ApplyInsights: How Prospective Students’ Decision Making has Changed Post-Pandemic

Last month, I analyzed the first half of the US edition of the 2021 QS International Student Survey. I looked at how COVID-19 affected student study plans and priorities during the application process, and I advised schools on what they could do to seamlessly transition students from online to in-person learning post-pandemic.

Today, I’m going to unpack how students navigate the process of applying to schools in the US and what their goals are following graduation. The 2021 edition of the QS International Student Survey provides clarity into what graduate outcomes students are seeking, which jobs and sectors are growing in popularity, and how students embark on the decision-making process when selecting their institution and program.

Key Insights at a Glance

  • US institutions need to tailor the communication platforms they use and the cadence of their responses to suit the needs of their prospective students.
  • Prospective students and graduate employers agree that problem solving, communication, and teamwork are the most highly valued skills learned at university.
  • High-quality teaching was identified as the most important attribute for prospective students in the selection process of their destination country, university, and courses.

In this article, I’ll be looking at how and why students make decisions throughout the application process. I’ll offer my thoughts on how schools can position themselves as more attractive destinations, and I’ll touch on what can be done to foster the best relationships with prospective international students. Let’s get to it!

Making Choices with Careers in Mind

Students are always thinking about their futures. With this in mind, not only do programs and institutions need to meet a student’s academic and personal interests, they also need to enable a student to find employment in their chosen career.

Helping a student reach their dream career path is not a one-step equation. There’s a host of different factors that students consider when selecting their courses at university. Understanding what students want from their university experience can help institutions tailor their programs so that students are able to get the jobs they’ve always wanted.
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The most important career consideration for prospective students was being able to learn new skills, with 60% of those surveyed choosing this option. Universities will undoubtedly teach students new skills, but I think it’s essential that US institutions make sure their students can articulate how the skills they’ve learned can be an asset to their potential employers. I urge US institutions to continue to develop initiatives such as co-op programs, internships and other methods of career counselling that start during the education journey, not at the end.

The Skills Prospective Students Want to Learn

If gaining new skills is a vital part of the American University experience for prospective students, we need to determine exactly what skills students care about most. Prospective students were asked what skills they thought employers valued most in new graduates, and were given a list of options to choose from.1 Unsurprisingly, students prioritized their desired skills based on what they think their future employers want.

The overwhelming majority of students classified problem-solving (73%), communication (68%), and the ability to work in a team (67%) as the top three skills they perceived to be most valued by employers.

Interestingly, the students were right. The 2020 QS Employers Insights Report highlighted the same three skills as being the most important to graduate employers. It’s crucial that institutions pay attention to the importance of these skills and educate their students on how their degrees can equip them for success in the careers they’re pursuing.

Here are some ways universities can get the message out to students:

  • Leverage communications such as newsletters, emails, and WhatsApp to make students aware of how their chosen degrees can lead to upskilling in essential areas.
  • Place an emphasis on developing career planning offices and ensure career planning counsellors reach out to students to share how they can assist the consolidation of communication, teamwork and problem-solving.
  • Develop and promote international alumni testimonials that detail how the school’s programs helped alumni develop career-advancing skills.

Schools with the clearest messaging around how they help students learn and practice the skills their eventual employers value will become the most appealing destinations for prospective students.

Post-Graduation Plans

When prospective students were asked what they planned to do after completing their degree, only 11% intended to return home after graduation. Most students stated that they intended to remain in the US temporarily, with a whopping 66% of prospective students selecting this option. By comparison, 18% of students planned to stay in the country permanently.

Given that 84% of prospective students plan on staying in the country they study in, at least temporarily, I think it’s wise to highlight which graduate outcomes prospective students view as most important when choosing a university.
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A high graduate employment rate and a high probability of getting employed in their preferred industry ranked as the top two most important graduate outcomes.

Given that the top three fields of interest for international students looking to study in the US are Business and Management, Engineering, and Computing—STEM areas where their expertise are in high demand—it’s crucial for universities to consider how potential international students can fill employment gaps.

Business and Management, Engineering, and Computing were all top programs of interested on our ApplyBoard Platform in 2020. To find out more, check out my previous blog post on what fields of study international students are interested in this year.

I recommend that career services at US institutions work together with local businesses in these industries to provide an effective link between students and their dream employers. The end result will be higher graduate employment rates which will bolster institutions in the eyes of future prospective students.

Considering What Students Want From a Potential Employer

At the end of the day, most students embark on their study abroad journey to be able to earn a living for themselves and their families. Naturally, salary and benefits are a significant consideration for prospective students as they decide on their field of study and courses.

When asked to select the top three factors they considered when choosing a potential employer, 64% of prospective students selected salary and benefits. Nearly twice as many students selected salary and benefits over work-life balance and job satisfaction, which ranked second and third, respectively.

Money is a huge factor for students when deciding on their career paths. However, I think that institutions should work with their students to help them form realistic expectations around entry-level compensation and what salary growth might look like over the course of their careers, by industry, and also by region.

As long as students are well-informed about the compensation and benefits they could receive in a given career path, they will be able to accurately weigh salary against other pivotal items such as work-life balance, job satisfaction, and career progression. This will help students avoid making life-altering career decisions based on money alone.

Understanding How and How Often to Contact Students

The rate at which prospective international students engage with and consume digital content in all aspects of their lives is growing every day. That’s why it’s so vital that institutions grow with students and engage in conversations at the pace students desire. US universities should endeavour to meet their prospective students’ preferred methods of communication and at the cadence that they want to communicate with institutions.

Prospective international students have expressed interest in learning more about their potential teaching staff, getting connected with existing students to ask questions, receiving practical tips for their applications, and more.

There’s a lot for institutions to talk about with students. How quickly institutions get back to their prospective students can make or break a student’s decision on whether to accept an offer or not.
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When asked about how often they expected to be contacted by a university after making an inquiry, 23% of students wanted to be contacted daily, while 42% were happy to be contacted on a weekly basis. On the other end of the spectrum, 19% of students only wanted to be contacted when they made the initial contact in the inquiry phase.

At ApplyBoard, we see students from a wide range of national, cultural, and academic backgrounds. These students are all unique and have different preferences and needs. To cater to as many different types of students as possible, institutions need to develop targeted communications that can be tweaked according to the preference of their prospective students, whether that’s aiming to simply be informative or to build excitement for students.

When it comes to the best way to reach international students, it should come as no surprise that institutions need to incorporate multiple platforms and processes in order to remain competitive.

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A combination approach that leverages emails, phone calls, and social messaging platforms is going to be the most effective. A combined strategy should also lead to faster response times and a better overall experience for prospective students.

I urge US institutions to pay close attention to the popular source markets that express interest in their programs, as students’ preferred methods of communication often shift drastically by region.
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How International Students Select their Destination

As the 2021 QS report has shown, the decision-making process of prospective students is complex and contains multiple stages and priorities. There’s a laundry list of factors that draw students to particular US cities, universities, and courses. But what I found interesting was the one factor that remained consistent throughout the vetting process of every single one: high-quality teaching.

High-quality teaching was the most sought-after factor during every step of the selection process, which is great news for US institutions right now. US institutions should make an effort to promote the high quality of teaching that they offer to international students, especially when differentiating themselves from other US schools. Highlighting this as we head into a post-pandemic recovery and return to campuses will be an important aspect of an institution’s communications strategy with prospective international students.

The second most common consideration for students when choosing what and where to study abroad is how welcoming a destination country is towards international students. While this was a roadblock for US institutions pre-pandemic, the election of the Biden administration—coupled with a rapidly increasing vaccination rate in the US—has led to a dramatic shift in public perception of the US on the international stage.

I encourage US institutions to lean on their country’s upward-trending image and communicate to students that their campuses are inviting, safe, and welcoming places for all.

Key Takeaways

US institutions are faced with several challenges as the 2022 academic year approaches. In order to see international enrollment rates rise, they need to continue to make decisions with the best interests of students in mind. Universities that are hoping to gain a competitive advantage in the US market and become highly attractive destinations for prospective international students should make an effort to:

  • Focus on leveraging communications tools that emphasize skills-building during program completion, specifically highlighting teamwork, communication, and problem-solving skills.
  • Work with local graduate employers to connect students with high-demand careers—co-op terms, job fairs, and post-graduate work placements are great places to start.
  • Prioritize targeted and frequent communication with prospective students while using a combination of e-mails, phone calls, and social messaging platforms (WhatsApp, WeChat, etc.).

Published: July 12, 2021

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Meti BasiriMeti Basiri
Co-Founder and Chief Marketing Officer (CMO)
Meti is driven by the belief that education is a right, not a privilege. He leads the International Recruitment, Partner Relations, and Marketing teams at ApplyBoard, working to make education accessible to people around the world. Meti has been instrumental in building partnerships with 1,500+ educational institutions across Canada, the United, the United Kingdom, and Australia. Working with over 5,000 international recruitment partners, ApplyBoard has assisted over 150,000 students in their study abroad journey. Follow Meti on LinkedIn for more access to ApplyInsights and key industry trends.


1. When asked, “What skills do you think employers value most in new graduates”, respondents were provided the following options to choose from: Commercial awareness, Negotiating skills, Resilience/dealing with conflict, Language skills, Organizational skills, Data skills (analytical / quantitative), Depth of knowledge in subject, Interpersonal skills (relates well to others), Leadership skills, Technical skills, Flexibility/adaptability, Creativity, Ability to work in a team, Communication skills, Problem-solving skills.