How to customize your communication to international students

As recruiters book plane tickets, dig up packing lists, and put on their game faces for international travel this fall, some of the most important items they carry will be their student recruitment marketing materials. Around the world students will interact with recruiters, picking up printed information and having face-to-face conversations, bringing it home to parents, extended families, and peers. As a recruiter, how much thought do you put into curating your messages for each of the unique audiences that they reach? Have you thought about how you can specially tailor and customize your communication to international students?

No one knows better than recruiters that you can see student audiences across various regions react to the same conversational approach or printed brochure with quite different results. If you can customize your communication to international students in a way that connects with their own culture, the “best fit” rule goes both ways: as students look for the best fit in a university, recruiters can tailor their communication style to best fit the audience. For example, in India, prioritizing regular, face-to-face contact can have a big impact. It’s easy for students to miss emails and mailers in the “organized chaos” of this culture; but regular, personal contact – especially with high school counselors – cannot be underemphasized. Meet with students and parents directly, too – parents hold a hugely significant role in “helping” their children decide where to attend university, and making sincere inroads with them goes a long way.

In putting together the UnivAssist tours’ marketing materials, I help to review and edit over a hundred of our partner universities’ “pitch” communications every year for different regions around the world. This inevitably manifests juxtapositions, and sometimes glaring differences, in how much care universities put into tailoring their message. From our research and experience, I’d like to share a few examples of successful strategies for conversations and marketing materials:

Majors, academics, rankings, and extracurriculars

These will always be a core component of your messaging, but knowing what to spotlight where can be critical. In China, be sure to underscore flexibility and choice of majors. One chief advantage of studying in the U.S. that really excites Chinese students is the leeway to (finally) choose their own path of study, and change majors if they want to. For students who are interested in multiple majors, they’ll be thrilled to know of the option to double-major and find an intersection between their areas of interest. Also in China, promote applicable teaching methods and your institution’s practical learning approach. Most students coming from China have a long educational background of repetition, standardized testing, and highly prescribed schooling – in studying abroad, they are looking for the opportunity to engage with application-based education and learn-by-doing.

Especially in Southeast Asia and the Middle East, be extra careful to not “force-feed” majors. Though you may know that “most” international students seem to pursue a specific set of majors, don’t assume that they all are coming for STEM or Business. Highlighting the availability and potential prosperousness of other majors and careers, as well as special leadership and entrepreneurial programs, is recommended here.

For India and Europe, give highest prominence to academics, university credibility, and rankings above other topics. Pointing out extracurricular benefits (such as scenery or activities) actually detracts from university credibility – instead, focus specifically on course content, scholarly reputation, and the quality of your academic facilities. Don’t make selling points of the student union or flexibility of study. Show pictures of labs and libraries, not of the beach.

But, in marketing materials for Brazil, you should definitely include pictures of your beach! Brazilians are very fond of their beach culture – so when you develop brochures for this region, do use pictures of the beach. Lifestyle is important in Latin America, and promoting activities, landscape, and culture is a great way to connect with them.

Finances, scholarships, and job placement

Of course it is important to have transparency about finances with students everywhere, but it is particularly essential in Brazil and the Middle East. Discuss tuition costs and scholarships; finances are essential. Especially for the Middle East, encourage students to explore government-sponsored scholarships (which are common).

As a special note, talking about annual cost of tuition in Brazil misses the mark – students there often pay for schooling in monthly payment increments, so divide your annual tuition by 12 and discuss it that way.

In India, be sure to highlight job placement and employment rates after graduation. You’ll notice that students (and their parents!) take the long-term, big-picture view – they want to know what will happen to them after getting their degree at your university even more than they want to know what will happen to them at your university.

The college application and U.S. visa

Make a special point to stress the TIMELINE of the application process in Brazil and the Middle East. Don’t assume that students (or even counselors) understand the amount of time the application process takes, and how far ahead they need to start planning. This is especially true for the time needed to take (and re-take) tests.

If your institution places importance on a “holistic” application, explain that in the Middle East. Students and counselors may not understand the true significance of writing a great essay, attaching a prepared resume, and showing a well-rounded list of extracurricular activities in their college applications. Be sure to impress upon them that grades and transcripts do not solely “make” the application.

Emphasize the ease of the U.S. student visa process for Europe and Southeast Asia. For students from many countries in these regions (for example, Indonesia), the U.S. student visa process is likely to be less burdensome and complex than they might think – and this is definitely an added bonus for those students.

As a final piece of advice, don’t discount the importance of educating counselors in all the regions that you visit. Depth and breadth in counselor understanding of the U.S. higher education system can vary quite a bit, especially considering the relative fluidity of the system. Take the time to regularly guide counselors through the processes that their students need to master in order to achieve that “best fit” in higher education.

How do you customize your communication to international students? What else have you found that resonates?


Feel free to reach out to me directly with comments and questions.

As Communications Manager for UnivAssist, Kate creates and develops our marketing/communications, branding, and publication strategy. Uniquely positioned with backgrounds in higher education and international relations, Kate has lived and worked abroad in India, China, and the Caribbean.

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