Getting your College Noticed in Student Search

Admissions officers and higher education marketing firms know that it’s very hard to encourage a student to inquire or apply if he/she won’t even read your Search letter or email. Student Search is one of the most critical aspects of higher education marketing.   As the recession pushes down admissions yield rates, having a sufficient number of inquiries and applications becomes even more important.  

Searching Overburdened Students

Marketing to prospective college students is becoming ever more challenging. As Strauss and Howe’s research revealed, the Millennial generation is one of the most stressed-out generations in history. Students feel understandable pressure to get good grades and take part in a myriad of extracurricular activities. When the Search season begins, most prospective college students will be buried under an avalanche of Search letters. Many will look very similar. And the student’s electronic inbox will resemble their mailbox; it will be totally clogged with admissions Search email messages. Which messages will they read and what will encourage them to respond? 

This will be no problem for institutions with a great brand. A Search letter from Harvard, Princeton or Yale will certainly by opened – it may be framed. But there are many high quality but less famous institutions that could be a perfect fit for individual students. Due to time pressures, many of their letters and emails will go unopened by both students and parents. What’s an admissions marketing staff to do? 

Research to the Rescue

Research can come to the rescue. Both marketers and psychologists have conducted controlled scientific studies to uncover what makes busy people, particularly teenagers respond. Social psychology research is particularly helpful here – most of its research subjects are college students. Whether your college’s admissions department sends emails, or letter/post card mailings, what are some factors that research shows can help get your admissions marketing communication noticed? 

Aside from strong branding, perhaps the most important is personal relevance. A key study cited by eminent social psychologist and author Elliot Aronson, PhD found that college students carefully evaluated information only if they found it personally relevant (Petty, Cacioppo & Goldman). It will often take a lot of careful evaluation for a student to decide to enroll at your institution. Sending a personally relevant Search piece is a good start.  

Making Search Personally Relevant to Students

Prospective college students who have recently taken the SAT or ACT have provided fresh information on their academic interests. There's no need for data appending. Featuring their intended major has gotten good results in the past. According to a Hewlett-Packard report, Albertson College increased its Search response rate from 2.2% to 18.7% a few years ago by highlighting students’ intended major and varsity sports interest (where applicable). 

Clearly, having fresh, accurate data can help you make your Search letters, postcards and emails personally relevant to students, which will get them read. But students change their minds, and unless your database is up to date the major you feature may no longer be pertinent. Featuring it would make your Search efforts yesterday’s news. 

What if your Data isn’t Fresh?

Would a mass marketing approach be better and safer to use? That approach could mean that your letters, postcard mailings and emails will look like what everyone else is sending. How will the students to whom you’re marketing determine whether or not to open and read your communication? The research cited by Dr. Aronson showed that when the communication wasn’t personally relevant to students, they used decision shortcuts or heuristics to judge its value. What decision shortcuts do prospects use? You can read about a number of them in the white paper, The Psychology of Search. To get a copy, email me at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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