At Eastern Standard, we do a lot of work in the higher education space. And, as a firm that is passionate about user-centric design and content strategy, we've done a lot of research into the browsing behavior of prospective undergraduates: the digital natives who have very different expectations and habits from the previous generation.
Here are a few high-level takeaways from some of our research. How does your website stack up to these key points?
1. They might never see your homepage.
Prospective students who already have an idea of which schools they're interested in, and especially those who know which field they'd like to study, are going to use Google to dive right into your content. Make sure their experience makes sense regardless of their starting point — and don't assume that everyone is navigating from the top down.
2. They avoid "walls of text."
As much as you'd like to write long-form prose about your faculty, your programs, and your campus — don't! Prospective undergrads respond better to short paragraphs mixed with bulleted lists, images, videos, and calls to action to help break up the content. (Exception: Graduate students and parents will read more text, so you can get a bit more text-heavy on pages that are targeted toward them.)
3. They use browser tabs. Lots of them.
Your average 16-year-old is not afraid of their web browser. If they're on a decently large screen (which means they're browsing on their MacBook or maybe their dad's work desktop instead of their phone), expect them to use the "open in new tab" option a lot. They'll keep their search result page open, and they'll compare your school to other schools side-by-side. You can never assume that their browsing behavior is linear (refer back to point #1).
4. They probably don't know where they're trying to get to.
We expanded on this concept a bit in another blog post, but your audience isn't going to know that, for example, your fashion program falls under the "College of Human Sciences." Please don't organize your navigation exclusively around your college/department structure — it assumes that your audience has a deep understanding of how your particular school has organized its programs. Coupled with the fact that most prospective students haven't even decided on a field of study, immediately silo-ing them by department/college/etc. makes it impossible for them to explore all that you can offer them.
Imagine if, in order to buy a pair of pants at Macy's, I had to browse to "Corporate Divisions and Departments > Division of Retail and Branding > Retail Sales and Inventory Management > Department of Fashion and Apparel > In-Store Inventory > Clothing > Pants > Men's". It would be a laughable exercise, but it's exactly what colleges and universities do every day.
5. They probably aren't familiar with words and terms you're used to using.
Be careful with words like "undergraduate," "graduate," "matriculated," and the like. To you, they may seem so innate to the college experience that you can't imagine someone not being familiar with them, but prospective students are new to the college search process and its associated terms. We've seen instances where prospective undergrads assume that "graduate" programs were right for them because they were going to be graduating.
Also, completely avoid words that only your school/department uses to describe yourselves. If you internally distinguish certain areas as "departments" and others as "area of focus" and still others as "centers," don't force your users to understand why. The nomenclature you use externally doesn't need to match your internal structure.
When it comes to reaching the important goals of motivating prospects to request more information, schedule a visit, and ultimately enroll in classes, understanding these issues goes a long way towards ensuring your user experience matches the expectations of this young and often misunderstood demographic.