Prospective Grad Student Survey: Approaches & Recommendations for Online/Google Search

Carnegie Higher Ed Nov 11, 2020 Carnegie Higher Ed Persona The Visionary Frontrunner

For this part of our series of prospective graduate student surveys Carnegie Dartlet has conducted (and the insights we’ve provided) over the past several months, we focused our most recent survey on two primary areas:

  1. Overall time spent on, grad school research conducted on, and recommendations for schools’ presence on social media.
  2. Usage of Google Search for graduate school opportunities, how prospects begin their search, what makes them choose one result over another, and recommendations for how schools are appearing in search results

Leaning on our CollegeXpress student database, this survey was administered to prospective graduate students during the last two weeks of September and received over 300 responses, including hundreds of qualitative answers and student recommendations for social media and search engine performance. In this report and as Part 2 in this series, we’ll focus on the Google Search portions of the survey and responses.

(Read Part 1 here: Prospective Grad Student Survey: Social Media Preferences & Recommendations)

Student survey question: Information gathering

We started by asking what sources of information have been most helpful for prospective graduate students as they conduct research on grad schools. We provided a list of options to choose from (with the ability to select all that apply). Social media ranked fourth on their list of options, right behind:

  1. School websites
  2. Online search
  3. Direct communication with schools 

Looking past the schools’ websites as the top resource, it’s no surprise that when prospective graduate students have questions about what or where to study, or about a particular institution, the first place they go to ask those questions is Google. How institutions perform in response to those questions is one of the most valuable and impactful elements to a recruitment and marketing strategy and can make all of the difference for enrollment success. 

Survey question: Starting the grad school search


It’s important to understand the mindset and initial approaches that prospective graduate students have when they’re turning to Google to get the information they need. When prospective students begin searching on Google (or other online search sites) for graduate school opportunities, do they have a school or program in mind? Are they looking to Google to give the initial answers about where to get started and how to research their options?

When we asked respondents how they initially approached their search on Google, the #1 response (39.41%) was that students knew the area of study and programs they wanted to pursue but had no idea what school they wanted to attend. This was followed by them saying they roughly knew the area of study they wanted to pursue but not the specific programs available or the schools that offered it (32.22%).

Survey question: Choosing one search result over another

When we asked students what made them choose one result over another when searching for grad school opportunities online, the top response by far was because it had information about the specific program or area of study they were looking for (58.96%). This is without mention of the institution’s name being a factor as part of the result. In the world of branded search (includes institution’s name) versus unbranded search (does not include institution’s name), this is an incredibly important consideration. First and foremost, prospective graduate students are choosing results based on information available about the programs or areas they’re interested in, not the institution. As you consider your own search marketing strategy, the need to focus on both keywords and ad/search result content is clear.

The second highest response, while well below the first, was that the result had the name of an institution they recognized (36.81%). Brand recognition and ownership are key here. Your other marketing efforts—Display, social, video, streaming, etc.—carry a lot of the load for creating initial awareness and interest with audiences who might not be as familiar with your institution and what it has to offer. The more successful you are there, the more successful you’ll be in having your institution being the result they recognize when they’re searching. ”Owning” your brand is important when it comes to your presence in search results too. We recommend a sound branded keyword strategy for any Pay Per Click advertising, which is relatively inexpensive and vital for managing timely messaging and staying ahead of the competition.

Survey question: How grad schools appear in search results

Next, we asked survey respondents what advice they’d give to graduate schools for how they’re appearing in search results and the information they provide in those search results.This qualitative question enabled respondents to provide a freeform response, of which we received over 250 answers.

Some themes developed in the answers to this question, and one particular area of focus to note is that many of the answers involved references to the schools’ websites. This highlights the connection and common thread that happens—both technically and in the minds of prospective students—between search results and the role of the website in the overall mix. This is also interesting when you keep in mind that the top answer to the question about what resources were most helpful in their graduate school search were the school’s website, followed by online search.

Theme 1: Clear and important information…please!

If you read our report on the results of the social media side of this prospective graduate student survey, you may notice this is the same first theme that emerged from the qualitative responses to that question.

Bottom line: when prospective students are going to Google to ask questions, they’re looking for relevant answers that provide them the information they’re looking for. It’s important to keep this in mind and to balance it with what you need to accomplish. Mirror your copy with the keyword searches it’s responding to, and ensure that the path you take prospects on when they click that search result provides clear and relevant information. If prospective students are unclear about what you’re presenting to them, or they have a hard time finding the information they’re looking for, you’ll lose a significant portion of your potential audience.

Within this theme, some of the specific areas referenced that are important to have clear information and experience for include:

  • Costs, scholarships, and financial aid
  • Process requirements and deadlines
  • Website user-friendliness and navigation

In their own words…

“Highlight the specific information that is being searched for. If I see the specific information or program within the information on the Google search results, I’m more likely to select that result.”

“Be more simple – don’t make it difficult to find information.”

“Break down costs better and try to offer more scholarships with an easier and a more across the board accessibility to the older adult student.”

“Details and numbers. I like to know the basics of dates, admissions timelines, GRE averages for admittance, etc…”

“Give details on the time it takes to complete and include cost of attendance in a manner that doesn’t involve digging to figure it out.”

“Highlight key requirements and outline the application process.”

“List deadlines and whether the GRE is required this year or not. Also, list if you will be in person or how long you will be online for.”

“Make sure deadlines, requirements, and cost of tuition are in easy to find pages of the website.”

“Please be clear on all costs, time to obtain a degree, any financial aid available and how to obtain it.”

“Highlight upcoming info sessions in Google search if possible.”

“Make sure websites plainly list requirements. It’s frustrating to search for more than five clicks to find admission standards.”

“Stop making me click six million links to get to your information! One school made me click seven links to get from the general grad admission requirements to get to my prospective college’s grad admission requirements! If info is hard to find, I lose interest.”

“If you offer scholarships or really good financial aid packages, make that easy to find PLEASE. It’s really hard to find that information sometimes, and I hate when general searches only show me the university’s main website of financial aid homepage. Make links to specific applications and scholarship entry information easy to find from initial Google searches please. It becomes frustrating when every university directs you to their main website and then expects you to dig for something as vital and necessary as aid/scholarships/fellowships/etc.”

Theme 2: Present information on programs, areas of study, and outcomes

Keeping in mind the top answer to the first question about their initial approach to searching with a program of interest or area of study in mind, it’s no surprise that a lot of what came through in the qualitative responses revolved around ensuring program information was being provided well.

Once again, much of what’s described in these answers needs to be a focus of the website content and navigation. The role of the search results is to provide an answer and let the user know that by clicking that result, they’ll get the information they’re seeking, and/or it will enable them to take any next step that you or they want.

In their own words…

“Provide all the information there is to know on a program for graduate school on one website page. This would help a lot because I spend hours searching for information.”

“Provide more detailed information as possible, especially regarding the program and course information, financial information.”

“Really describe the program; if I have to send a request for more info just to see if it’s something I’m interested in, that’s more work for me and other options are more accessible quickly.”

“Some information for those who are coming from a different field or who wish to enter a degree program unrelated to their undergraduate work would be helpful. I have yet to find any.”

“I like student testimonials because they serve as a reference for potential students.”

“Post interesting things, get your current students to post on their accounts and share about the program.”

“Current jobs and master’s for that specific career.”

“Explain what happens for most graduates after completing the course work.”

“For my program of study (counseling/psychology), specify if the program sets the student up for licensure.”

”I’d suggest highlighting rank and what industries/roles their graduates are working in 1 year out, 5 years out, and 10 years out.”

Theme 3: Differentiate yourself

All grad programs and grad schools are not the same. Yet when a search is done on Google, sometimes it can appear that way.

While the real estate in a Google Search result (paid or organic) might seem minimal, that doesn’t mean you don’t have the opportunity to differentiate yourself. Keeping in mind that prospective graduate students are often starting their search without a specific institution in mind, as you’re representing your offerings (and answers) to their questions, ask yourself: how are you doing so in a way that will make them want to click on your result versus the one above or below it?

In their own words…

“Be direct and give a snapshot/highlights of the program and what makes you different from other programs.”

“Make sure it is simple, to the point, and grabs the individual’s attention. Students are overwhelmed already and do not want to read a paragraph just to know where the school is located.”

“Showcase your strength, whether it be a great job placement program, strong research departments, easy application process, etc.”

“More specific info – have to go searching through generic info.”

“Keep it short and sweet so that it will encourage people to look more into what you have to offer. You don’t want to give away all the information just because you came up on Google. Give them a reason to click your website.”

“Include info that students are looking for so we can get all the info we need since there are tons of schools to choose from.”

When it comes to your presence and performance in the world of online search, there are a few key things to keep in mind:

  1. Are you present? Do you even come up as an answer to the questions your prospective students are asking on Google? Whether it’s organic or paid search results, if you’re not there, you don’t exist.
  2. Are you answering their question? Showing up in the search results is only half the battle. Does the text and information you present immediately answer the question that was being asked? If not, they’ll click on the result above or below you.
  3. Do they have a reason to click? It might be great that you’ve answered their question, but is there any reason for them to click through your search result to learn or experience more? Keep this question in mind as you consider copy and what you present in search results.
  4. Where are you taking them? User experience is enormous in the world of search and the ultimate navigation to your site. The destination of the click-through needs to offer a user experience that will engage them and provide more of the information or next steps they’re looking for, which leads to the activity you’re hoping for.
  5. Can they do what you want them to do easily? If you’ve gotten them to your site through the search result, what is it you want them to do once they’re there? Fill out a form, apply, watch a video, contact you? How easy is it for them to do that, and is it crystal clear on that page that they can take the action you want them to take?

For graduate schools and programs, how you perform in search can potentially define success for enrollment. Listening to the preferences, perspectives, and recommendations from prospective graduate students themselves can make a big difference in shaping your approach. Our hope is that this type of information is useful in informing or supporting any strategies you’re focused on for your institution’s search engine marketing efforts.

For more information about the mindsets of prospective graduate students, strategies and approaches that work best for graduate enrollment marketing, or how Carnegie Dartlet can help in these areas, contact Mark Cunningham at

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