officer.

Q. Prospective students and their parents can get information about UNC in print and online, in course catalogs and on blogs. What is the approach of the admissions office in this regard?

A. Over the past few years, we’ve moved to a mostly electronic knowledge base. It’s more accessible for students and parents; fits with university goals of sustainability; and allows us to update materials more quickly (because as soon as you print 10,000 copies of anything, something changes).

Our goal is to be as accessible and informative as we can; online resources are a big part of that. Of course, we do have print materials available, but they’re meant more as a snapshot/teaser to encourage students to explore our online resources.

Starting last spring, we’ve been fortunate to have a team of interns from the School of Journalism working specifically on social media strategy. That has involved increasing our Facebook and Twitter presence and creating other projects to deliver information to students both on-demand and in an engaging manner.

The team I work with is also increasing our “virtual visit” presence through the use of Skype and Google Hangouts, which allows us to “visit” schools we might not be able to reach in person. For students who don’t have the time or resources to visit campus, online media and resources are invaluable in the college search process.

Q. You are prolific on Twitter. What do you and others in the admissions office hope to achieve there?

A. I started using Twitter as a way to stay informed about the various things happening on campus and to share those stories with prospective students.

As an office, we use Twitter as a major resource to collect stories about what students and faculty are doing NOW – for example, at a program in Salt Lake City last week, I was able to share that Steve Case, co-founder of AOL, was on campus speaking in Econ 125 that same morning. Twitter also helps us to share what we’re doing NOW: integration with Foursquare lets us “check in” to events and school visits; we post updates from our admissions blog; and we link to scholarships and other opportunities for prospective students.

As for individual staff, we find that the networking factor is huge – both on campus and off; it puts a human face to the people who are reading applications (we are real people with real lives who are not at all scary). It’s even helped us plan travel: while Damon was in Atlanta last week, a school counselor in Georgia who follows me invited us to visit and within the hour, it was scheduled.

Q. What are other colleges and universities doing with social media and student recruitment and admissions? What trends do you see emerging in the near future?

A. What timely questions: just yesterday, there was a #SocAdm12 discussion on trends and practices in social media usage for admissions purposes. Having a presence on the networks students use is just the beginning: We have to engage them too, lest we just be posting into a vacuum.

Many schools blog (UVAJohns Hopkins, and MIT); many tweet, both institutionally (UC-BoulderNCSU) and as individual staff (UVaDeanJ); some leverage Foursquare (DukeHarvard).

At an institutional level, many schools have YouTube accounts – UNC included – and this is helpful in our mission of showing students what our campuses are like. It’s one thing for me to stand behind a table at a college fair and tell you about life at Carolina; it’s another for you to watch a video of the Carolina Ukulele Ensemble performing on Polk Place or read a blog entry from a senior about her favorite Carolina moments.

There’s been a push in the past few years for colleges and universities to jump into the “next big thing!” for recruitment purposes, but I think this economy has pushed all of us to be more creative about how we leverage our time, money, staff, and resources; social media and other online resources are going to continue to be a big part of that.

UPDATE: In 2015, Kotacka started a new job as upper school college counselor at Carolina Friends School.