22 July 2021
5 key ways students use social media when choosing universities

In collaboration with Brandwatch, these are the top insights we found on how students use digital channels to help guide their university decisions.

The student recruitment landscape has transformed completely over the past year. The pandemic has shifted the entire higher education community online, taking with it traditional recruitment activities like on-campus events, tours, and high school visits.

However, a pivot toward a more hybrid recruitment and learning approach now indicates the lasting impact of these amendments to the status quo.

This has meant the role of social media as a source of information has exploded, with 83% of students now relying on social channels to help them pick their college. 

Marketing leaders in higher education have adapted their strategies to suit the new landscape. 

A study by Singular showed that almost a third of marketing budgets have been reallocated to digital marketing due to COVID-19, 12% of which is for social media activities. But to make these activities count, a better understanding of how students are using social media to make their decisions is needed.

We’ve analyzed Brandwatch data alongside Unibuddy data to get a full view of what students are discussing when researching universities. 

Brandwatch is able to analyze 10 years of historical data across over 100 million sources, while Unibuddy provides a unique lens on anonymous direct messages sent between prospective students and college ambassadors.

Without further ado, let’s jump in!

1. Using forums as a key social platform 

After analyzing online sources, Reddit came out on top for the platform where students discuss college applications most frequently.

social listening students

Brandwatch data

As this is not a traditional channel for university-owned social accounts, there’s a potential disconnect between the channels universities are targeting to attract prospective students and the channels in which those students are actually engaging. 

This highlights the importance of listening to intent to apply conversations and where they’re taking place in order to create content and activities that resonate with this audience, and meet them where they are.

As you can see, Reddit accounts for 44% and Twitter for 28% as for social channels that students look to for guidance along their journey. 

The Twitter figure presents a promising opportunity for universities to gain some semblance of control over their own narrative. Reddit, however, is entirely based on student sentiment and conversation alone as more of a community channel for input and discussion, leaving no room for intervention.

2. Seeking advice and information from current students

Across public forums, students are most regularly asking for advice regarding what school to apply to and what other students think their chances are based on their unique situation. 

We compared the Unibuddy and Brandwatch data, the latter of which is exclusively derived from private messages between prospective students and a college’s ambassadors. 

What we found from Brandwatch data was that across the private channels, prospective students are asking for firsthand experience so they can gain an understanding of what their life would be like at a specific school.

ub conversational data

Unibuddy data

Using both datasets to combine public and private conversations, the top questions include class structure, program insights, the experience of international students, campus life, and finances.

These are the key areas that students most want to be educated on by universities to help inform their decisions.

3. Venting their stress during the application process

No beating around the bush: Prospective students are stressed-out people. We analyzed sentiment around conversations surrounding intent to apply, and negative mentions have dramatically increased in 2021 compared to 2019 and even 2020.

sentiment data

This is due to a variety of factors: 

  • COVID-19 altered the entire experience of being a student, creating a lot of uncertainty around what being a freshman would look like.
  • The pandemic removed many of the resources students relied on to research schools and apply, such as working with their high school counselors, visiting campuses, and in-person admissions interviews.
  • The removal of standardized test requirements at many schools resulted in a massive surge in applications at some of the most selective colleges, forcing schools to be even choosier than they have been in the past to determine who gets in.
  • The pandemic has added a huge amount of financial stress to students because many of the jobs high school students tend to take on were no longer options during lockdown. 

When looking at conversations about stress, anxiety, and nervousness across Unibuddy data, prospective students primarily worried about whether or not they have the scores to get in, how they’ll make friends, and what their social life will look like.

senior yearhigh school

On public forums, however, the nerves and anxiety are more focused on the actual process of applying to college and the financial stress that goes along with that.

4. Expressing what they need from universities both publicly and privately

Student wishlists for the application process also vary between Brandwatch and Unibuddy data. 

We isolated conversations where the author expresses a wish or need and found that, in private forums, students were looking for information about the specific things they want to accomplish during university. 

This includes looking for information on scholarships, options to study abroad, and insights into specific departments. Whereas in public forums, students are wishing that they had done things differently or been given information prior to choosing a university. 

They’re talking about how they wish they’d applied for more scholarships, gotten into more schools, or had more resources during the application process.

5. Engaging with universities in April and October months

While publicly posted conversations about applying to college are evenly spaced out throughout the year, our research showed that Unibuddy conversations dramatically spike in April and October. 

This shows that these are the months when students hone in on the specific schools they’re interested in.


This generation of soon-to-be college students are the most active on social media, now using it in a variety of ways to guide their university choices. 

While the reliance on social media may detract from traditional recruitment activities, the data it provides enables universities to better tailor their strategies to meet the needs of the students they most want to attract.

In terms of digital marketing and analysis platforms like Unibuddy, the data illustrates that specific time periods are key indicators of student sentiment.

Not only that, but it also highlights the need for admissions departments to draw on these insights as best they can to optimize their online student recruitment strategy and maximize their reach when it’s most crucial to do so.

If you like this, chances are you’ll like our brand new newsletter: The Chat. Subscribe and get fortnightly insights from Unibuddy chat data, plus how universities are building student-to-student marketing strategies.

This is a separate newsletter from our Buddy Bulletin, which will allow all higher ed admins and marketers the opportunity to benefit from our various resources.


Related posts

Last week was a big week for Unibuddy, and shows just how far we've come. 
When launching a digital ambassador scheme it can be tempting to focus solely on its...
Now more than ever, prospective and admitted students are turning to their peers for reassurance...
Brands around the world are adapting their marketing to keep up with Gen Z, and...

Book a free demo and start recruiting your best-fit students.

Book a demo