Current students and recent graduates can describe better than anyone what it's like to be a Duke undergraduate. On Wednesday, the university's Office of Undergraduate Admissions launched a colorful new website and mobile platform that place students front and center.
The office says it's part of a larger strategy that also uses social media to help prospective Duke students hear more directly from those whose steps they may choose to follow.
From the prominent use of student bloggers on the new admissions site to regular video chats between admitted and current students, admissions officials say these student-to-student efforts are helping to showcase the exceptional quality of Duke's faculty and academic programs while addressing the questions applicants and their parents often ask.
Between 60,000 and 80,000 students a year seek information about Duke. During the past academic year, a record 31,600 students applied for admission. For many of them, the Duke Undergraduate Admissions website was their first glimpse into what a Duke education is about.
"Part of our challenge in communications is that if we wait to tell people what Duke is about at the moment they apply, it's too late," said Christoph Guttentag, dean of undergraduate admissions. "Prospective students have all kinds of ways they can access the institution. We want to ensure they get the messages about a Duke education we most want them to hear."
The new website was a collaboration between admissions and the Office of Public Affairs and Government Relations (PAGR), along with Viget, a local interactive agency.
The team stripped down the more than 140 pages on the former admissions site to around 35 pages, which use photos and graphics extensively and scroll more deeply. The new sleeker design improves navigation and focuses visitors on stories that describe the curiosity and academic engagement of Duke students -- often in their own words through video, blogs and other formats. The stories underscore the message that "Duke is a place where students have exceptional access to exceptional faculty and academic opportunities," Guttentag said.
"There are other outstanding schools out there," he added, "but after 20 years here I believe even more strongly that we are among the best in giving undergraduate students access to everything Duke is about. I love the degree to which our faculty are interested in providing opportunities to undergraduates, even asking to help recruit undergraduate students. And we are not shy about showing people the ambition of our students -- because so often it's ambition with purpose, not just blind ambition."
The student voices on the website also highlight lesser-known qualities of the Duke experience, he said, such as the city of Durham and diversity on campus.
Guttentag said one of the most significant changes at Duke has been its transformation from a class that in 1984 that was 91 percent white to one in 2012 when students of color constitute almost a majority of the undergraduate population. "That change is something I still find people underestimate," he said. (See a 2011 video here.)
The new site and mobile platform use social media and other online tools to connect prospective students to new students throughout all points of the admissions cycle.
During the past year, seven student bloggers earned a popular following online while writing about their experiences. The bloggers connected with applicants and addressed their questions, said Cara Rousseau, social media manager for admissions and the Office of News and Communications, who coordinates the bloggers.
Rousseau used Storify, a social media aggregator tool, to capture and broadcast the tweets and images from prospective students while they were visiting the campus. She also works with Student Affairs to manage a Facebook group for the new class and holds Google+ Hangout video chats with current students.
"What we learned from these efforts informed the design of the new website," Rousseau said. "We saw how valuable it is for our students to tell their own stories firsthand."
The new mobile version provides much -- but not all -- of the same information available on the desktop site while emphasizing material of special interest to people on the go. "We collected a lot of information about what people most needed on the mobile site, and we responded by giving more prominence to things like maps, directions and food," said Blyth Morrell of PAGR's Office of Marketing and Strategic Communications. "We also provided a lot of infographics and academic information that mobile users will find useful."
Pictured below: Christoph Guttentag discusses admissions July 19 in a meeting of Duke communicators. Photo by Megan Morr/Duke University Photography