The Science of Persuasion in Private School Admissions

The science of persuasion is all about sharing the most complete information to interested parties and nudging them towards an ethical direction. Since the 1970's extensive research has been conducted in this field. The most prominent researcher is Dr. Robert Cialdini, who published a book called Influence in 1984 on this topic. Can the influence and persuasion be used in private school admissions?

The science of Influence

Dr. Cialdini determined that there were six (6) factors in the field of influence, or getting individuals to change their minds: reciprocity, consistency/commitment, social proof, liking the individual, authority, and scarcity. These six factors have been scientifically proven by influence social scientists through peer-reviewed and often-replicated studies. Let's look at each of these factors in detail:

  1. reciprocity: we feel a universal obligation to give back what has been returned to us. Giveaways are big in this arena "you gave me something, and I feel obligated to return the favor"

  2. consistency and commitment: we should align our actions with our beliefs. Samples are important for this principle. "I have been seen taking samples (small commitment), I should choose to buy the product so that I don't look like a waffler.

  3. social proof: we are looking to mimic the actions of others. Especially when we do not know what to do in the moment. We look to avoid social awkwardness.

  4. liking: we are more apt to interact with people we like the most. This builds trust and a sense of shared values. Dale Carnegie's 1936 book How to Win Friends and Influence People uses this principle a lot.

  5. authority: we are more apt to obey those in charge. In other words, we defer to people who appear superior.

  6. scarcity: we tend to want what we might not be able to obtain in the future. Working with anticipated regret, we value something a lot more when we perceive that it was hard to obtain it.

Using Influence in Private School Marketing

It should first be noted that the principle of good business and business ethics presupposes that influence will be used to obtain a win-win situation for both parties involved. In private school promotion and marketing, this means that any actions used to nudge a prospective parent towards a school should be because the school believes that this school is the best for the possible future student and that the student's presence in the school is beneficial for the school as well.

Using Dr. Cialdini's techniques of influence in the field of private school promotion, one should return to the 6 principles identified earlier:

  1. reciprocity. Schools should look to leverage not only the giveaway as a means to nudge to parent towards a reciprocal action, but they should also look deeper what they can offer the parents. As an example, during a visit to the school (for a tour), parents should receive personalized and unexpected tangible gifts which is in some way connected to the school itself. Does the school have an annual jam selling day for fundraising? Then a small sample size gift to the visiting parent might be appropriate. Does the school promote it's 3D printer as a selling point, then a small 3D printed object might be appropriate. This might not make the parents immediately want to send their kids to the school, but it will nudge them into making the next commitment towards committing to a whole school year.

  2. commitment and alignment. Schools can look at getting prospective parents involved with the school on a low level so as to nudge them towards a greater involvement towards the school on a greater level. Students can come and ask the parents on a tour of the school to contribute to their service project or sell them a cookie for their bake drive. This is a good way to "tell-without-telling" as the parent will not know of the active service projects in the school (for example). Then if the parent does buy/contribute, they will be a greater chance that they will go the next step for the school. This would be a win/win, since the parent will have gotten a more real example of the school's culture and feel, and the student will have gotten another donation.

  3. social proof. Coming to visit a school is an oftentimes stressful time since there will need to be a decision made regarding the school. In private schools, this also means getting ready to spend money on tuition and forgoing the public school seat that has been paid with their taxes. Social proof would help parents in this stressful situation since it looks to tell parents that others have been in the same spot before them. A school can have tours done by other "cheerleader" parents. This will allow social group of similar circumstances (in the case parents/families) share experiences with each other. "After all, if I can have personal contact with parents who are pleased with the school, then it will alleviate my fears"

  4. liking. The same examples above continues with the principle of "Liking". This does not necessarily mean that people respond to those who like them (ie. have an honest liking of them), but is also means people who are "like" them. Consider the school tour example above. If a parent gives a school tour, the prospective parent might see her/himself in the parent giving the tour. The guide might recall how he/she was nervous about paying the tuition, but that it has been very worth it for her children... and so forth. There is a camaraderie struck with both parents. Another example revolves around testimonials. Parents should be asked to give personal testimonials about their experiences with the school. This builds trust , and this is a key of influence.

  5. authority. In general, we tend to obey those who are in charge and those who seem superior. If a school is looking to help promote the idea of the quality of their teachers, then the teachers could put up their diplomas and certificates in a visible place in the lobby of the school. As prospective parents wait for their tour (to continue using the example) they will be able to see the expertise that the collective faculty could bring to their experience at the school. The immediate value of the school will rise, and they may be less tuition-sensitive.

  6. scarcity. We generally want what we might not be able to get in the future. One way of generating a sense of scarcity is to set time limits on when students can enroll at a school. This is an ethical and direct way to let the student know that you are only accepting students during a specific time window. Another way to help develop this sense is to schedule school visits in family groups. This will allow families to see that here is greater interest in the school than they might have otherwise thought. This will also cut down on your school touring time.


Using these simple and cheap influence science techniques will allow your school to be more efficient in rechanneling the informational resources it already had. Bungling away opportunities of social influence may result in losing a "perfect fit" family to another school.


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