6 Ways to Build an Online Community to Attract Prospective College Students

6 Ways to Build an Online Community to Attract Prospective College Students

How can your college stand out from the crowd of options? Check out these strategies to grab (and keep) the attention of today’s teenagers.

With so many competing schools, it’s not easy for many colleges to snag the interest of graduating high school students. Particularly for a generation not known of its long attention span.

But what Generation Zers may lack in focus, they make up for in passion for the things they genuinely care about. That’s your opportunity to capture and sustain their interest.

Here are 7 ways to build an online presence and community that speaks to high school graduates as they prepare to make one of the most important decisions of their lives: choosing a college.

1. Ensure admissions materials are straightforward—and compelling

First things first: how clear and persuasive are your admissions materials? Do students and their parents need a degree from your college to understand the application requirements and deadlines? What is your school’s reputation among high school guidance counselors? Does the admissions office field a lot of phone calls and emails to get clarity? Is it easy for prospective students to find answers to frequently asked questions (FAQs) online?

If you winced even a little at any of the questions above, it might be worthwhile taking a look at the admissions process at your college with an eye to simplifying language and processes. If it’s a Herculean task to overhaul the administrative arm, a quicker fix may be to create an online community that helps guide students through the process.

If you don’t already have them, consider creating an admissions YouTube channel where a staff member (or current student) answers those FAQs, an online forum where students can pose questions and have them answered (think SFW Reddit thread), and a dedicated Instagram account where students can DM questions.

2. Connect current students with prospective students

Young adults want to hear about the experiences of other young adults who are living the life they’re considering. They value the advice they share. Colleges have the unique opportunity to create important communities where current and prospective students can connect.

Student volunteers can help create interest and excitement about your college by moderating virtual tours, webinars, even group chats or social media accounts. These student ambassadors could share their personal experiences, including details like their favorite classes, where they love to eat or study, which clubs or associations they enjoy, and best hangout places for students. They could also be assigned to stay in touch with a sub-section of prospective students who are applying for the same program or are from the same community or state, by text or email. This provides high schoolers and their families a real-life resource they can turn to as they make their decision.

3. Use a variety of mediums (with extra emphasis on video)

Some students want to read academic reports; others want to get an email every week for more digestible information about your college; still more want to find short videos about your college in their TikTok feed. It’s important to provide several ways for prospective students to learn about all aspects of your college.

However, if you want to double down on any, choose video. Hands down, it’s the best way to capture the fleeting attention of Gen Z. They’re unlikely to try out a new store unless they see it with their own eyes before they visit, let alone a college. Show them dorm rooms, student meeting areas, labs, classrooms, sports fields and locker rooms, theaters and backstage areas – whatever you’ve got, flaunt it on a series of short (think less than 3 minutes) videos.

4. Have a strong social media presence

Does your college have a TikTok account? You should. A 2021 Forester report found that 63% of Americans between the ages of 12 and 17 used TikTok on a weekly basis. And if you have teenagers in your life, that number might feel low. Other research found that a typical TikTok user opens the app 8 times a day. Snapchat and Instagram are also teen favorites – Snapchat users reportedly check the app 30 times a day, on average.

If you want to appeal to prospective students, go where they live: on social media. The key is posting short, compelling videos – with the occasional text-with-photo posts. The goal is to pop up often, so maintain a consistent schedule that covers the full range of what your college has to offer. Bonus: invest in social media advertising to make sure you’re getting in front of the right eyeballs at the right time (with the right content).

5. Step up your virtual tour game

The COVID-19 pandemic changed education irrevocably in many ways. One of them is that prospective students and their families will expect to take a virtual tour of your campus before they consider visiting in person. And when it comes to visual quality, Generation Z will have high expectations.

Consider hiring a student or professional actor to give the kind of tour they’re accustomed to seeing online. Use drones and other professional camera work to make the best first impression possible. And invest in virtual tour software that specializes in higher education so you can provide a realistic experience for your prospective students.

6. Tell stories

At the heart of every community are ties that bind people together. And nothing brings people together better than good stories. Whether you’re writing a newsletter article, shooting a video, crafting an email, or answering questions on an online forum, start with a real human being who has experienced what you’re trying to communicate.

Ideas include:

  • A day-in-the-life video of a current student
  • The success story of an alumni
  • A behind-the-scenes tour of a place on campus – hosted by someone who’s closely connected to it
  • A series of articles/posts/videos that follow alumni who have taken different career paths
  • A mock “restaurant review” of the dining hall from a current student