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What this series has taught me is that all successful international student recruitment plans must adapt to changing circumstances. Whether it’s the transition to a more digitally centered approach to reaching students where they are, long-term brand building, or targeted country-level outreach, one common thread persists: flexibility. Nothing is more important in these challenging times than keeping an open mind. And when we think of our institutions in a global competition for the attention of internationally mobile students, having that mindset can set you apart. 

In reality, flexibility is often forced on us by external circumstances. But whatever the cause being nimble and adaptable in international student recruitment practices is essential, especially now. Can you be flexible in your admissions policies, recruitment tactics in top markets, and communication with your key audience? How well you apply this skill to your work in international admissions can make the difference between success and failure.  

Admissions Policies

We all know the US application process for international students is more complicated than almost any nation on earth (except North Korea!). When you compare how we admit students in the United States to other countries, it’s fair to say we tend to include more requirements than our competitors overseas. Simply the time needed to be admitted is staggering. For the UK, Australia, and New Zealand, students can apply to institutions, get an offer of admissions, apply for a student visa, and enter the country within 3-4 months. While US community colleges can come close to that average time in a pinch, the process is often significantly longer for most international students considering the United States.  

While there may be little that can be done about application deadlines at more selective institutions, two specific areas to consider given recent global challenges include implementing a test-optional policy and reviewing English language testing options for international students. Since January 2020, over 50 U.S. colleges and universities have become test-optional, dropping SAT/ACT requirements. A regularly updated document created by International ACAC members now shows over 360 US colleges that are test-optional for international students (up over 60% since 2016). During this pandemic, there has been an almost daily cascade across all media platforms and social media groups with announcements that these tests would not be required. Though driven by short-term necessity through the 2020-21 cycle, the hope is these changes become permanent for overseas students. 

English proficiency exams have also been significantly impacted by the pandemic. With several test providers launching online exams, including the IELTS Indicator test, institutions now have a variety of methods to assess prospective students’ English language ability. Universities who demonstrate flexibility in the tests they accept will benefit from the added ease they provide to students in the application process.  

For those institutions that want to embrace international students more fully and are not particularly bound by internal restrictions, consider waiving application fees, changing to rolling admissions for overseas applicants, eliminating deposit requirements, or moving deposit deadlines later. Taking these steps can begin to eliminate or ease key hurdles international audiences must clear. 

Recruitment Markets

Last month we talked about the importance of country-level planning. Now more than ever, US colleges need to be less reliant on any one, two, or three nations for the majority of their international students. From currency fluctuations, elimination of government scholarships, and global pandemics, source countries of potential students can see dramatic reductions within a very short amount of time.  

Two approaches, when used in tandem, can help maintain a flexible, adaptive strategy to international student recruitment: categorizing markets (primary, secondary, tertiary) and differentiating tactics by market. As we mentioned last month, there are a variety of resources that can help point you toward 1) the countries that are currently sending large amounts of students abroad, 2) those that have shown signs of strong growth, and 3) nations that have recently emerged onto the scene. These trends can be a combination of institutional, national, and global level indicators. 

Once those target markets have been categorized, what becomes clear quickly is that a “one-size-fits-all” approach is neither a financial nor practical reality. So, if you identify four to five primary markets, the bulk of your activities across various types of engagement should be directed to those countries. For example, if you travel, primary markets should be visited at least once a year, secondary perhaps every other year, tertiary once every two to three years.  

Likewise, if you exclusively rely on armchair recruitment (as all US colleges are at this time), do you target each country the same way? Do you have profiles, videos, live chats, or messaging delivered by current students, parents, faculty, or alumni from your primary markets designed for prospects in those countries? Having some (not all) of those tools available for students from secondary and tertiary markets, where possible, is recommended.  


What has become abundantly clear recently is that standard messaging to students across various channels won’t suffice given the current circumstances. Updating important webpages, messaging out across social media platforms, and devising personalized emails to prospects and applicants with current information related to the pandemic’s impact on your campus is no longer optional. Unprecedented events demand immediate action, that is, if you want to have a realistic chance of keeping the attention of your incoming class.  

Like we discussed in our article on the importance of digital marketing, having a diversified approach to reach your students where they are is mission-critical. This becomes even more important when you factor in having a presence on the platforms students use in your targeted countries. Moreover, keeping abreast of changes in attitudes and preferences of future students in your key markets before they become prospects helps better prepare messaging that anticipates their needs and positions your institution successfully compared to your global competition. IDP Connect’s IQ Services can help in this regard.  

In the end, when setting your institution’s international student recruitment priorities, across all areas of your planning, flexibility must be the guiding rule. If you’ve seen a downturn, doing things the same way but expecting different results, as Albert Einstein said, is the definition of insanity. Take a breath, survey the global landscape, gather the data you need to make informed decisions, and make the necessary changes to move forward. Your institution’s willingness to be flexible in challenging times will show your future students the characteristics and international-student-friendly standards to which they will likely be drawn. 

For more information on how IDP Connect can assist you in developing a more flexible and adaptable recruitment strategy, contact Elle Butler, our US Marketing Manager.

CP - Author Image - Marty Bennett
Marty Bennett28 April 2020