College Website Photos—Results from E-Expectations

How can you make your digital and website resources more effective for prospective students?

“They could share any photos, details about academic programs, or videos showing the campus, and these would definitely strengthen my interest in attending the school.” –2018 E-Expectations student survey respondent

As the online experience becomes increasingly visual thanks to smartphone cameras, selfies, Instagram, and Snapchat, students who have grown up in the age of social media look to images to not only support online content, but to be part of the narrative. From vacation snaps to food shots to party pics, the students your institution is courting often tell their own stories visually. When they start researching colleges to attend, they are naturally drawn to images that both tell a story and draw them toward important content about the institution.

But what kinds of images resonate with today’s college-bound students?

The 2018 E-Expectations survey asked high school juniors and seniors to weigh in, showing them a variety of photos similar to what they would see on college websites. Students looked at 10 images and were asked to rank the photos in two ways:

1) Which photo would make an institution look the most appealing?

2) How students felt about a photo, using five provided responses:

  • Excited to see this campus in person
  • Curious to learn more about the school
  • No strong feelings
  • The photo does not inspire interest
  • The photo would drive me away from enrolling

These photo findings are a supplement to the 2018 E-Expectations Trend Report.

The most engaging photos

5th: Sports arena

College arena

March Madness provides a month’s worth of media coverage and national excitement for dozens of colleges and universities, but this arena shot ranked in the middle of the photo pack. It was the sixth most appealing college website photo for seniors and fifth for juniors. However, 50 percent of juniors said they would get excited to see this campus in person, the highest excitement rating for juniors.


4th: College Graduates

Photo of college graduates

Graduation is the goal of every college student, but this graduation photo only ranked fourth among juniors and seniors. This photo fared better than some of the other photos featuring students, but in general anything that seemed like a stock photo of students did not do as well.


3rd: Male students in a lab

Male students in a lab

This was the highest rated photo featuring human subjects. It is arguably the least “staged” of the photos with people, as the subjects are in the middle of a lab project and are not looking into the camera.


2nd: Campus from the air

Aerial campus photo

This is a classic aerial photo of a campus, showcasing a high-level view of the campus buildings. The background also places the campus within the context of its proximity to a downtown area. This photo generated the highest excitement rating from seniors, with 48 percent saying they would get excited to see this campus in person.


1st: Winter campus

College website photo: Snowy campus

Juniors and seniors said this picture was the most appealing, choosing a quintessential campus photo with its classic college architecture surrounded by fresh, pristine snow. In terms of excitement, 45 percent of seniors and 37 percent of juniors said it made them excited to learn more about the campus.

The rest of the campus website photos

Three of the remaining five did not elicit much of a response—positive or negative—from the surveyed students. These are all typical examples of “scenes of college life” photos.

Female student in dormCollege website photo: classroomCollege students dining

The least engaging photos

Juniors: Female student in lab

Female student in lab

Not only did juniors rate this the least appealing photo, one out of five also said it did not inspire any interest or would drive them away from enrolling.

Seniors: Female student in library

Female student in library

Seniors rated this the least appealing photo, and one-third of them said it did not inspire any interest in a campus.

5 takeaways for college website photos

All of the photos with people we showed our respondents were typical of posed college campus pictures. Showing students is important, and good student photos can convey excitement about campus life, programs of study, and belonging at a campus. However, in an era of more spontaneous smartphone photos, the way photos are staged needs to reflect the way students take and view photos in their daily existence.

Not every institution has ivy-covered walls and majestic columns that look like a Hollywood version of campus. But students did seem drawn to photos that showed a sense of place. For example, the aerial campus photo provided context of the campus in the surrounding area. Perhaps your institution is near appealing architecture, pristine countryside, or other attractions that you could also highlight as part of your location.

Present a variety of photos rather than exclusively showing your campus architecture, but to present a variety of photos. Even though students ranked all of these photos, there were significant numbers who liked each photo and found them interesting. Vary the types of photos you use even if you showcase certain types of shots more than others.

If your campus looks like a winter wonderland for part of the school year, you don’t have to hide it. Flaunt it!

Make sure that the photos you are using look as appealing on small screens as they will on large desktop monitors. Students come to college websites on smartphones, tablets, laptops, and desktops, so you need to make sure your photos adapt and look good, regardless of screen size.


Read the 2018 E-Expectations Trend Report

2018 E-Expectations Trend ReportDive into all the additional findings from this year's report, including:

• Resources students use to research colleges
• Website navigation and content expectations
• Preferences for texting
• Social media use
• Virtual and VR tour, and more

Download the 2018 E-Expectations Trend Report

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