University of Surrey: Optimising the applicant experience

Applying to university is a complex and stressful process. There’s a seemingly-infinite number of institutions, courses, accommodation and extra-curricular options, all available online at the click of a button.

Applicants spend hundreds of hours doing research over an 18 month period to make sure they get this life-defining decision right. Higher education institutions that understand how and why applicants make decisions gain an immediate advantage. They can optimise their services, content and communications to meet potential applicants’ needs.

In an ultra-competitive sector this is key to recruitment because it means that a student’s first interaction with the university will be a positive one.

Discovery and insight

We conducted mixed-methods research with 16 and 17 year olds applying to university where we explored their needs before, during and after applying and how well Surrey’s services supported them.

Participants were carefully chosen to reflect a range of behaviours and demographics. We knew from previous research that applicants whose parents had not been to university have different needs to those who had. We also needed to capture all stages of the application journey.

Stakeholders from digital, copywriting, analytics, and marketing observed the research interviews. This varied group doesn’t typically get time to collaborate, but as part of the research process they spent a day together discussing successes, pain points, and opportunities as they observed them.

We used insight from qualitative and quantitative research with students and staff to produce a service map of the undergraduate applicant experience, showing pain-points gaps and opportunities.

Evidence-based decisions

The clear insight we uncovered mean that:

  • The digital team could re-structure the digital journeys to be more effective and better meet students’ needs
  • The editorial team could focus on providing the right information at the right point in the process
  • The marketing team were empowered to develop new ways of keeping in touch with prospective students
  • The university could confidently invest budgets in producing targeted content and campaigns at key points in the year

Myth busting

We were also able to bust a few myths about student behaviour. Maybe you think young people do everything on their phones, can’t handle too much information, or only like video? Think again.

Our research showed that, like most people, they want lots of detail, presented in a way that’s clear and easy-to-digest. And for important matters like university applications, they want to use their laptops.

An ongoing relationship

Following this piece, the university asked us to look at the experience of students applying via Clearing. This filled another key gap in their knowledge. Again, it’s helping them to invest in relevant, targeted content at the right time in the right place.

Matt, Head of Digital Channels at Surrey, told us:

“The work Mace & Menter did meant we were able to make strategic decisions about where to invest our effort over the coming year. It’s rare for some of the stakeholders in content and marketing to meet our audience so it was hugely valuable for us as a group to get inside their minds. It made people challenge assumptions, explore language and gave us an opportunity to reflect on the way we do things. It also re-surfaced some things we already knew about but that had slipped down our priority list!”