Recruiting students online can appear to be a straightforward process of an informative website, great content and compelling ads. But, a successful online student recruitment strategy is so much more than this. It requires a strong online presence and consistent, authentic messaging that is built around a highly targeted audience.

Getting the right content into the right hands at the right time isn’t done by chance. It’s strategic, which is why all pieces must be in place. These “pieces” include the what, who, how and when of your strategy. If you want to know everything about recruiting students online, you’ve come to the right place! Let’s explore the details of your online recruitment strategy.

WHAT: What is Your School’s Message?

Many institutions answer the “what” question with their institutional mission and values statements. Dig deeper and think about what your school does better than anyone else. Are you situated in a beautiful area? Do you have a fascinating school history? What type of academic and athletic programs do you offer?

Students today have more choices than ever, especially with the addition of online learning. To complicate matters, schools tend to look the same. They have similar messaging and slogans, making it difficult for prospects to separate one college from the next. No matter how simple something may seem, write it down and work with it. You might find that it creates the foundation for the perfect story.

For example, let’s say that your small private college is located in a quaint downtown area that has abundant restaurants, boutique shops and convenience stores. At first, this may not seem attractive compared to the more flexible and affordable college towns, but there are many benefits to this environment:

  • Opportunities for part-time work

  • Various activities to enjoy

  • Beautiful scenery for walking, running and jogging

  • Dining, lodging and shopping for friends/family who visit

  • Off-campus living arrangements

  • Close to grocery stores, pharmacies and more

Defining the “what” of your institution is sometimes apparent and sometimes it is not. If you feel that your current marketing efforts haven’t been effective at resonating with students, try to find a different aspect of your program that may be more appealing. You want prospects to look at your school and say, “Oh, that’s the one!”

WHO: Who are You Talking To?

When defining the “who” of your institution, be specific. It’s easy to assume that your audience consists largely of high school juniors and seniors, but this group is way too generalized. Surely, your school isn’t the right fit for every high school junior or senior, so narrow this down.

Do you have programs for students interested in the liberal arts? Do you have robust financial aid packages for international students? Is your school the place to be for students who excel in engineering or a particular sport?

Not only should you look at the types of students you already have on campus, but also the students you hope will apply. Is there a niche you’re looking to fill? Perhaps you like where your school is headed and you want more of the same students. Being specific sometimes feels restrictive, but it’s the best approach. This way, you can create highly targeted content that speaks to the right college prospects.

Unfortunately, just because you think you’re speaking to your audience doesn’t mean that you actually are. If you want to bring in more first generation students and your content hasn’t been successful at raising these numbers, you’re not getting your message across. In this case, you can adjust your messaging, but you might need to include an incentive such as a substantial financial aid package.

HOW: How Will You Reach Students?

The next part is defining how you will share your messaging, which is on the internet. College prospects turn to the internet to research schools and determine their best fit. There are endless ways to engage with potential colleges and universities, such as by browsing websites, reading blogs, looking at images and videos, chatting with admissions counselors and more.

It’s important to utilize multiple channels to reach students. To you, it can feel redundant, but a single prospect won’t engage with you on every channel. For example, one person sees your ad on Facebook and visits your profile. Once here, they watch a few videos, read through your posts and send a message for more info. Another prospect sees your ad in the search results and clicks on it. They are brought to your website where they spend time reading your latest blog posts and exploring your programs. They add their name and email to your subscriber list. Two different leads, finding you on two different channels and converting in two different ways. If you weren’t advertising on both channels, you would have lost one of the lead.

Also, remember that people consume content in various ways. Be sure to broaden your content marketing strategy by offering a mix of blog posts, infographics, slideshare presentations, videos, donwloadable ebooks and even funny posts like memes and gifs. As long as your brand’s messaging is consistent, you can experiment with different types of content!

WHEN: When Will You Reach Prospects?

The “when” refers to the timeline that you should be following, which makes a difference in higher education. After all, there is a generalized schedule to follow. In the winter and early spring, students apply for and get accepted into schools. In the summer, students move in and begin their journeys. The fall is when when a new batch of students begins inquiring about schools.

When recruiting students online, think about the season you’re in and the messaging that makes the most sense. In the summer, students generally aren’t thinking about sending in an application. In the winter, they’re not thinking about moving into their dorm.

You’ll also want to consider parents who are getting a head start on the college research process and unhappy first year students who are looking to transfer. They are different from your larger audience, but you don’t want to miss out on them. A school that understands a freshman’s disappointment with their current school has the opportunity to bring in a great student who will finish their program.


In the end, recruiting students online is all about reaching the right students in the right moment. To be effective, you must understand who you are connecting with, where they are and when they will be most receptive. It takes trial and error to get things right, but with practice, patience and continued improvements, you will be successful at recruiting the best students for your school.