Could Your Communications Convert More Prospective Students? | HE Research Snippet #28

HE Thinking | 26 Mar 2018


The race to convert applicants into students has well and truly begun. The main UCAS application deadline was in January, so it’s now ‘make or break’ time for the thousands of prospective students. Similarly, for universities, your prospectuses, emails, websites, letters, social media and open days now need to work very hard to ensure you don't under-convert. It's easy to trip up.   

The HE research team here at YouthSight, hears all about your marcomms almost every day, direct from applicants. They tell us what they like, dislike, what’s helpful and what’s annoying. Based on their comments, here are three 'questions' we think you should ask, which we hope will be useful when thinking about your communications. 


Q1 -  Are you friendly and approachable?



" I want universities to be open and friendly - the idea of applying to uni can be scary and you want to feel welcomed."  

"One university I contacted handled my questions extremely poorly to the point where I felt disrespected. They had given me an unconditional offer which I did not take up."

 - Student verbatims from YouthSight HE Marcomms, 2017/18




The way a university deals with an application can be a ‘make or break’ factor for conversion. Our long-term tracker study, Higher Expectations, shows that the importance of the university’s interactions with prospective students (HEx variable: ‘dealings with me’) has steadily risen over the years from 33% of respondents rating it as ‘very important’ in 2006 to 41% in 2017.

Dealings with me growing in importance2.png

Higher Expectations 2006-2017.  Percentage agreeing the university’s ‘dealings with me’ were ‘very important’. *Note: chart's y-axis runs from 30% to 70% to highlight change in importance. Question omitted in 2010, therefore no data reported. 

Subscribers to Higher Expectations are able to ‘drill down’ into this data and view where their university ranks against competitors, how importance has chanced for specific sub groups, etc.

Your university’s approach to communications is an opportunity to bypass the predictable nexus of league table position, prestige and TEF and REF scores. Every university has the opportunity be prompt, friendly, approachable and polite, not just those in the Russell Group!

The chart below shows that league table ranking has practically no bearing on how students feel they have been dealt with by their chosen university. In fact, no Russell Group institution manages to break into the top 10 on this metric.

YouthSight Higher Expectations, 2016/2017:

How well does your uni perform s.png

To find out individual university rankings, please get in touch.

See my university’s ranking >


Q2 – Are you relevant, timely and clear?

Applicants get inundated with information, not only from the universities they apply to, but also from their teachers, peers and parents. You need to cut through the clutter by delivering impactful comms, tailored to their needs and adapted to their profiles.

An applicant who is likely to stay at home will not engage with multiple letters about accommodation on campus.  

Our HE Marcomms Dashboard (2017/18) is based on over 6000 interviews with prospective undergraduates. It reports that the top three information needs that applicants seek when deciding which university to pick as a firm choice are: entry requirements; course content; and accommodation. So we suggest putting these front and center wherever relevant.

All information you provide needs to be intuitive and easy to find. We know from talking to pre-applicants that they will sometimes give up on a specific university if they’re unable to find key information on the websites such as entry requirements for their course of interest.


In answer to "Thinking about all of the communications you have received from institutions so far, is there anything which has stood out to you as particularly positive or negative?"

"Receiving a quick response from the University of Liverpool inviting me to an interview was a positive. I waited a long time to hear back from other universities and it is nerve-wracking and off-putting when it comes to choosing between them." HE Marcomms Dashboard 2017/18



Accessibility is also essential when interacting with your applicants. Web usability professionals apply a “five second test” to ensure relevant messages can be rapidly communicated. It’s worth always being conscious that whatever communications you use, clarity and impact are vital.

The application process is stressful, and what consistently comes back as the biggest driver of stress and anxiety is the length of time universities can take in answering queries or providing updates on an individual’s application process.


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Q3: Are you being viewed as authentic?

Applicants want a university to be genuine. When asked to choose the key communications feature that matters to them, they picked authenticity. In the same applicants’ survey, almost 40% of respondents rated genuine/real information as one of the most important features of the communications they receive from universities, well ahead of a professional/serious feel.



Your applicants don’t only choose a course, they choose your university as a home for the next three years of their lives, and they want to be able to imagine themselves in this new environment. It is, therefore, no wonder that the “Open Day”, is not only the most used, but also the most influential source of information when applicants are selecting their firm choice. One in three of over 6,000 respondents rated it as “very influential”. Your open day gives them a genuine, authentic, peak at the experience your institution will offer.

The need for authenticity in your communications comes through clearly in the hundreds of verbatim comments featured in our HE Marcomms Dashboard (note these comments can be filtered and compared by many analysis variables):




"It would be nice if universities, when communicating with you, are direct and honest. Universities need to realise that students are not as easily swayed by institutions that bend the truth."

"The University of Essex sent me through the mail an extremely pleasant package…. The letter which was also included in the package …showed awareness towards the stress students go through during the applications and exams period. This package was delightful and felt genuine, they indicated that they care about their students as people and not only about their grades which was a refreshing change."




Nailing your communications with prospective students isn’t easy. Delivering the right messages, with the right tone, via the right channels, at the right time isn’t easily achieved. It requires a lot of thought and a lot of resources, but the pay-off is significant. If you can ensure your communications can successfully answer these three questions, you’ll get an even better return on your marketing investment and enhance your chances of conversion...

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