Although the U.S. Federal Government shut down on 1 October, the graduate education sector was very much open for business. It was on that very day that prospective graduate students travelled by subway, car and foot to attend the Idealist Grad Fair in Washington, D.C. As I descended the stairs into the exhibit area at the Washington Convention Center, it was quite a sight to behold. Nearly 250 graduate programmes registered for the event. There were rows and rows of tables featuring branded tablecloths of every colour of the rainbow.
Scores of prospective students walked up and down each aisle mingling with admissions officers from graduate schools in public policy, business, law, education, international affairs, global and public health, environmental science, theology, public administration, social work, and nonprofit management. It was overwhelming — although great to see so many choices and individuals interested in graduate education. And there weren’t just US programmes there: I counted 25 international universities.
Having worked for and studied at a UK business school, and with two sons who have dual British/American citizenship, I always tend to gravitate to the UK contingency at recruitment fairs and greet international officers like long-lost friends. With extended family members and friends in England, there always seems to be a connection; whether it’s a cousin-in-law who is an alumnus of Brunel University or a niece who just graduated from Oxford.
As I thought about the event afterwards, I realised that international graduate programmes recruiting in the US have two hurdles to overcome. First, international and admissions officers, like domestic ones, need to demonstrate the value proposition of their programme, given there are so many competitors all in the same room. At the same time, they also need to show the benefits of travelling overseas to attend graduate school, which often means leaving family, friends and familiar surroundings behind.
I know what that’s like: I did it, roughly 20 years ago now. In my case, however, there was already an established connection. My soon-to-be husband lived and worked in Wiltshire, and I was looking at business schools in the area. Many prospective students, however, may not have an existing connection with your university, or the city or even country where it's located.
So, how can you increase leads at international recruitment fairs? How can you optimise the ROI of your recruitment fair budget?
1. Send an email to registrants before the recruitment fair to invite them to your table. Set out the benefits of a degree from your country: for example, what economic, political or social events are going on that makes it an important destination for graduate studies? Swiss schools could mention that the World Economic Forum annual meeting takes place in Davos.
2. Send a follow-up email to registrants after the fair (including prospects who did not stop by your table as well as those that did) to invite them to learn more about your programme through your website, a webinar, or campus visit. Suggest creative ways to make a campus visit more affordable and easy like using frequent-flyer air miles. Again, be sure to demonstrate the value proposition of studying abroad clearly and concisely.
3. Spread the word on social media to let alumni know about an upcoming recruitment fair in their city. Ask them to share the post with friends or colleagues considering a graduate degree. Some of the best referrals come from people who know the programme first-hand – students and alumni.
4. Reach out to undergraduate exchange students (past and present) to let them know about the fair and have them spread the word within their circles. I overheard one woman at a graduate fair tell an international officer that her brother had studied at that particular university as an undergraduate exchange student. Tap into affiliated connections.
5. Think about how you will capture the attention of prospects as they walk past your table. You can do this with intriguing giveaways like bespoke stress balls of famous monuments in your city or a branded travel adaptor. The whole idea is to get noticed in a crowded room where there are tens or even hundreds of tables. How can you make your table remarkable so prospects stop and start a conversation with you?
Have you been to a graduate fair overseas? What other suggestions do you have? What's worked for your graduate programme to attract leads at international recruitment fairs? Leave a comment below to join the discussion.
Barbara is a higher education marketing consultant and the founder of Enrollment Strategies, which provides business schools with specialised marketing services for improved enrolment results. Previously, Barbara was the first admissions and marketing manager for the University of Bath School of Management, where she increased full-time MBA enrolment by the largest percentage in the programme’s history. She also was an assistant director of executive MBA programmes at Loyola University Maryland, where she was an instrumental member of a team responsible for the program’s inaugural ranking in the Financial Times. Barbara has a B.A. from Vassar College and an MBA from the University of Bath.
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