Prospective Grad Student Survey: Social Media Preferences & Recommendations

Carnegie Higher Ed Oct 13, 2020 Carnegie Higher Ed Persona The Visionary Frontrunner

As a continuation of the 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 surrounding student recommendations for social media and search engine performance. In this report, we’ll focus on the social media portions of the survey and responses. Stay tuned for the results of the search portions in the coming weeks.

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 

It’s important to consider that while social media might not be a student’s first consideration specific to their grad school research, it’s where they’re spending a significant amount of their time (even more so now and over the past six months)—so considering the right presence and strategy to connect with them during this time is critical.

Survey question: Social/professional networking site use in general

When we asked prospective graduate students about the social networking platforms they’re spending their time on in general (not connected to their grad school research), the top three selections were Facebook (65.47%), Instagram (57.98%), and YouTube (52.44%). 

Also worth noting, LinkedIn ranked fourth with 46.91% as a platform that prospective graduate students are spending their time on in general. We’ll learn more about that with the next question.

As we consider the top three platforms, it’s impossible to not pay attention to the commonality of video across them all and the significant role it has for the student experience. More and more, schools need to ensure they’re offering an experience for prospective students through video. During but also outside the pandemic, prospective students feel the strongest connection to schools when they can see things represented digitally; it offers them as close to a true sense of an experience as possible in a virtual setting.

Survey question: Social/professional networking site use for the grad school search

Taking the focus on time spent on social media a little further, we changed it up a bit and asked respondents about the platforms they use for actual grad school research. We saw the overall response drop across all platforms, meaning while students are spending significant time on a variety of social channels in general, they’re not considering them as significantly for conducting actual research on grad school opportunities. From a strategy and approach perspective for admissions and marketers, this is where the balance needs to be considered to ensure you’re focusing your efforts on where these audiences are spending their time, with the knowledge that they’re not necessarily there to look for what you’re offering.

From a marketing perspective, we see a lot of success on platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn for graduate goals ranging from branding and awareness all the way to lead generation. Schools that ensure their advertising is getting in front of the right and relevant audiences (which is more than possible with the targeting options on these platforms) and those that communicate their message in ways that will resonate with these audiences have experienced great results.

Looking at the specific responses, what’s most interesting is how LinkedIn takes the clear lead as the platform respondents describe as the one they use for graduate school research (41.69%). Not only are prospective grad students spending a lot of time on LinkedIn in general (#4 from the question above), but they’re describing it as the place they visit most with grad school possibilities in mind. 

Looking at marketing approaches for these top platforms, there are a number of ways you can reach the audiences you want. 

Facebook and Instagram
Audience types and development for Facebook and Instagram include:

  • Behavioral
  • Retargeting
  • Look-alike
  • Engagement
  • List

You can also lean on lead generation ads, Instant Experience ads, Instagram Stories, native placements, and more to engage and convert audiences in different ways. These all allow graduate program marketers to construct the precise audience they want to reach and engage them in alignment with the goals they want to achieve (branding and awareness, engagement, lead generation, etc.).

We see YouTube work well for branding and awareness, event registration, and applications. Some of the primary options for advertising on YouTube include:

  • Engaged audiences: As the second-largest search engine, YouTube offers a wide range of targeting parameters, ensuring you’re reaching users based on who they are, what they’re interested in, and what they’re watching. Options include demographics, topic-based interests, and keywords.
  • Discovery ads: These video ads appear after performing a YouTube search, showing up on the YouTube mobile home page, in search results, and next to related videos.
  • In-stream ads: These video ads play before, during, or after someone watches the video they’ve selected on YouTube.

For LinkedIn, audience options include: 

  • Behavioral
  • Retargeting
  • Look-alike
  • List

LinkedIn offers InMail campaigns, lead generation, and Sponsored Content ads to help engage their network of visitors in a variety of ways. Their audience data also shows that they see visitors and users from virtually all industries, including strong numbers in nursing and education.

Survey question: Streaming/audio services

We also asked about streaming media preferences and time spent on them. For prospective graduate student audiences, it’s important to understand this as streaming channels also offer a higher level of experience and a feeling of human connection through their audio formats. 

Most notably, Spotify (49.84%) had almost double the response that Pandora (27.04%) had, with respondents saying they use the platform at least weekly. Podcasts (31.27%) came in higher than Pandora as well.

Survey question: Advice to schools

We asked survey respondents, “What is one piece of advice you’d give to graduate schools for how they’re represented or providing information on social media?” This qualitative question enabled respondents to provide a freeform response, of which we received over 250 answers.

Some themes that emerged: Clear and important information…please!

One of the primary themes that came through in the qualitative responses was wanting clear and important information that will help prospective students in their research and evaluation. There were a variety of examples, but the main things that were mentioned were:

  • Program information
  • Requirements
  • Costs

In their own words…

“Ads that describe program titles and cost along with time needed in [the] program.”
“Be descriptive [of] what programs you offer and [highlight the]benefits of attending your university.”
“Be more upfront about costs…and loans.”
“Be real and don’t put a spin on anything. Just give applicants the requirements they need and the necessary resources to make a thorough decision.”
“Focus on outcomes and pricing. It is often difficult to get exact pricing information.”
“I have trouble sometimes getting enough information about the program. I will just say be more detailed and make the information easier to find.”

Opportunities to see or connect with students and faculty (i.e., human beings!)

One thing that’s clear in the responses to this question is that there’s a significant want for human interaction and the ability to understand what it’s like to attend your institution from a student perspective. Prospects want to know about the real people who are a part of your program—who will they be learning from, interacting with, and ultimately forming important connections with during this incredibly significant time?

Through the recommendations given by respondents, students asked for more representation from schools on social media regarding:

  • Current and former students
  • Faculty
  • Diversity
  • Outcomes

In their own words…

“Show diversity and include real student testimony. Maybe have a few students in each program who are open to speaking with prospective students.”


“Details! Plus, I like when faculty talk about the program too, not just students. I want to know who’s teaching me.”


“Diversity is a must!!!”


“Grad school is a serious commitment based on a higher level of a focused need for life advancement. I don’t see the resulting benefit stories of the reward on alumni careers discussed frequently.”


“Highlight your social media on your websites. Include stories about current students and how they got to where they are.”
“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.”


“Providing student spotlights are always interesting to get a flavor for the type of students that are attending the school.”


“Share stories of students’ valuable relationships with professors and other graduate students.”


“Student/alumni takeovers are effective. It helps potential applicants see themselves at graduate schools and get information that would not ordinarily be highlighted.”

“Realness” and authenticity

Prospective graduate students are looking for authenticity and a real representation of what it’s like to attend your school. From content that’s engaging to communications that speak to them as unique individuals, getting your communication plan (both paid and organic) right across different social media platforms where they’re spending their time is vital.

We see this point come through dramatically in the campaigns we run for schools on social media. Those that incorporate the authentic personality of their institution and do what they can to speak to the unique personalities of their prospective student audiences see clear differences in engagement rates and performance.

In their own words…

“Just make sure you’re presenting your authentic self.”


“Be real. Painting a picture of this idyllic grad school isn’t going to help anyone. Please don’t be afraid to share student testimonies about some hard times, but also don’t be afraid to share how they overcame them.”


“Content. Engaging content is the key to attracting people to your page.”


“Just make sure they stand out among others!! Offer a graduate something they can work with!!”


“Know your platform and respective audience. The same marketing approach that works on Facebook might not resonate on another platform.”


“Please treat your prospective grad students as the professionals that we are.”

Easy connections…for them and for you

It’s important to remember that the primary purpose of all this is to connect with your prospective student audiences. This sometimes gets lost in the mix of trying to accomplish everything else at the same time. As you approach any social media strategy, don’t let the setup of how students can get to where they want to (and connect in the  way you want them to) get lost. This includes doing what you can to interact with them on these platforms but also providing links, calls to action, effective landing pages, and more to accomplish what you need.

In their own words…

“Make it easy to request additional/more specific information.”


“Make sure to provide info and answers to FAQs so we can have an easier time and help them stand out.”


“More short YouTube vids would be awesome – especially if linked to sites or videos as first search result.”


“Provide a real person to contact in lieu of just providing a contact website.”


“Be active and interact with your audience.”

How prospective graduate students are spending their time online and across social and streaming media is always changing. Whether it’s due to a pandemic, generational factors, behaviors and interests, or just whatever way the wind is blowing on that day, it’s impossible to keep up if you’re not constantly staying tuned in to the data. And from the data involved with this survey, it’s clear that these students are spending time on different platforms and for different reasons—and they have a lot to say about their experience with graduate schools in the world of social media.

Our hope is that this type of information is useful in informing or supporting any strategies you’re focused on for your institution’s social media efforts and graduate programs. No one approach fits all. No single platform or channel is right for all. And no individual tactic will achieve goals for all. Take a step back, look at your audiences and how they’re spending their time, factor in your goals from branding down to conversion, and consider each social platform for their own advantages. Getting all of that right will lead to success for your graduate enrollment marketing needs.

Stay tuned

Up next, we’ll dig into similar data and questions specific to how prospective graduate students are searching for options on Google. What makes them choose one search result over another? And what do they have to say to institutions about how they can better provide the answers and information they’re looking for?

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

Never miss an update.