News: College Access & Success

5 Virtual Advising Tips From the NCAN Community

Monday, May 25, 2020  
Posted by: Lindsey Barclay, Member Services Manager
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For more than two months, college access and success practitioners have been adjusting to a “new normal,” which for many has meant a rapid change in service delivery. While many NCAN members have been providing virtual advising support for several years, there are organizations that have relied on in-person interactions with students. Despite an organization’s history with virtual advising, none have done so in the midst of a global pandemic.

Here’s what we’ve learned from CollegePoint partners – College Advising Corps, College Possible, Matriculate, and ScholarMatch – about how college attainment professionals are virtually connecting with students in this new reality.

Think Strategically

In the midst of crises, strategic thinking can fall by the wayside as practitioners find themselves swamped with putting out fires. But in times such as this, as organizations are rethinking their programming, strategy is most critical.

Organizations have found success when they’ve been thoughtful about the goals they are aiming to achieve. And it’s worth recognizing that some goals will have to shift. The world has changed, students’ realities have changed, and to be of good service to them, our goals need to change too.

  • First, convene your teams and think through what you will prioritize. Be flexible, as your priorities and services can look much different than before the coronavirus outbreak.
  • Then ask, “What do students need from us and how can we meet the need?” or “What services (either new or continued) will we provide to students?” and “How can we provide these services in a virtual environment?”
  • Leverage data when you think through “Which students should we prioritize when we outreach?” or “Which students need specific kinds of support and when?” or “What new types of data will we need to gather to make decisions?” Clarity around your priorities will help drive your team’s work.

Build and Maintain Rapport

By mid-March, I expect many college access and success advisers had built strong relationships with the students they serve. Pivoting to the virtual environment means those relationships will feel different, especially as students are experiencing major shifts in their personal and academic lives.

For programs that recruit students throughout the academic year, relationships with students were just beginning. The pandemic interrupted the ability to build rapport. And let’s not forget those students who have been signed up with programs but had yet to engage fully. This shift will likely affect all the students you aim to serve. Consequently, it’s important to establish rapport in the virtual space.

Sarah Braden, CollegePoint program coordinator at College Possible, shared the importance of personalizing outreach, using an engaging tone when communicating with students, and being mindful about speaking students’ language during NCAN’s Pivoting to Virtual Advising webinar on April 30. Remember, some students will not be comfortable with using webcams (or even have access to one) and others will need to be reassured that the “adviser behind the device” is the same person with whom they built a relationship earlier in the academic year.

Many are finding it critical to create space for students to express their feelings and thoughts about the pandemic and the way their lives have shifted. Be open to all of these possibilities and intentional about making students feel comfortable with engaging via text, phone call, video conferencing tools, and email.

Here are a few tactics that I found helpful during my time as a college success coach and college access adviser:

  • To personalize your communication, use a student’s name within the message. If you typically refer to the student by their preferred nickname, use it. Several students have told me they won’t response to messages if they think it’s being sent by a bot. Using names helps students feel connected.
  • Ease into the conversation by asking students how they are doing. Not only does it show you care but it also gives students an opportunity to share their thoughts and feelings before launching into tasks. Try a different spin on “How are you?” like “What has been the best part of your day so far?” or “What has been giving you energy lately?” or “What has been keeping you stuck?” Even better, engage the student around something they mentioned during your last interaction like, “Tell me about your virtual graduation party! Which family members attended? Did your sister make the cake she promised you?”
  • Appropriately share how you are doing or what you’re up to. Advising happens in the context of a relationship. Be willing to share things about yourself. During my time working directly with students, I’d share that I was nervous about my upcoming high school reunion or I was going to spend the weekend cooking a new recipe or I was feeling tired and would spend the evening resting to recharge.
  • Allow students to tell you how they’d like to spend the time together. Early in the conversation, ask students what they hope to discuss or achieve with you. And then dedicate time to that, even if it’s not something you’d originally planned for. The goal is to be most helpful to students and this is an efficient way to be responsive to their needs.

Use Several Communication Channels

Speaking of virtual engagement tools, be aware that one communication method just isn’t sufficient to reach all students. That was the case before the pandemic, and it continues to be something to consider now. Think through the best ways to communicate certain kinds of information to students.

  • If you want a quick response, consider text messages. When possible and appropriate, I highly recommend providing students options for responses. This clarifies the possible responses and normalizes help-seeking behaviors. And it makes it easier for you to prioritize need and follow-up. For example, I’d send a text like:

    Hi, Lindsey! 👋 I hope you’re well. I noticed you haven’t submitted your FAFSA yet. How can I help?

    1. I just submitted it! 😃
    2. I’m almost done and will text you when I submit.
    3. Can you review my FAFSA?
    4. Please call me. I have a few questions & want to talk.


  • If you’d like to connect about a sensitive or detailed topic, consider a phone call or a video conference. Remember that some students are in environments with other people. Assess how freely they can talk by asking “Are you able to discuss [fill in the blank] now?” or “Would you like me to text you about this instead?”

  • Do you have general information that a lot of students need to know? Perhaps send an email and follow up with a text to check email. I know quite a few students who don’t monitor their email inbox the same way I do.

  • Do you know students who don’t have a device or internet access? Send a letter or notice via postal mail.

  • And as always, be prepared to send the same message a few times, as students are navigating a lot of information. But if you do resend, ask yourself if a response is required or if the content is need-to-know. Otherwise, spare your students an additional notification.

Be Thoughtful About Platforms

There are tons of platforms that will provide you ways to engage with students. From newsletter software, to text messaging tools, to social media sites, there’s a platform for just about everything. But just because it’s available doesn’t mean it’s wise to use.

Consider which platforms your students are already familiar with and are using. If a tool will require a lot of students to learn something completely new, reconsider and opt for something with which they feel more comfortable. Be mindful of the types of data students will need to share to sign up for various platforms. Avoid putting your students at risk of having their data mismanaged by using trusted tools. Also be aware that students may be hesitant about engaging with advisers on various platforms.

In my days as a college access adviser, I would tell students that they could follow my adviser-specific Snapchat and I would not view their content to ease their concerns about what I might see.

Prioritize Access

NCAN members know that the transition to virtual advising has made it difficult, if not impossible, for some students to access services and support. Continue using every method at your disposal to reach those students on a regular basis. It will likely be challenging and may require you use new methods of outreach (like sending a direct message on social media, with a parent/guardian and student’s permission). It may also require you tap into your organization’s network to make it possible for students to engage virtually (like allowing a student to borrow a hotspot from a community organization). Consider that some students may need you to explain concepts and next steps in their home language. It can be more challenging to glean information from gestures and tone in virtual environments as compared to in-person interactions.

On a regular basis, ask “Which students won’t be able to access this information/service/support?” and plan for how you can make resources available to them.

Thank you for continuing to support students, who trust you to walk alongside them (even virtually) as they apply to and succeed in postsecondary education.


For more on leveraging technology to advise students, check out these resources:

(Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels)