01 August 2018

We analysed over 100,000 messages and this is what we learned about international students

(or ‘What international students really want to know’)

Full of useful insights as always, there were two stand out statistics in the recent QS survey of International Students.

The first that caught my eye was the answer to the question:

‘Which of the following marketing communications are influential in helping you to choose a university?’

A huge 64% responded ‘the ability to connect with existing international students to ask questions’

The second item was the question:

Which of the following factors would make you feel less worried about studying abroad?’

The very top response of 45% was ‘If I was able to ask questions to existing international students at the institution’

Given that the rapid success of the Unibuddy platform has been fuelled by the rising demand for instant answers from students, I already knew that peer-to-peer is an extremely powerful tool. But equally powerful is knowing what these students were asking about; what is it that they really want to know?

Unibuddy’s been going for over 18 months now, and in that time we’ve collected a huge amount of data from UK and international prospects. We’ve seen over 100,000 messages exchanged between over 7,000 prospects and 700 ambassadors in the UK and internationally.

The students using the platform span over 191 countries, a huge range across the globe. As you’d expect for a company based in the UK with a majority of partners based here, a large proportion of these students are from the UK and the rest of Europe. After that, the biggest number hail from mostly Asia, in particular the Indian subcontinent and China.

We’re in a great position to analyse some extremely rich data – so we did just that! Using cutting edge Machine Learning algorithms, we’ve extracted some very interesting findings, some of which I’d like to share here.

Key findings

The topics closest to an international student’s heart fell into four areas, which are pretty broad. However, we noticed that each topic had some top questions and themes.

1. Applications

Now, this wasn’t really about how to apply. From the questions and conversations analysed, students really wanted ambassadors’ advice on how to maximise the effectiveness of their application, and in particular their personal experience.

2. Accommodation

This is a really broad topic with a huge diversity in questions including asking the ambassador where they stayed, their recommendations, how far away the accommodation is and what sort of choice is available.

3. Entry Requirements

Again, this isn’t about the more obvious query of what are the entry requirements – most students seem pretty clued up about an individual institution’s entry levels. What they’re really after here is reassurance on their particular situation from the ambassador. ‘Will these grades be ok?’, ‘Do you know if someone got in on these?’ are typical questions.

4. Degree Structure

Questions here included wanting to know about the frequency of lectures and the kind of timetable they could expect, assessment methods used on a particular course, and what sort of modules and choices would be compulsory and optional.

We didn’t want to stop there though. Having worked in international recruitment I remember and understand how an International Officer would want to know what the relevance of this would be to their region. Why? Well, firstly, of course, you’d want to understand what makes your audience tick, but secondly, this information also has wider ramifications for what you would communicate to students and when.

Breaking it down by region and how it could shape your communications

We split prospects up into the four main continents – Europe, Asia, the Americas and Africa and found quite distinct concerns, drivers and interests.


Key Stat: European students were 39% more likely to ask about workload.

What this means for you:

It’s safe to say that that European students are more focused on the content of a degree and the actual experience of study.

Highlighting these areas (and in particular the stand out features) in the prospectus, emails and on the website could be of benefit for this audience.


Key Stat: American students are 29% more likely to ask about societies and clubs.

What this means for you:

The social learning experience is right at the top of their priorities – unsurprisingly given the popularity of fraternities and sororities in the U.S., as well as the view of Higher Education to be a holistic experience and not solely academic.

Your leverage could come from not only creating / focusing materials on the Students’ Union and clubs, but sourcing content from current students on their experiences in this area – videos / vlogs / blogs perhaps?


Key Stats: Prospects from Asia are 40% more likely to ask about work opportunities when studying (in particular students from India) AND they’re 27% more likely to ask about careers – this is a top question amongst prospects from East Asia

What this means for you:

Students from this region are propelled by economic drivers, whether its a question of survival whilst studying or about the impact of the degree on their future. Are you including enough information about opportunities to work for overseas students in your country? If that’s not possible, have a think about how you promote your institution’s financial support for those students.

Equally, do you have stories from successful alumni about where they are now? What do they think was the impact of studying a degree with you on their career?


Key Stats: African students are a huge 126% more likely to ask about scholarships AND are 80% more likely to ask about fees

What this means for you:

Clearly economic drivers are crucial to students from Africa, but for them it’s about having the means to begin the course, rather than future prospects.

Knowing that students here are swayed by such factors, it might be worth taking another look at your scholarships – would it be better to bolster funding for these students rather than those from other regions? If you have a good range of scholarships, are these publicised at key points in the application cycle?

So what’s the impact?

Let’s not forget that students will always want to ask other students about their experiences – that’s why so many universities run ambassador schemes. In fact, when we asked prospects who’d used the Unibuddy platform, an overwhelming 89% stated that they felt more confident about university fit. That’s a pretty compelling argument for peer-to-peer engagement.

These are just a few insights from the data we’ve gathered. We’re now working with over 60 institutions around the world who understand the power of peer-to-peer, and enhancing the student journey for them with impressive results.

The impact for these institutions? Data analysis such as this gives them a unique insight into what motivates students. It also means they’re able to target information more accurately.

And then of course there are the results. We’ve seen up to 88.3% conversion ratesamongst offer holders, 33.4% increases in conversion rates from acceptance to enrolment, and up to 47% application rates from those who used the platform.

At the CASE Europe Annual Conference on 27-31 August?

You’ll be able to hear first-hand about the insights gained from our Machine Learning analysis from me there, in my session “Online peer-to-peer engagement: its impact on the student journey, and on your marketing & recruitment goals.”

Drop me a line on [email protected] if you’d like to arrange a chat at the Conference.

Won’t be at CASE?

If you’d like to know more about Unibuddy’s peer-to-peer platform get in touch on [email protected] or book a demo.

Jonathan Tinnacher, Chief Customer Officer, Unibuddy

About the author:

Jonathan has worked in student recruitment and marketing for 25 years, most recently as Director of Student Recruitment at Imperial College. He joined Unibuddy as Chief Customer Officer in 2017, helping the peer-to-peer platform grow to working with more than 60 partners across the globe.

Having caught the travel bug during his time in international recruitment, he hasn’t missed an opportunity since to indulge his wanderlust.

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