Secret Advice from a Private School Secret Shopper

Do you know what it’s like for prospective parents to “shop” your school?

Do you know how the admissions experience at your school compares to your competition?

Do you wish that you could secretly shop your school and your main competitors?

These questions are very integral to your enrollment and marketing effort as the “shopping” experience of your prospective parents can make or break their decision to select your school.

During my work with several schools, I have provided a secret shopping experience to answer these questions. This process begins with an extensive online search by the secret shopper and then may include an actual campus visit at the school client as well as its main competitors.

Without revealing the identity of one of my secret shoppers (in case this secret shopper shops your school), I wanted to interview her on her experiences at schools. She is also a parent with two children enrolled in an independent school.

What is it like to be a secret shopper?

“The secret shopper experience has been enlightening and also a great deal of fun.  When I first started working on secret shopper projects, I never really expected such a wide range of interaction experiences. I thought every school in this day and age would have an easy to use, informative website (not true!). I also thought that everyone at the school would be as excited about talking to me as I was them and return my inquiry calls (not true!). Finally, I certainly didn’t expect such a huge spectrum of school choices available in most markets. The competition can be steep!”

What stands out among schools that you have shopped online and in person?

“The one thing that stands out the most is an easy-to-find online presence where I can do some preliminary research about the schools. Perhaps even more importantly is a responsive, knowledgeable point of contact at the school I can speak with one-on-one to inquire further about what I have learned online. When it comes to selecting a school for my kids, I want to talk to real people at the school, including admissions staff, teachers and students. I also want to be able to see the school in action so that I can envision my kids in the environment. Those schools that make it a point to engage me beyond the website interaction through telephone calls, personal emails and a campus tour definitely stand out across the many secret shopping experiences I have had.”

What are some things that have surprised you the most from the schools that you shopped?

“Perhaps one of the most surprising thing is a school’s dependence on their website as their sole point of contact in the recruiting process for new students. While the website is an invaluable tool that I appreciate greatly because I can research a school at any time that is convenient for me, if I take the next step and inquire with the school for some additional information, I would expect to be contacted by someone from the admissions staff within at least a few days of the inquiry. In my many secret shopping experiences, I have been surprised by the number of calls I have had to initiate just to get additional information. I have also been surprised by the admissions contact’s inability to answer a simple question like “What makes your school different from the other schools in the area”. Those schools who don’t have a well thought answer to this question or those schools who drive me back to the website for answers to my questions are immediately given lesser consideration in my search.”

What could admissions and marketing directors do to improve their recruitment effort?

“I think that admissions and marketing directors could improve their recruitment effort by establishing a culture of recruitment and enrollment across the entire school that uses many tools and resources along the way. First, a website that conveys not just the facts and figures, but also the character and culture of a school is important to me as a prospective parent. Second, that first online interaction needs to be followed-up on and supported by a real person who is quick to respond, as well as knowledgeable and able to convey the things that differentiate a school from its competitors. And lastly, a personalized campus tour designed to provide the prospective family with a first-hand experience of what it would be like to be a part of that school is a huge influencer, especially if the tour includes interactions with teachers, students, as well as the admissions staff. There is nothing more compelling to a prospective parent to have a student tell you what they like best about the school! A balanced approach will elevate the school in a prospective family’s mind almost every time.”

What are your expectations from admissions directors or support staff as you interact with them as a secret shopper?

“I would expect that my inquiries be answered first and foremost. It seems obvious, but as I said earlier, I have been surprised by the number of schools who either don’t proactively follow-up beyond the website inquiry or who don’t even return a telephone call! If that doesn’t send a clear message then I don’t know what does!  Beyond that, I want the people I interact with to understand what is important to me and my kids as a prospective family and then show me how the school can deliver on these things. It is also nice when the admissions directors and support staff are attentive to the little things. For example, in one secret shopper experience, the scenario given involved my family relocating to the area. The admissions contact understood what an overwhelming experience this could be and offered me Realtor contacts who worked in the neighborhoods where families of the school lived. The little things really do matter.”

How important is the school web presence in the shopping process?

“A website is very important….but it is not the only important piece! If a school puts all their time and energy into a strong online presence but then fails to deliver a similar experience during a campus tour, for example, then the online piece has ultimately failed. In my experiences, those schools who employ a multi-faceted approach to recruitment that utilizes technology as well as personal contacts are the most successful.”

What advice can you offer school leadership as they consider their recruitment efforts?

“Be memorable for all the right reasons! Don’t be memorable as the school with the crummy website or the admissions staff person who didn’t return your call or the one who didn’t effectively tell its story! Be memorable because you took every contact as an opportunity to draw me in with more and more information about the character, culture quality and differentiating factors of your school. Be deliberate in creating a total experience consisting of a lot of little experiences that all lead me to the decision to apply to your school. And don’t take the little things for granted! A name on a welcome sign as you arrive for a personal tour, a small memento of the campus tour, a hand-written thank you note sent through the mail after various interaction points all make the entirety of the experience positive and memorable for all the right reasons.”

Thank you to my secret shopper for sharing your advice and experiences shopping private schools.

If you are interested in a secret shopping experience at your school, please contact me directly at