June 30, 2017

The College Decision: It's Not Just About Academics

As a rising senior in college, I distinctly remember the stress and uncertainty caused by the college decision process. Choosing where to attend college is a challenging and far-reaching selection. As teens near the end of their high school experience, and even before that, they are expected to make choices that may affect the rest of their lives. Picking the right school is essential. Knowing that a school with all of the right attributes is out there is crucial to this process. But it is difficult to determine which school really fits each student’s criteria and it puts a lot of pressure on an individual.


This is where marketing comes in. Universities need to build awareness, showcasing the culture and environment of the school, while targeting the students who are looking for the programs the college offers. As an example, I had already been applying to universities when I found out through a mailer that NC State had an excellent graphic design program. After doing additional research and visiting the campus, it became my number one choice and the school I am currently attending. If I had not received that one piece of mail, I probably would have missed out on an amazing experience that has and will continue to shape my future. But high school juniors and seniors are constantly being bombarded with more mail from potential universities than they could ever bother to look through. This means that it’s important for a college to stand out, which is especially crucial for smaller, lesser-known schools that aren’t already in the back of students’ minds or programs not readily associated with particular schools.


Having a dynamic brand, tone, core value set, and marketing strategy will distinguish a school from the rest, encouraging students to take a closer look. Additionally, it is essential to advertise simultaneously on social media such as Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook, in the hopes of leading students to the school’s website, which needs to be engaging and easily navigable. Generation Z has a zero tolerance policy when it comes to poorly functioning websites. If the website is confusing, unappealing, or it takes too long to find the information being sought, potential applicants will simply give up and look elsewhere.


Students often must choose carefully and apply only to the schools they’re absolutely sure about, or that they hope will be the best fit for them. While students will be looking at factors such as cost and whether or not the major they want is offered, a lot of the decision-making comes down to the vibe they get from the school. Does this feel like the kind of place to spend the next four-plus years? Whether the student realizes it or not, their gut instinct is influenced by the school’s brand. Showing the value of a university in terms of key factors helps attract potential students, but each student is an individual looking for something a little different, so trying to fit everyone into a single message can miss the mark. Instead, it is better to have separate campaigns for each point of interest that fully flesh out a single idea or value. Factors students look for include finances, academics, physicality, and community:


  • Cost of attending
  • Amount of financial assistance typically offered
  • Job opportunities while attending
  • Average cost of additional expenses
  • Cost of living in the area



  • Less focus on school rank
  • Graduation rate
  • Rate of students getting into graduate and professional programs
  • Quality of employment after graduation
  • General academic reputation based on word of mouth and testimonials rather than statistics


Physical Attributes

  • Location: Urban vs. Rural
  • Size: How many people attend? Does it feel huge or like part of a close-knit community?
  • Ability to commute vs. On-Campus living



  • Overall feeling the school gives off
  • Student involvement with school and fellow classmates
  • Reputation of social activities
  • Will students make lasting friendships here?
  • University’s efforts to effect social and environmental change


This sense of community plays a large part in how comfortable a student will feel attending a college and is largely based on how they experience their campus tours. This is what really sets each school apart from another and draws students in.


Each school emanates a certain personality that is the culmination of its attributes and philosophy, and people who already attend. This is what is impressed upon potential students in their search for the best university for them. Schools need to focus on who they’re trying to attract and tailor their messages for that persona, because while the individual aspects like class size and the majors offered may warrant a closer look, it’s the culmination of all these factors into a unique learning community that make students apply. Nothing relieves pressure like finally finding the right school. That is, of course, until admission letter season begins.

Photo of Nicole

Nicole Procter, Intern and Aesthetic Adventurer at Fifth Letter, she is ready to take on the world, cup of tea in hand. Nicole is a rising senior at NC State University studying Graphic Design.