Applications - where do you really stand and what next?


By Ed Layt

So the big 15th Jan application deadline has passed and HE providers up and down the country are checking UCAS applicant tracker and student record systems to ‘see where they are at’. Most of the time this means looking at the number of applications and applicants in comparison to last year. But whether these numbers are up or down, are they really a good indicator of how things will stand come September?

We now know the sector is down on applications and applicants, which doesn’t come as a huge surprise – just take a look at Dan Beynon’s comments in WonkHe. Some institutions are seeing huge drops while others experience gains. But no matter which group you are in, everybody should be asking ‘are they the right applications’, or in other words, are you being seriously considered alongside the other institutions they have applied to?

The majority of applicants make 4-5 applications (based on the 2016 UCAS end of cycle report). Some applicants will be genuinely undecided across all of these, whereas others will have a clear running order of preference. The challenge this presents to institutions, is knowing what proportion of their applicants are worth counting as having a probable chance of accepting an offer, and enrolling in September.

There is plenty of evidence to show applicants minds can be changed through smart, integrated and valuable conversion activity, but it is also evident that there is a much slimmer chance of moving from 5th choice to 1st. Therefore, if a 10% increase in applications are all from individuals who have added you as a 5th position choice, then now is not the time to sit back and think your targets are already met…

So what to do:

Think of it in two phases.

1. Where are you really at?

Look at your data – it’s amazing what trends you can discover in your previous applicant data to help you identify which applicants are more likely to be taking you seriously. Building propensity-based segmentation models from this data will help you to better predict your position in May. And if you need to make gains in quality or volume, they can inform where your resource should be best focused.

2. Communicate accordingly

Next, establish a targeted comms strategy based on the needs of your audience – this is where you can add layers of complexity to your propensity segments around your audiences behaviours, motivations and challenges – so you can deliver the right comms to best assist your applicants in their decision-making.

It’s also worth looking further ahead, if the outcome from using modelling indicates that a large proportion of your applications are from low propensity applicants then immediate focus should shift to 2018. I know it seems way off, but this student cohort have started their research and will be attending their first UCAS fairs next month so now is the time to develop prospecting tactics to target the ‘right applicants’ to improve your position next year.

This is the art of a good conversion strategy – providing a good applicant experience, and ensuring you are investing marketing budget into the areas where it will generate valuable return.