The application of the behaviour science behind the design of the HelloUni offer

ICAN Future Star Ltd has implemented its market intelligence and insights on the decision-making processes and behavioural patterns of international applicants in the design of the HelloUni app which we offer as a service to institutional clients.

All students have common needs, no matter where they come from, but there is a need to recognise the cultural and regional differences within the different ethnic groups. As international applicants become more crucial to the balance sheet of universities, it is sensible to cater towards their needs. It is our belief that, there is a need for a more personalised international student recruitment strategy.

From the behavioural science perspective, there are two levels of connections universities need to establish with their prospective applicants in order to make the applicants feel comfortable enough to apply: The first is rational connection. This can be reached by presenting information in a way that fulfils the rational needs of the applicants. Less obvious, but still very important, is the emotional connection. for more information on this, see Unconscious Branding: How Neuroscience Can Empower (and Inspire) Marketing by Douglas Van Praet (2014).

Without delving much into the classic debate between rational vs. emotional decision making, I advocate that there needs to be balance of rational and emotional considerations in the university’s recruitment and marketing strategy. Research and my personal experiences suggest that not all prospective applicants are only rational when it comes to making the ‘all-important’ study abroad decisions (research in brand management is particularly relevant on this aspect). HelloUni’s approach is to treat prospective applicants as a mixture of emotional and rational beings. This assumption has guided our entire product design.

Treating your prospective applicants as emotional beings means to communicate to them on a personal level and to appeal to them about their sense of self and aspiration, as well as life-style preferences. This can be achieved by conveying an understanding of the applicants’ individual situations and, how studying at your university can help to assist them further in both their personal and professional goals in life. You not only need to present the information in an attractive way, but in a way that young audience can get and listen.

To help understand the attributes that affect rational and emotional decisions, here is an example of the attributes:

  Rational side Emotional side
International applicants –      Ranking

–      Courses

–      University

–      Location

–      Scholarship

–      Career prospect

–      The cost

–      University facilities

–      Accommodations


–      Making applicants feel special and taken care of

–      Culture

–      Community

–      Brand

–      People

–      A good time

–      Prestige

–      A sense of style

–      Social assurance

Families –      Better return for investment

–      Ranking

–      Safety

–      Feel involved in the decision-making process

The University of Glasgow has been hitting this with their – ‘world changer welcome’ corporate slogan. In the promotion video featured in the HelloUni app, the video cleverly labels students into different groups: education, peacemaker, game changer, life saver, etc. This gives a sense of agreement between what the university is looking from the applicants and the applicant’s own aspirations. Again, it is a very nice and effective way of triggering emotional connection.

University of Loughborough has developed and ran a hugely successful applicants campaign on social media. Leveraging the existing students’ social connections, the university was able to successfully draw in a large number of interested applicants at the clearing process.

Another aspect of the behavioural insights is consider the key factors affecting the decision-making process of the international applicants from different ethnic regions – our algorithm team has identified cultural and behavioural differences and utilises machine-learning technique to address a need for a personalised assistance when it comes to making application decisions, for more info on the cultural differences please see this post (towards-a-personalised-international-student-recruitment-strategy/)

In conclusion, given our team’s expertise in international students decision-making and algorithm development, HelloUni is a different from the competition. The current enterprise edition of the mobile offer is designed to assist prospective applicants effectively research and connect to the client university. In particular, our product provides a level of personalisation for applicants and is specifically designed to attract prospective applicants from outside of the EU – our key target regions are China, India and Sub-Saharan Africa for instance.

Towards a Personalised International Student Recruitment Strategy

In recent years there has been an increase in the number of international students enrolling at universities in the U.S. This has prompted U.S. institutions to increase recruitment efforts targeting international students. Despite the increased efforts, there has been little research into how international students choose which universities to apply to and which to attend. The World Education Services (WES) has addressed this lack of research with a series of articles on international student segmentation. Their latest 2015 article, How Master’s Students Choose Institutions: Research on International Student Segmentation (read online), summarises survey statistics regarding the importance of four categories of institutional attributes according to international students from the geographic regions of China, India, the Middle East, Latin America, Sub-Saharan Africa, and Europe. These institutional attributes are: school reputation, career prospects, location, and cost. The report also reports results from institutional characteristics: public/private funding sources, geographic setting, size, and Carnegie classification.

WES defines four segments of international students:

  1. Highfliers: students with high financial resources and high academic qualifications
  2. Explorers: students with high financial resources and low academic qualifications.
  3. Strivers: students with low financial resources and high academic qualifications.
  4. Strugglers: students with low financial resources and low academic qualifications.

The purpose of this article is to show how universities can and should move away from recruiting international students as “cash cows” towards a more effective and personalized recruitment strategy. This is important for both the students and the institutions themselves: students who attend institutions that meet their academic and extra-academic preferences will perform better, improving the reputation of the institution in turn.

A summary of the differences for these 6 regions, please see the table below:

Screen Shot 2015-10-12 at 22.24.53


China has the highest concentration of students in the “Explorers” segment, with 44%. It also has a relatively high concentration of highfliers, with 29%. Finances are, then, not a burden for a majority of Chinese international students: more than half of those surveyed are able to pay more than $40,000 per year.

Most Important Attributes

School reputation is by far the most important attribute for Chinese students, with 47% of those surveyed reporting that reputation is most important when choosing to apply to a university. School ranking is considered the most important aspect of school reputation, followed by faculty research and expertise.

Chinese students also place great weight on career prospects: 42% reported that career prospects are the most important attribute when choosing a university. School reputation also crosses over into career prospects, with many student citing the reputation of the school with potential employers as crucial.

Other aspects: Chinese students tend to prefer private over public universities, large over small campus settings.

Least Important Attributes

Cost is by far the least important attribute for choosing a university: only 3% of Chinese students surveyed reported cost as the most important factor. This is consistent with the high proportion of Chinese students who have high financial resources.

Location of the institution, with only 9% reporting it as most important, is the other least important attribute for Chinese students. However, 36% of those who do report location as important cite “being in or close to a major city” as the most important aspect of location. Over 80% of schools applied to by Chinese students are in a city setting,


Strivers make up the largest proportion of international students from India, at 42%. There are also a fair number of strugglers, at 25%. Financial resources are more scarce, then, for Indian students, with only around 30% able to pay more than $30,000 per year.

Most Important Attributes

Consistent with the trend of limited financial resources, career prospects is by far the most important attribute for Indian students, with 58% citing it as most important. This indicates that Indian students expect a large return on an investment in their education, with more than half of students citing earning potential as a very important aspect of career prospects.

School reputation is cited as most important by 24% of Indian students. In contrast to Chinese students, Indian students place much more importance on faculty research (52%) than school ranking (32%).

Other important aspects: Indian students are more likely to apply to public over private universities. They are the most likely out of all regions to apply to smaller, master’s colleges.

Least Important Attributes

Location, at 5%, is the least important attribute for Indian students, with a larger proportion of Indian students applying to institutions in a town or rural setting than their Chinese counterparts.

Despite generally low financial resources, only 14% cite cost as the most important attribute. Availability of financial aid, however, remains very important to 40% of Indian students.

Middle East

Student from the Middle East are quite evenly split: 33% and 30% are explorers and highfliers, respectively, and strugglers and strivers comprise each 19% of those surveyed. Those with high financial resources, in addition to being the majority, also have greater financial resources than their Chinese counterparts, with over 50% able to pay more than $50,000 per year.

Most Important Attributes

In line with the more evenly distributed segments, the distribution of the most important attributes is less skewed than for Chinese and Indian students. Students from the Middle East cite school reputation as the most important attribute, with 34%. Career prospects are second most important, at 29%.

Location is also very important, with 24% of students citing it as most important, more than any other region. 17% report that it is important to be close to friends and family while studying abroad, again more than any other region.

Similar to Indian students, 13% students from the Middle East report cost as most important. The cost of living aspect is, however, most important to Middle Eastern students, rather than tuition for Indian students. This is likely due to tuition being covered by government scholarships, while cost of living is not covered.

Least Important Attributes

Middle Eastern students place less importance on school ranking and research reputation than both Chinese and Indian Students.

Latin America

Latin American students have the highest proportion of strivers, with 46%. The other segments are rather evenly distributed at 15% (explorers), 23% (highfliers), and 16% (strugglers). Like Indian students, only about 30% are able to pay more than $30,000 per year.

Most Important Attributes

Also like Indian students, career prospects are very important with 39% reporting it most important when choosing an institution. Latin American students place greater importance of school reputation than Indian students, however, with 39% reporting it as most important.

Consistent with the demographics of Latin American students, availability of financial aid is crucial, with 56% reporting it as very important, alongside tuition, which 45% report as very important. Thus the cost attribute is overall an important factor.

Other aspects: Latin American students are the most likely to take feedback from peers into serious consideration when choosing a school (30% rate it very important).

Least Important Attributes

Location is the least important attribute for Latin American students, with 8% reporting it as most important. It is worthwhile to note, however, that there is a strong preference for cities among Latin American students, as over 3 quarters of schools applied to are in cities.

It is not as important for Latin American students to be close to friends and family or among people of their home country. 9% and 5% report these aspects as very important, respectively.

Sub-Saharan Africa

Like Latin America, Sub-Saharan Africa has the largest proportion of strivers, with 47%. There is a greater percentage of highfliers, however, with 34%. This indicates that there is generally high academic qualifications among students from Sub-Saharan Africa.

Most Important Attributes

Career prospects is the most important attribute, with 40% considering it most important. Within career prospects, it is very important to students that the institution has a good reputation with employers and that there is high quality career preparation services (58% report both of these very important).

Cost is also very important: 30% report it as most important, significantly more than all other regions, who at most rate this attribute in the high teens. This is in line with the statistic that over 50% of students from Sub-Saharan Africa have a budget of less than $20,000 per year.

Other important aspects: students from Sub-Saharan Africa are most likely to apply to public universities over private (60% of school applied to are public).

Least Important Attributes

Location is by far the least important attribute for students from Sub-Saharan Africa, with only 3% reporting it as most important. The aspects of location are also rated low: being close to friends and family (12%), in a major city (8%), near a community of people from home country (5%), having fun things to do in area (5%).

School reputation is also rated relatively low, at 27%, which is comparable to Indian students. 60% and 51% of students, however, rate research reputation and school ranking as very important, respectively.


European students are relatively evenly split across segments: explorers (21%), highfliers (28%), strugglers (20%), and strivers (31%). European students generally have fewer financial resources, with 48% of students having budgets of less than $20,000 per year.

Most Important Attributes

Career prospects has the greatest percentage of European students rating it most important, with 40%. Reputation of the institution with employers and quality of career preparation services were rated as very important more than earning potential. This accords with what we have seen for other regions whose students have low financial resources, e.g. India, Latin America, and Sub-Saharan Africa, where students expect a return on their investment in education.

School reputation is also very important, with 33% of European students citing it as most important. Research is the most important aspect of reputation, with 36% citing it as very important.

Cost is also important, with 41% reporting that tuition is a very important factor to consider. The percentages are not as high for cost compared to other regions, however, which reflects the region’s more evenly distributed segmentation.

Other important aspects: most schools Europeans applied to are private (60%), indicating a preference for private universities

Least Important Attributes

Location is the least important aspect for European students, although it is higher than all other regions except the Middle East. There is very low importance placed upon being near a community of people from the student’s home country, at 2%.

Closing Remarks

As would be expected, financial resources seem correlated with the importance of both cost and career prospects: students from regions with overall less financial resources such as India and Sub-Saharan Africa cite these attributes as “most important” far more than students from regions with high financial resources, such as China.

We cannot generalize too much, however. Students from Europe and Sub-Saharan Africa have similar financial resources (~50% do not have a budget over $20,000) but almost twice the amount of African students as Europeans cite cost as the most important attribute to consider. This difference may, however, be related to the fact that a majority of students from Sub-Saharan Africa are strivers (47%) while the European segments are more evenly distributed.

Understanding the trends and idiosyncrasies in how international students choose universities is crucial for developing a more targeted, effective, and personalized international student recruitment scheme. The data provided by WES and summarized here is a fantastic step forward in this regard. It shows that there are significant differences in how students from different regions and from different demographics choose which institutions to attend. Harnessing this information would allow universities to play to their strengths when recruiting international students, which would both increase enrollment and result in happier and better performing international students.