Focus on the Inbox: Email Practices for Student Recruitment Professionals

6 min read

Benjamin Boivin

106There are now more ways than ever to reach future college students. From traditional print viewbooks and postcards, to short-form social media content on popular platforms like TikTok and the brand-new Instagram Reels, today’s prospective students are inundated with more marketing content than any other generation. How does your institution stand out? Which communication channel works best for your admissions team? What can be done to improve your marketing strategy?


As social media video apps and traditional marketing trends fade in and out of popularity, one channel has stood the test of time. For over two decades, email marketing has become exponentially vital in college recruitment. Like the newest viral video on YouTube, email marketing is constantly changing as automation becomes more efficient; segmentation allows for more personalization, and the number of worldwide users continues to grow.


Did you know? There will be an estimated 4.5 billion e-mail users by 2024.


At the top of the enrollment marketing funnel, aspiring first-year college students can learn more about your institution through this powerful channel. Once they provide more information about themselves, you can communicate with them at a deeper level based on categories like the academic program of interest, extracurricular activity, or geographic location. However, sending an email is different than sending an impactful email. We’ve developed useful practices to increase your open-rates, click-through rates, student engagement, and enrollment.



One of the best ways for students to recognize (and remember) your institution is to base all content on the same brand pillars. Many schools spend countless hours (and dollars) hiring a branding agency to help them develop a messaging guide. This strategy ensures continuity and consistency as you communicate with students throughout various marketing channels. The more you know your story, the better you can tell it.



Searching for the “best-fit” institution can take students and their families on an emotional rollercoaster. With email marketing, you can home in on their decision-making process as they move through the marketing funnel from inquiry to enrolled. Let’s take a look at some of the best tactics to use depending on stage:


Prospect/Inquiry Stage: Playful, Witty, Funny

As you search for first-year college students, consider their daily cell phone activity. They swipe through Instagram, watch 15-second videos on TikTok, read hundreds of text messages from friends, and briefly glance at digital ads. There’s not enough time to read long, content-heavy emails, so don’t send them. Generation Z has an attention span of 8 seconds, so keep this in mind when writing your emails. Keep buttons (call-to-actions) like “Learn More” or “Contact Us” at the focal point of the email and try to mimic the tone they are used to seeing every hour. More colleges than ever are using emojis, memes, and GIFs to communicate with students. Techniques like this may even get them talking about your institution to friends.


In-Progress Applicant Stage: Social Proofing

Social proof is a psychological phenomenon where students assume others’ actions based on what they think is socially correct. The best way to use this behavioral science marketing tactic in your emails is through student testimonials and success stories. No rookie skydiver wants to be the first to jump out of the plane. If students read positive reviews and relatable quotes from your current population, they will be influenced to take the next step and feel less intimidated about the enrollment process.


Accepted Student Stage: Professional, Authoritative

Another useful behavioral science marketing tactic is the authority principle. Students are more likely to take advice from the college dean, president, admissions director, or distinguished faculty compared to their friends and family. From an early age, we are taught to respect authority figures, and this same concept applies to email marketing. After a student receives an acceptance letter, send a personalized congratulatory email from a highly respected member of your community. Honor roll high school seniors, and prospective graduate students will appreciate the recognition and value the communication.


Yield Stage: Final Push-to-Enroll Urgency

As the enrollment deposit deadline approaches, accepted students have a lot on their minds. From first-year undergraduate students to your accepted doctoral population, the urgency tactic works best.

  • Utilize action words like “Now, Offer, and You” in subject lines.

  • Clearly define the date and use a variable for the academic program.

  • Suggest regret with phrases like “Don’t miss out on next semester.”



Hubspot reports open rates increase by as much as 50% when used in the subject line. People prefer to be compensated for their time and effort. Incentives can be used for on-campus recruitment events, application completion, or drive-to-deposit campaigns.

Example: “Priority housing when you enroll by March 15!”

Students love college swag! As the end of high school nears, more and more seniors will walk the hallways in their favorite college hoodie or t-shirt. Run a t-shirt giveaway to increase recruitment event registration and use a clickable image of the shirt in the email.

Example: “We’re giving away a Keystone Academic Solution shirt for the first 100 Open House registrants!”



Spend 50% of the time writing the email body, and the other half on the subject line. If the email isn’t opened, it isn’t read. Remember that a student’s favorite word is their own first name. Keep all subject lines as personalized as possible; the more relevant, the more readable. As the student progresses through the enrollment marketing funnel, your team will know more about this person. Use as much variable data as possible so when you automate the email marketing campaign, the data is automatically generated in the content.



Video content is king. Email click rates increase by up to 300% if a video is included. Due to budgetary restrictions, this is easier said than done, but there are ways to create video content without breaking the bank. Utilize student workers or your communication department to develop home-grown, authentic footage you can reuse across multiple channels, including email.

You cand find some other useful tips regarding videos in one of our previous blog posts here:



There should never be an argument in email marketing, let A/B testing inform all of your decisions. Enrollment professionals are big on crunching data. We compare year-to-year applicant, accepted, and enrolled student data to inform the annual recruitment strategy, so why are we leaving value data behind when it comes to higher education marketing?


Like your prospective students, every institution is different. Try utilizing these email marketing practices at multiple levels and track your A/B testing results to ensure you have the most impactful messaging. It’s not just what you send and when you send it, but how you use the emails with other channels. By combining emails with print, digital ads, text message, and social media marketing, you can further stand out from competition and make the most of your student engagement.

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