As consumers, we love trying things before buying them. Think about it: You likely wouldn’t buy a car without test driving it. And you wouldn’t buy a house without first walking through it, imagining life within its walls.

One of the biggest complaints consumers have about online shopping for major purchases is the inability to try and test their potential purchase. A.T. Kearney found 80 percent of all consumers prefer to test products in a physical store.

How does this apply to graduate school?

Although your prospective applicants are doing most of their research online, when they’re deciding where to spend tens of thousands of dollars on tuition, a test drive could be exactly what it takes to get them to say “yes.”

Introducing a special offering to your recruitment and admissions process can help secure top candidates and raise yield rates. A number of leading technology companies have gained incredible publicity and turned around high profits leveraging a freemium business model.

Fitness centres often offer free ‘seven-day trials’ to try their gym facilities and classes before you sign up for a membership. The idea is to give a portion or sample of your product away for free, and have that sample be so high quality that customers want more access or advanced product features so much that they’ll pay for it.

What are some ways to offer value to applicants before they accept their offer?

  • An opportunity to network with your alumni and students
  • A day tour of the campus or city where you’re located
  • Sample classes, on campus, on the road, or virtually
  • Information about the new city they are considering

Offer: An opportunity to network


One of the biggest benefits to going to graduate school is who you meet and study alongside while you’re there. If you're a student who will be conducting research, finding a group of peers who will motivate and inspire you is critical. This is also a crucial opportunity for students to better get to know the faculty members who will be leading research initiatives or potentially supervising their theses. While many applicants have formally emailed faculty members to enquire about research opportunities before they come to campus, bringing faculty together with students allows them to determine potential for fit over the course of their degree.

If you're a student pursuing business or law, who you meet can be essential to moving your career ahead. If you're a student studying healthcare, these could be your future internship and residency colleagues.

Alumni can also be an extremely motivating factor. When trying to attract, engage and, ultimately, convert students, an opportunity to meet those who went before them can help seal the deal.

Earlier this week, we gave the example of alumni calling applicants to talk about the program and congratulate them on their acceptance. This can be expanded into networking events, alumni guest lectures, faculty guest lectures, either in your city or major urban centres where your applicants currently live.

For example, English Literature graduate programs in Albany, Syracuse, or Rochester, New York, would do well to host an event for applicants in New York City.

Giving applicants an evening with educational content, like a lecture or a panel discussion, or a networking event with alumni, gives them a “free sample” of what it’s like to be your alumni.

It’s an aspirational event which can give a chance to see themselves in your class and as successful graduates of your program. For the cost of some mini quiches and a fruit tray, you can expose them to life with a degree from your school.

Offer: A day in the life at your school

wollongong university

Innovation Campus at Wollongong University


An immersive student day is a must-have for sealing the deal with students who may be considering other schools. So bring them to campus.

For applicants travelling from a distance, or taking time off work, they will have some cost associated with coming to visit you. Every opportunity you have to give them ‘perks’ and benefits for visiting will give them a more positive overall experience.

Here are some easy ways to create a memorable ‘day in the life’ for top prospects or admitted students:

Help with Travel Through Rewards or Discounts

Whether or not your applicants are paying for their education out of pocket, supported by family, or covered by grants, the lead up to choosing a program is on their time, and usually their dime. And it gets expensive. Some schools offer “travel discounts” or “travel rewards” such as a gift card or discounted hotel room. Everyone hates to find and pay for parking, so getting parking arranged for them helps make the day stress free, right from the start.


Feed applicants well

A table with a feast of snacks

We all know how much food can affect our mood, so keeping prospects well fed and well caffeinated benefits everyone.

Have coffee, tea, and water readily available for prospects, both as they arrive and throughout the day. It’s a small component to organize and a relatively small cost, but it’s these little ‘free’ perks that make the trip to see you worthwhile and improve their experience as they spend the day with you.

A meal is a must have as well. A catered lunch gets everyone eating together, talking about the program, and asking questions in a more casual setting. If catering isn’t ideal, offering a prepaid meal card is another ‘perk’ that gives applicants a truly authentic ‘day in the life’ experience.


Include a high-quality class session

An excellent lecture from one of your most compelling faculty members gives applicants a taste of the academic exploration they’ll undergo in your program.

Walking around campus and hearing information sessions is great, but at the end of the day, prospects are coming for the program content. They want to hear from the professors who will be teaching them.

You could offer a choice of lectures in different disciplines and let visitors choose where they want to learn, or provide one general lecture on a relevant topic to highlight a compelling faculty member.

The Schulich School of Medicine and Dentistry is one of several med schools that offers 'Mini Medical School,' an affordable 'taste' of their program offerings over six weeks for local prospects or members of the community who have a genuine interest in learning about medicine.

Mini Medical School Screenshot


Encourage faculty, current students, or local alumni to join for ‘speed dating’ sessions

Having an open conversation session with faculty, current students, or recent alumni gives the social proof to your program that many applicants need before enrolling. You can do this over lunch or dinner on the ‘day in the life,’ or you can have a live ‘speed dating’ session where student visitors cycle through two or three spokespeople for your program.

Virtual Options

Students at a distance may not be willing to make more than a couple hour drive or train ride to visit your school, but there are ways to make them feel included.

Offer an online lecture (webinar) series with various highly rated faculty. Students can watch, send questions, and experience life in a class. Once the infrastructure for a webinar is in place, this is a fairly low-cost way to engage a high number of prospects.

Send your faculty or admissions team on the road. Identify the cities your prospective students hail from and send a faculty member there to teach an introductory or special interest class based on their research.

Here's an example of an event from Ross University School of Medicine, located in Dominica, that is being held in Toronto:

Ross Website's Landing Page


Give a virtual campus tour. This is what Western University did to make its campus more accessible in 2014:


Drone technology makes this amazing, but it’s costly and time-consuming. If you’re unable to get a drone in the marketing budget this year, partnering with other providers like Google or “YouVisit” can result in great virtual tours.


Give students opportunities to ‘interview’ current students or faculty members. This could be done remotely with the Kira platform, or on location with students popping into video conferences.

Offer: Life in your city

State College, the town at Penn State

Penn State University’s hometown: State College, Pennsylvania

Many of your new admits will be moving to your city and adjusting to the new community as much as the new campus. For the short year or two that a student lives in your town or city, the more engaged they are in this new place, the better student experience they’ll have.

After you’ve offered a “day in the life of a student,” extend your exposure to a day in the life of a resident of your community.

Here are some ideas:

  • Take your admit group out for dinner and drinks at a popular local restaurant
  • Take a walking or driving tour through your city’s downtown core
  • Offer tickets to a local sporting event, show, or festival for the evening

For applicants who will be coming to your city for the first time when they enroll in the fall, go out of your way to communicate to them the advantages of your city. Often smaller towns struggle to complete with programs to major urban, cultural centres like New York, Chicago, Toronto and Hong Kong, but if the program is right, small towns can sell themselves.

Think about what your location has to offer and promote it. Look at factors like:

  • Cost of living
  • Bodies of water, parks or hiking trails
  • Notable historic sights or venues
  • Local internship opportunities in a specific industry
  • Transit and commuter options
  • Food and beverage scene
  • Art and music scene
  • Recreation and sporting scene

Then, send special-interest emails like:

  • “5 things you didn’t know about [Your City]”
  • “How do you feel about a 10-minute commute?”
  • “What it costs to live in [Your City]"
  • Making your city an appealing place to live from the get go builds a strong case for your school.

Giveaways only go so far

When it comes to yield management, we already know that when you communicate and how you communicate can push an applicant to enrol.

How you add value also plays a role.

However, the reality is the applicant’s whole experience from the recruitment phase through the interview and admissions process is what will seal the deal. Sending a funny tweet, making a custom phone call, or giving away a meal is not going to single-handedly convert an applicant into a student.

Nor should it.

Improving recruitment strategies, making your admissions process easier, assessing students in a fair and personal way, and enhancing your yield game, together, are going to make your school stand out.