How Students Are Searching For Academic Programs at Your Institution

Photo by Pawel Janiak on Unsplash

When communicating with your prospective students, you undoubtedly strive to connect your offerings with their goals, interests and values. In doing so, you emphasize the benefits of your distinctive market positon and your ability to provide an exceptional education that is supportive of your prospects’ plans, hopes and dreams. But because the goals, interests and values held by each high school student can and will differ, you’ll need a powerful strategy to create compelling forms of communication that resonate with the wide (and often large) pool of prospects while remaining meaningful to each student. And while big and small data helps us move closer to one-to-one communication, you’re still left with an enormous task of developing distinctive messages that speak to students you likely have never met.

Far too often, we’ve observed institutions who forsake their true distinctiveness by promoting a broad range of descriptors and vague promises in an attempt to align with as many prospects as possible. They’re left with, paradoxically, no identity, no message and no market position. This, necessarily, comes to ultimate disadvantage via a hard lesson in the ineffectiveness of communication that is too generalized. At the same time, demonstrating the capacity to help all sorts of prospects achieve their broad range of academic and career goals would be an advantage for an institution, and could likely improve their brand awareness. So for the sake of this post, I’d like to focus on the importance of identifying prospects in terms of what their goals are, because we know that this can be communicated broadly with success, so long as you have the right strategy and content.

By better knowing your prospects and their goals, you can ensure that you offer pathways for them to achieve those goals. This is likely intuitive for you; it goes without saying that you can’t attract a student if you’re not offering something that appeals to their interests. But the tricky part is being able to offer pathways for students and all their different academic and career goals (and being able to back it up).

To clarify, the goals I am referring to are related to a student’s educational and career goals. Naturally, prospective students will also come to you with highly specific and narrow factors that influence their interest in your institution (How close is your campus to home? Are their friends or significant other enrolled at your college or university? Can they afford to attend your school?) that will always present challenges for management and communication. Educational and career goals, on the other hand, can be accounted for by your institution and communicated about with ease, if your approach is sound. These goals are particularly meaningful in that, not only are they important to the prospect, but they are often equally if not more important to the prospect’s parents or guardians, making your communication surrounding academics and career pathways critical. It goes without saying (but I’m saying it anyway because you may need reminding), these goals are also vitally important to you and your institution as you shape your incoming class and manage retention.

In order to frame your prospects’ goals to be less nuanced and more actionable, it will help to think of them in terms of student personas. You’re probably familiar with personas, and likely use them often when planning. They can be quite helpful, though there are risks involved—I recommend you read this post on persona-building from Sam Waterson for more insight. By creating student personas in terms of their goals, you’ll have distinct audiences you can account for. To make it simple, we’ll build personas in accordance to the two common factors that most influence a prospect’s goals (that can also be managed by an institution) and school selection:

•  whether or not they have clearly defined academic interests

•  whether or not they have clearly defined career ambitions

With these criteria in mind, there are four personas that must be considered for your communication strategies:

•  DA|UC (defined academic interest, undefined career ambition)

•  UA|UC (undefined academic interest, undefined career ambition)

•  UA|DC (undefined academic interest, defined career ambition)

•  DA|DC (defined academic interest, defined career ambition)



The Four Personas



For a student who has defined academic interests but is unaware of which career options best suit these interests (undefined career ambition), it’s important that an institution offers the academic programs they’re looking for, and demonstrates that those particular programs can lead to plenty of possible careers.

Take Chloe. She’s an artist who makes brilliant use of color in her painting and has an amazing eye for detail. She has always excelled in her high school art classes. She is equally passionate about the time she spends working with underprivileged students in after-school programs, helping them express themselves through art. She loves to paint and knows she is good at it. But she’s also aware of the difficulties for someone to make a living on their paintings alone. What careers exist for her? And can your academic programs lead her there?

She’ll want to see your programs, and she’ll also be interested in your alumni profiles. Can you show these to her? Maybe you have an art program that develops artists into amazing art teachers. Perhaps you have a program that wasn’t on Chloe’s radar—say, Art Therapy—but would appeal to the passion she has cultivated in her work through after-school programs. Or, maybe you have alumni who have gone on to be successful working artists, establishing the potential for networking opportunities. Providing a forum for Chloe to view all this information will help her envision herself attending your institution.


For students with undefined academic interests AND undefined career ambitions, they know a college degree is a good idea, but they have either too many or too few passions to know what program to pursue, let alone what career. For them, an institution that has a variety of academic offerings, or ones that can lead to a wide variety of careers, is crucial.

Take Erik. He has maintained above-average grades throughout high school while pursuing an assortment of extra-curricular activities, ranging from athletics to the robotics club to the speech team. He feels like he could do anything, but he’s never taken the time to decide on the one thing above all else that would best suit him. Instead, he’s waiting until he’s enrolled in college, so that he’ll be exposed to many different students, faculty members and academic courses before making a decision. How varied are your academic programs? Or, do the programs you offer lead students to a diverse enough set of career options?

He’ll want to see your programs, your associated careers, your student, faculty and alumni profiles—in fact, he’d like to see as much content as possible. The more content available to him, and the more opportunities he can see stemming from your academic offerings, the more he can trust that your institution will provide him an environment to find inspiration at his own pace. Providing an exploration system where Erik can delve into this content will allow him to properly consider your institution.


Students who have undefined academic interests but defined career ambitions generally know what they know what they “want to be when they grow up,” but they aren’t exactly sure which academic program bridges the gap between life as student and life as a working professional.

Take Marcus. He’s always been drawn to law and social justice, and from an early age has wanted to become a lawyer. He is a high academic achiever with excellent grades and test scores, so he’ll have many options to choose from when selecting an institution. He knows that law school is in his future, but he isn’t really sure which undergraduate programs would best prepare him for his eventual career, other than a pre-law major. Do you offer a pre-law program? If not, what other undergraduate programs are natural pathways to law school?

He’ll want the option to freely search multiple programs related to law or the type of law he wants to practice, and decide if one is best suited to his eventual law degree. It would also be helpful for him to see profiles, plus media content (like YouTube videos) that showcase the programs he might be interested in. Do you have profiles of alumni who completed their undergraduate degree at your institution before going on to become successful lawyers? Do you have compelling video along with your abstract? The more he can learn about your programs and place them within the context of his career path, the greater the chance he selects your institution. You’ll need a microsite, or at least a thoughtfully designed web page, with a search functionality that allows him to explore and discover majors intuitively, using keywords like “law,” “lawyer,” “human rights,” “social justice,” and more.


Students who have defined academic interests AND defined career ambitions know what they want to do, and which academic program they need to pursue. For them, it’s a matter of selecting an institution that has the strongest version of that program and is most likely to afford them the best job placement after graduation.

Take Mona. Coming from a family where both of her parents are involved in health care, she has always been drawn to nursing, and believes her skills and personality naturally lend themselves to the profession. For her, it’s all about finding a school with a great nursing program that will position her to succeed as a nurse. How quickly can she see whether you have a nursing program? What content do you have to demonstrate that your nursing program is the best one for her?

She’ll be interested in your course abstract, student and alumni profiles, potential hands-on learning opportunities and job placement rates related to your nursing program. Do you have this information available? Can you present it in a compelling way? She doesn’t need to be convinced that nursing is the right major—she needs to be convinced that your nursing program will give her the right education, training, tools and connections necessary for her to find a nursing job after graduation. Present your supporting content in an organized way and enable her to quickly establish that you not only offer a nursing program, but that your nursing program is one-of-a-kind. Remember, she knows what she’s after, so if you cannot demonstrate this to her quickly (or, if all your content is scattered in disparate places throughout your website), you may lose her to other cross-app schools.

Technology is your friend.

As technology continues to be worked into the fold of higher ed to better manage the enrollment experience for students (and for institutions), new approaches have been developed for improving a student’s school search process. The notion of pairing schools with students based on best-fit academic offerings and career paths is one area where technology can be applied for favorable results.

For this very reason, many schools have begun to reassess the way they present their academic offerings on their website. Whereas a simple list of majors may have seemed sufficient in the past, savvy institutions understand that their prospects are more likely to respond to academic programs when there is a discovery process facilitated. Whether it’s a search-driven exploration system, a series of questions that lead to a best-fit major, or a dynamic visual representation of offerings—major exploration and discovery should be a more exciting and attractive experience for students to participate in when investigating potential schools. To attract a wide array of students with differing interests and goals, creating this experience is essential, a consideration taken into account when RHB developed The Major Key.

Furthermore, most students are looking for proof that their return-on-investment will be positive—no matter which path they choose. The best way to demonstrate this is by emphasizing outcomes when promoting academic offerings. A student may be interested in, say, journalism, a program found at many schools, but if your college or university can also show successful job placement and career outcomes related to journalism, students will recognize that you are offering career pathways beyond the academic experience, and will be more inclined to pursue this program at your institution. The four aforementioned student personas vary in the clarity of their goals, but it’s fair to believe that they all want jobs upon graduation. Build pages that include job placement data, alumni profiles, videos and more alongside your academic offerings to attract these personas.

Your Prospects Are Your Discerning Customers.

Ultimately, while your institution and the education it offers cannot and should not be commoditized, students will still “shop” your school to decide if you can provide them a learning environment most conducive to their educational and career goals. By knowing who is shopping (your prospect) and what they are shopping for (an institution that can facilitate their goals), you’ll have an advantage. But it’s up to you to sweep the aisles, organize the shelves and make sure the “product” you offer (the right program, the right career path) is within arm’s reach. These four personas give you an idea of the kinds of discerning customers you can expect to browse your institution.

Using personas, you can address what a prospect’s goals are and the extent to which they are defined. Knowing this, you can plan and deliver communication about your academic offerings that resonates with the broadest range of prospects possible. Likewise, if the goal is selectivity in curating a prospect pool, you can tailor your message to connect with the desired student. In either case, you’ll have distinctive audiences you can focus on when communicating about your academic offerings.


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