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This is the first in a series of articles exploring some of the key challenges university recruitment and marketing teams face, and how using language in a strategic and creative way can help overcome them.

Challenge #1: student recruitment

Attract the right type of students, in the right numbers.

In the ‘old days’, life was simpler for students keen to go to university. You worked hard, got your grades and went to your first pick university. And if you didn’t, you still had a few other options. If you fell short, you’d go through ‘clearing’ and hope against hope you’d like a) the university willing to take you in and, b) the choice of course they offered you.

These days, things couldn’t be more different. Students rack up considerable debt to get a degree. Understandably, they expect more choice and demand more bang for their educational buck. Unsurprisingly, the nature of the relationship between student and university has changed fundamentally, heaping extra pressure on university marketing and recruitment teams to hit their targets.

There are other factors, too. Firstly, demographics in the UK are shifting, reducing the number of 18-19-year-olds to its lowest for a decade[1]. And secondly, university choice is no longer confined to the UK.

Education is now a global marketplace and competition is fierce.

All of this means universities have to change their attitude to how they view students. Put another way, they need to compete for them in the same way a brand competes for customers. This is even more important now the Competition & Markets Authority (CMA) can investigate universities for the accuracy of their ‘product’ in the same way it can investigate consumer products and services.

How students make their choice

Five key factors that widely published research[2] shows have the biggest impact on student university choice are:

  1. course content
  2. academic reputation
  3. graduate employment rates
  4. facilities
  5. employer links.

On the face of it, these factors make perfect sense. They provide a logical framework to judge one university against another and are, no doubt, useful in helping a 19-year-old make one of the biggest decisions of their life to date. But they also result in a lot of ‘samey’ student recruitment comms. All saying much the same things in much the same ways.

So as a framework, it’s missing one major element that carries equal, if not more, weight in the decision-making process: emotion. Once we’ve absorbed all the information, processed the facts, and weighed up the pros and cons, ultimately it’s our emotional heart that rules our rational head. But as research by the Journal of Neuroscience shows, anxious brains have trouble choosing[3].

So what can universities do to smooth the often-anguished minds of prospective students, and at the same time, articulate their point of difference?

Well, just as many brands use customer satisfaction scores (NPS) to help develop their ‘customer experience’, universities are turning to the educational equivalent to give them an edge: the National Student Survey (NSS).

The ‘honest feedback’ the NSS provides gives universities both a real insight into areas where they can improve, but also the bones around which they can develop a meaty, coherent and compelling ‘student experience’. One that covers the ‘choice factors’ outlined above, but which also brings the experience to life.

Say it, but with feeling

Leading research[4] into factors influencing university choice found that “regardless of information processed, decision making usually comes down to whether or not it feels right.” However much students think they’re making a rational decision, selection is actually “spontaneous and uncontrolled”.

Armed with this knowledge, a university can develop recruitment communications rooted in the unique student experience it offers. On one hand, presenting information and facts with clarity, simplicity and brevity to talk to the rational mind. On the other, weaving in more emotive and empathetic language and messages to bring the rational arguments to life.

But looking at what makes a department, faculty or university different is only half the battle. Yes, creating an emotional connection goes a long way, but it’s often the personality that comes through in the tone of voice that can help swing that student conversion.

That means using welcoming, supportive and inclusive language. Being creative in capturing students’ imaginations. And applying a tone of voice that starts building a relationship with prospective students from first contact, yet which reflects the brand values and ethos of the organisation’s personality.

Conversion starts with a conversation

A balanced approach that talks both to the rational and emotional brain is more likely to result in a physical university visit. Crucial, because formal open days are considered the most useful way for “prospective students and their parents to gather more detailed and tailored information”[5]. Yet research by the HEA and NUS, and separately by the HEFCE, points to another reason: “Personal contact with an institution often leads to the forming of emotional ties between a prospective student and the institution.”

The implication for universities is clear – investing in the relationship is what takes students from interested to engaged to enrolled.

As writers and communications consultants, we know first-hand the positive effects that writing with clarity, simplicity and brevity can bring to any communication. And communicating each of the five ‘choice factors’ clearly, simply and concisely, should be the very least universities aim for (and the least any prospective student and their parents, peers and teachers will expect).

But it also pays to make room for right brain emotion when writing websites, prospectuses and recruitment literature. It will give them a better chance of being read, understood and acted upon.

In turn, this will generate more physical visits – the best opportunity to build on an already established emotional link between prospective student and institution. And the more visits you can generate, the more chances you have of converting ‘maybes’ to ‘definites’ and hitting those recruitment targets.


How to do it
Creating a brand proposition that balances the rational with the emotional is pretty straightforward. As is injecting your comms with the personality through tone of voice.   It just requires clear objectives, good planning, and a commitment to the process. Here are four key steps you can take:

  1. Identify your institution’s brand proposition. Who are you? Why should I care? Why should I believe you?
  2. Articulate this proposition, both from a rational and emotional perspective.
  3. From this, create a tone of voice that reflects your institution’s values and ethos, so you talk in a way that suits your personality.
  4. Apply the tone of voice to all your digital and print communications.
  5. Make it real – use  case studies, interviews with staff, parents and student ambassadors to bring the student experience to life..

We know this process works. It’s how we’ve helped educational institutions focus their message, convey their personality, and stand out in a noisy marketplace. All the right elements you need to attract the right students in the right numbers.

For more information, get in touch.


Writers helps brands, businesses and educators make more of the words they use to tell their story, bring their ideas to life, and get their message across.






[5]Report to the HEFCE:

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