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How well do you know your applicants?

  • 1 February 2021
  • By Abhishek Nakhate & Bill Rammell

This blog was kindly contributed by Abhishek Nakhate, Founder and CEO of Zilter & Zoom Abroad, and Bill Rammell, Former Minister of State for Higher Education and a former Vice-Chancellor.

The most successful universities in terms of student recruitment devote time, money and staff to really know and understand potential students. Just like any successful organisation, public or private, spends time and money to know its customer or service user – do you think your university is doing enough to really know your students or potential students?

We have seen a steep rise in student enrolment. In 2000, 99 million students enrolled in higher education globally and we have seen huge growth to 251 million students, which is predicted to grow to almost 600 million by 2040. Despite two major downturns in 2009 and 2020, big political shifts like Brexit and other foreign policies and educational reforms, the number of students applying to universities or colleges is only going north. Of course, this is good news for students, society and education institutions, but increased applications bring in a new set of challenges, including managing quality student outcomes, capacity, infrastructure, efficiency and technological advancement. How are universities and colleges adapting to this substantial change?

Universities have an obligation and responsibility to recruit students who can fulfil their potential, but who also define, create and contribute to the future of society, which in turn materially affects the university’s ranking, reputation and the success of its students. To achieve this most effectively, the university admissions process has to focus on understanding the customers or educational partners, in this case, the students.

The most successful universities in terms of recruitment invest time and resources to understand the student before they are welcomed to the university. Higher education cannot simply be a business where students pay tuition fees to get a degree, where that qualification doesn’t give advantage to the student nor benefits society more broadly. So time and resource invested in understanding potential students, their aptitude, potential and ability to succeed before the admissions decision is hugely important.

The most successful university recruiters around the world focus on the following areas.

Knowing the student holistically. Recruitment decision-makers love to evaluate and understand mostly through the lens of academic achievement of the students, but can unintentionally ignore the other aspects of the student’s profile. It’s no secret that students have a lot more to share than just academic grades. In the evolved world of personalisation and customer satisfaction, step one is to know the person.

We must go deeper on the easy ways to know a student’s overall personality and on ideas to create personalisation, which many may think is very hard to achieve for a diverse range of students.

Use of data and analytics. Universities already hold an immense amount of intelligence on students, their behaviours, likes, preferences, engagements, achievements and weaknesses. This existing data when used with the right set of technology, can help institutions understand and analyse the desired outcomes universities would prefer in line with their missions and visions, what type of students can deliver those outcomes and how to identify such students at the application stage and help universities to manage risks.

Forward-thinking leaders explore how the right data analysis can help universities create personalised solutions to support and produce the desired predicted outcomes.

New assessment techniques. The qualitative side of a student’s application is typically assessed via some basic but effective techniques, including interviews, personal statements, and, predicted results. There is, however, real scope for further personalising these techniques to get better results when understanding the students’ potential and quality. For example, standard interview questions are not personalised and may not fit very well to all set of students. Interview questions could be more meaningful if you already know the student and it’s not a first conversation, as this will allow the interviewer to help make students more comfortable and to open up about their ambitions.

Similarly, how much can we learn from personal statements? Can they be improved? Can we develop cognitive tests of the students rather than solely rely on aptitude tests? We can dig deeper for better results.

Benchmarking assessment. Universities are large organisations with hundreds of staff and practically it can be difficult to maintain uniform qualitative assessments. We may have a difference of judgement about the quality of the potential student driven by our own perception of quality. And this difference in quality perception across hundreds of staff for thousands of students creates a hazy definition of the expected outcome and differs in precision. 

Validation and reviews. Letters of recommendation or teacher references can become a checkbox where schools and colleges use a standard template of words and add few lines which may be of very minimal help for the admissions officer assessing the application. How can we motivate the reviewer to provide honest reviews about the students? What should the review be about? How can you make it quick, simple and easy for the teacher to provide reviews / recommendations?

Understanding the source and background. Universities track where the student application or enquiry is coming from, which marketing communication / channels / agents are driving students, but we should think not only in terms of the quantity or conversions but also in terms of the quality or outcomes of the students. If we can utilise that intelligence, you can focus your resources.

Understanding by inspiration. Sometimes, even with a lot of effort and ideas to truly understand the student to give them the best chance of fulfilling their potential and achieving success, some students with real potential are not open and do not present themselves effectively, despite their potential to achieve great things. This is where universities can identify them through tapping their emotional intelligence, inspiring and motivating them to help them achieve the success they deserve.

Freeing up time with efficiency. There is a huge amount that can be done to improve the recruitment process, but universities like every other organisation, have limited resources, especially time. Thus, we put great emphasis on efficiency of processes so that you can free time from procedural or manual repetitive work. Adopting the right technology can not only bring accuracy, efficiency and effectiveness but can mean a substantial saving of cost and time.

The real attraction of all of the above is that: it can be implemented at any stage with no or very little investment and on many occasions without disrupting the university’s current process and systems; and the sooner you start, the better value you will reap as with more data, you will have better and more accurate results.

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