Planning an open day

A successful open day that will attract both prospective students and their parents needs judicious planning, plenty of publicity and, ideally, good weather

January 3, 2008

If there is one thing students will remember from an open day it is bad organisation, says Matthew Andrews, director of the Graduate School at Durham University. He says one of the first things you need to consider is who is likely to attend the day and what their concerns are likely to be.

Donald McLeod, chair of the Higher Education External Relations Association, recommends having a dedicated events team book the open day at least 12 to 18 months in advance, make sure it is included in the university's calendar and ensure that key rooms are reserved. Avoid clashes with competitors and with other major events and do not attempt to run multiple events on the same day within particular faculties or schools.

He suggests holding the open day at the weekend rather than midweek to ensure maximum attendance and advises getting support from senior management: “It is surprising the effect it has if the vice-chancellor gives the opening address.”

As for other speakers, these need to be confirmed and briefed as far in advance as possible and again about five working days before the event.

In all this, you must take account of parents, who are an increasing presence at open days. Andrews suggests holding separate events for them. “It's a case of giving students the opportunity to find out about the institution while also treating parents with the respect they deserve as people who will help students make the decision,” he says.

Michael Goldstein, non-executive chair of Heist, the higher education marketing consultancy, says it is a good idea to let parents mix and share their impressions, ideally over food and drink.

Once you've set the open day in motion you need to make sure everyone knows about itr. McLeod recommends considering every marketing channel available, such as setting up a website with a registration form, using e-mail lists from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, alumni communications, press advertisements, local radio, posters and talks to schools.

Those who pre-register will need paper and electronic copies of the open-day programme between five and ten working days before the event takes place, he says.

Meanwhile, you need to enlist the help of students. John Wright, national secretary of the Higher Education Liaison Officers Association, says these can be the most valuable element of an open day if they are enlisted as ambassadors or campus guides. But Goldstein says you need to select, train and pay them properly. “You don't want to brainwash them but they are ambassadors,” he says. “You don't want them walking past a building and saying, ‘I don't know what goes on there.’”

Wright says the association always tries to encourage academics to look at an open day through the eyes of a 17-year-old and keep things simple.

“Remember that these are students very much at the nursery slopes of the subject,” he says. “They aren't going to be too impressed with the number of PhDs or research ratings.”

He stresses that students are looking at a lifestyle rather than the prospect of an academic career. They are therefore likely to want to hear about student societies and opportunities to widen their horizons. “They may not realise, for example, that they could study for a while in Japan,” he says.

Goldstein says you need to sell the location as well as the university. If it is in a town, you must be prepared to talk about how safe it is, how good the clubs are and how friendly the locals are towards students. Don't neglect the campus either. McLeod recommends clearing it of rubbish and cleaning the toilets.

Goldstein says that you need to know who turned up to the event and should collect e-mail addresses, telephone numbers and mobile telephone numbers so you can contact them later.

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