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Recruiting international students—what’s working in today’s environment

Deborah Pierce

October 18, 2016

Many colleges and universities across the U.S. and abroad now use digital marketing tools such as chat, skype, virtual college fairs, and webinars to reach prospective international students abroad, along with a wide variety of social media and technologies including:

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • LinkedIn
  • Instagram
  • WeChat (especially for China – 650 million monthly active users)
  • Blogging
  • WhatsApp
  • Google+
  • Snapchat
  • Weibo (“Twitter” for China; 460 million monthly active users)
  • Virtual college fairs
  • YouTube

Tools like these are essential elements in the mix of methods for recruiting international students–but they are not the whole thing. In my experience, most institutions find they are best used in combination with face-to-face recruiting and other key methods such as email, print materials, paid advertising, and—of course—the institution’s website.

Per Quacquarelli Symonds (QS), students outside the U.S. require a mix of online and offline resources.  Online resources used include:

  • Official college and university websites (94% of students use)
  • University ranking websites (74% of students use)
  • Specialized recruiting websites (44% of students use sites like Study in the USA)
  • Student chat rooms (14%)
  • Social media (13%)

This data is consistent with what I hear from the NAFSA Association of International Educators: Social media in nations outside the U.S. are seen by U.S. recruiters as complementary rather than as primary recruiting tools; not as many students are depending on social media as we may think. For prospective students, social media appear to be primarily a source for ideas and inspiration, rather than a selection tool.

8 tips for taking your recruiting to the next level

Of major importance in using technology for international student recruitment:

  • First, get your website content and email strategy in order, then work on social media. Students prefer to use email to initiate contact with a university, but if there is no quick response, they’ll resort to social media to get what they want.
  • Connect students with students. Strive to create authentic conversations and to keep it genuine. Connecting prospective students with current students from the same region/country is most important.
  • Responses should be personal and quick–within two hours.
  • Photos are better than text-heavy posts.
  • Hire some actual students to do the posting (after training them as ambassadors).
  • Personalize messages: Happy Eid, Happy Lunar New Year. All communications must always be personalized and relevant.
  • Ask current students to evaluate your social media strategy so they can tell you what works and what doesn’t.
  • Social media efforts often work better as yield activities rather than as initial contact.

Something interesting, and an area that has room for significant improvement: students say it’s really hard to find information on costs and scholarships on official college and university websites.  I would agree! There’s a real opportunity here for institutions willing to work hard and thoughtfully on their websites.

Planning for the recruitment of international students

Pulling it all together through a strategic enrollment management plan is also very important–a haphazard attempt to “use social media” just because that’s what everyone is doing is a poor choice.  As one recruiter said at a western community college: “At some point you’ve just got to have face to face contact with someone.”

And above all else, improving the institutional website is crucial!!

Looking for more data and insights on international student recruitment?

Call 800.876.1117 or email us to discuss your international student recruitment strategy with an expert from Ruffalo Noel Levitz and learn how to take your program to the next level.  We welcome your questions and the opportunity for conversation. Good luck in the recruiting season ahead!


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