Has there ever been more pressure on universities to recruit students? With more university places being offered than ever – but a decline in the number of 18-year-olds – the higher education market has become ultra competitive. How will you keep quality applications rolling in?

The key part of any successful student recruitment strategy is your website. According to one survey, 74% of students checked out university websites to make their 5 UCAS choices – far higher than any other information source.

So what does your website need to be showing to applicants? What are they looking for?

Which? University ran a survey in 2014 to identify the main reasons behind student choice. That’s a good place to start. Combine that knowledge with Zengenti's experience building higher education websites, and you've got some insight that could greatly improve your online recruitment drive.

1.  Show off your course content

The number one factor influencing student choice (by miles) is course content.

That's right – details of your courses. A whopping 73% of applicants said course content was important when selecting where to study.

It turns out students aren't simply looking for a good time. They want to know the gritty details of what's covered on your courses. They want to know exactly what they'll be studying and they’re comparing what you say about your degrees to other institutions scrupulously. 

On the face of it, that's not hard to provide. Get as much detail as possible up on your site. Make it easy to read and easy to navigate, and you're already halfway there.

Course unit details from the University of Manchester's website. 

Manchester University goes one level deeper than many other higher education websites, breaking course units down into detailed topics.

The other half of the challenge is differentiation. How are you going to describe a course to make it stand out against your competitors?

That’s where you need to think like a marketer and find the unique selling proposition (USP) of your courses and hammer them home. As well as the dry facts of the syllabus, tell prospective students a story about the course – how much they'll enjoy it, how it will transform their future, how they’ll follow in the steps of great alumni.

There's a principle in website design of 'show don't tell'. This means you should never pass up the opportunity to demonstrate information visually. If your course has an award or a famous lecturer, publish the rosette or mugshot. If the faculty has had a facelift or got some modern art in the foyer, share a picture. If you've got the fine detail of lectures that make up a semester – publish it for all to see.

And there's no point in loading your website up with rich course content if no one can find it. Embark on some user experience work to see how easy it is to find the courses. Usability experts Nielsen Norman Group looked at how users interact with university sites and discovered that “48% of users didn’t realize that the university offered the program that they were looking for even when it did.”

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"48% of users didn't realize that the university offered the program that they were looking for even when it did."

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The problem was that if the course wasn’t where they expected it to be, they assumed it wasn’t offered. Make sure that the course names are visible as close as possible to the first navigation point.

Because if course content is as important as the survey suggested – it should be leaping off the page.

The University of Kent undergraduate course list.

A clearly labelled course A-Z, like this one from the University of Kent, reassures visitors that they are seeing the complete set of options and means they are less likely to miss the course that they want.

2.  Trade on your academic reputation (or change the story)

Next on the priority list for students is overall academic reputation. Six out of 10 applicants said it was important in choosing where to study.

No surprise, and great news if you're top of the academic tables. If you are, then you should be showing it. Oxbridge excepted, you can’t be too big to assert your reputational dominance. Durham University doesn’t assume that centuries of academic prowess and top rankings in both UK and world tables will have been picked up by today’s 18-year-olds.

The meta description for Durham University's homepage.

Durham University starts its ranking story in search engine results pages, by adding it to their page title.

Durham University homepage banner.

Click through to Durham University’s website and the story is reinforced on every page as part of the header.

But what if you're not top of the tables?

Here's the thing: if your academic reputation is, to put it euphemistically, nascent, then change tune. Tell a different story. Don't let the big hitters get away with hoovering up applicants just because they have the best reputation.

Because some students turn down Oxford and Cambridge. They’re looking for something else.

Maybe it's because they don't think they'll fit in with the culture. Maybe it's because the course doesn't look as appealing as elsewhere (don't forget reason number 1). Maybe they've got an eye on the nightlife, and they've heard the one club in Cambridge is somewhat seedy. Maybe they want a degree that actually prepares them for real life.

In that case ... gotcha! Maybe your university culture is incredibly diverse and inclusive. Maybe your university has some amazing courses. Maybe everyone knows your city is pumping every night. And maybe your degrees don't just stimulate the mind – they prepare students for the world of work as soon as they walk out of the door.

Or maybe it's something else completely different that your institution is brilliant at. The percentage of students who get work experience. Your international appeal. Your famous alumni. Your green credentials. Your modern facilities. 

Don’t make something up. Young people are very sensitive to marketing-ese and skeptical of messages that come across like a sales pitch or feel generic. But find an authentic angle on what your university offers, the more distinct the better, and start to prove it.

The key thing is to work on that story – hone its appeal – and to tell it strategically throughout your site from its first appearance in Google down to your 404 page. Give plenty of evidence. Leave no one in any doubt of the big reason to choose you over some stuffy old table topper.

The meta description for the University of Central Lancashire's homepage.

Central Lancashire University’s story of real world suitability and world class renown is much more compelling than their 2017 ranking (99 out of 127).

3.  Share those graduate employment rates

Why do students apply to university in the first place? Two thirds of applicants said it was to improve employment prospects or pursue a specific vocation. So it’s no surprise that 58% looked for graduate employment rates when wondering where to study.

Graduate employment rates tell you the percentage of graduates in paid employment or further study six months after graduating.

Publishing that one number could make a difference to your application rate. So are you showing it? 

This is another opportunity for 'show don't tell'. Feature your graduate employment rate loud and proud. Even if it's not the highest in the country, highlighting it may have a positive effect. Every university has one; not every university is using it to their advantage. By publishing your figure you are indicating that you take employability seriously.

A message promoting graduate employment rates from the St Mary's University Twickenham website.

St Mary’s University Twickenham is near the bottom of the league tables, yet its graduate employment rate, shown here as a message on its homepage, is among the highest.

Nielsen Norman Group found that, obvious though it sounds, “The About Us page is one of the top places where prospective students go to decide if a university is a good fit for them.”

So now you know where to put your employment rate statistic. 

And with all of these content features there is an opportunity to back them up with social proof. Social proof is evidence of other people choosing or enjoying your service. For example, for graduate employment you could show photos and testimonials of graduates in their new workplaces. It takes some effort to gather the quotes and images – but social proof is a powerful way to reinforce a message for new recruits.

If students applying today already have their eyes on the workplace (and number 5 suggests they most certainly do), then show them images of employment, not just of study.

4. Showcase your academic facilities 

If graduate employment rates are important, just as many applicants consider the quality of your academic facilities vital in choosing a place to study.

In addition to describing courses in great detail, what can you tell them about your libraries, IT suites, laboratories and lecture rooms? 

It's a well-worn cliché, but images are worth a thousand words. Norman Nielsen group again:

“Visitors make value judgments about your school based on the images that you use. A few photos of sporting events: users see an emphasis on athletics. A video gallery with thumbnails of people that all look the same: users see a lack of diversity.”

Show the applicants where they will be working and what wonders are available to them. Even better, have a student present a series of video tours of your facilities to add that crucial social proof.

University College London's YouTube playlist as displayed on its website.

UCL’s YouTube playlist, also shown on its website, showcases some of its many academic facilities available to students and the general public.

5.  Demonstrate your links with employers

The final clincher for selecting a higher-education destination again concerns employment. Half of applicants surveyed were looking for strong links between the university and employers.

Take a look at your site. Click through some of the admissions and course pages. How long before you see an employer? Are they visible at all?

The Nielsen Norman research found that people expected to find job placement information in alumni pages. As it is such an influential measure, it should not be confined to one section. But bear in mind that if users look in the alumni area, they should find at least a link from there to the employer content.

Again, you don't have to be top of the graduate employment tables to have a story about where you connect to the world of work. If a high percentage of your courses feature work experience placements, make sure applicants know about it from the start. Even a single successful alumnus would make a powerful testimonial. Explore what information you can show about where graduates end up working.

A call-to-action promoting employer-student links on the University of Southampton' website.

Southampton University fronts its website with a message about employer-student links. Clicking the button takes users to a page listing its Careers Service resources and services, employability rankings and companies it works with.

Get recruiting

You don’t need a rocket science doctorate to find out what content applicants are looking for on your website and give it to them. There is plenty more research out there, and you’ll have data of your own to make these general findings more refined for your market.

The important thing is to work on the content.

  • For the areas that applicants care most about, share as much information as possible.

  • Make that information really easy to find.

  • And don't just write about it, but show visual evidence – images, videos, callout stats and graphics.

  • Back up what you've got with successful stories and stats from those who have gone before.

  • And tell the story that will engage your applicants right across your website, from the metadescription that appears in search results to the header on every page.

If you haven’t got the information required, or your website is not optimised to show it off, then you’ve got some work to do. Start collecting alumni employment stories and data. Commission some new photos. Work on both your message and your website user experience. 

It will be worth it. Given today’s student recruitment challenge, you can’t afford not to.

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Gabriel Smy

About the Author

Gabriel is Zengenti's content strategist. He helps clients to plan and produce great content for their websites. A writer at heart, he has more than 10 years' experience in digital content and communications.

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