Student worries when applying to university chart
Source: UCAS Media / YouthSite research: Planning for 2021 Understanding the mindset of the 2021 cohort and where they are in their decision making, 21st Sept 2020


Applicants need virtual open days to build confidence; right now they may be doing the opposite

Not being able to visit universities in person is the number one concern among pre-applicants, according to new research into virtual open days.

Or to put it another way, pre-applicants doubt that virtual open days will give them what they need to apply with confidence.

Yet virtual open days have increased in importance with the same cohort more than any other single factor, according to the research, published in late September.

It’s a bleak picture: pre-applicants believe their choice of university depends on their experience at virtual open events, but they don’t expect those events to meet their needs. A nasty catch-22 for 17-year-olds to face.


Technology hindering, not helping

Disappointingly, our audit of 20 recent virtual open events suggests they are right to have low expectations.

We discovered many examples of poor experience which went beyond hard-to-use to seem, at times, simply unwelcoming. They included:

  • Two out of 20 events which were outright cancelled on the day due to technical problems.
  • Many events which capped visitor numbers due to technical constraints.
  • Events which required multiple logins to multiple services (registration, video login, chat login, and more) in order to participate.
  • Design and technical choices which excluded mobile devices.
  • ‘Non-native’ design choices (eg virtual exhibition halls) harking back to 1990s-style virtual shopping-malls – poor UX then and still poor now.

As the lockdown continues, the higher-education sector must provide rich, welcoming experiences for prospective applicants at virtual open days. Only then can they truly serve their needs and give them confidence in applying.


Exceed expectations

Universities must change how they execute their virtual open days to deliver the outcomes their visitors need to achieve (a sense of belonging, and confidence in applying), rather than slavishly trying to reproduce every aspect of a physical, face-to-face event.

How can they do this?

Firstly they must simplify access, both to the open event itself and to the content within it.

Applicants have a right to expect virtual open days to be straightforward to use on any device, PC or mobile, and built to get them to the information and people they need to talk to, fast.

This means a single registration and login, giving access to everything included in the event: webchat, video, text content, Q&A, downloads, presentations, no exceptions. No limits on user volumes (this is the internet in 2020 for crying out loud!) and no geographic restrictions: content should be delivered as smoothly in China as it is in Chipping Norton.

Secondly, and most importantly, it must enable meaningful connection between the applicant and the institution at all levels. To establish this bond of trust, universities must create a welcoming virtual environment and build a network of trusted influencers around their visitors.

Network of influence graphic

HE providers which are successful in delivering this will meet – and exceed – pre-applicant needs and expectations. This will in turn grow applications and offer-acceptance, building into a long-term virtual-recruitment strategy.

Union Spaces is a welcoming place where prospective students can meet faculty, students and fellow candidates. We build a sense of belonging through the selection process with discussions, events, 1-to-1 conversations and video, hosted on a single platform.

By putting all the features required for virtual recruitment into one cost-effective, scalable platform, Union Spaces can also demonstrate value for money. Simpler for your staff to use: there’s only one system to learn. And simpler for prospective students: one login leading to a consistent branded experience which you control.

To find out more about Union Spaces, request a demo or download our introductory brochure.

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Chris Smith - Union Spaces

About Chris

Chris Smith is CTO and Co-Founder of Union Spaces, a community-led technology that helps universities design virtual and hybrid student recruitment strategies.

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