Institutions are increasingly trying to understand how to engage prospective students while also trying to make smart budget decisions. One approach to making informed decisions about where and how to engage an institution’s ideal student set is the student persona, based on the “buyer persona” tactic many brand leaders embrace. 

The buyer persona is a composite picture of a company’s customers, revealing the reasons behind decisions for choosing one product or service versus another. Similarly, the student persona informs an institution on how its students reach their enrollment decisions, and can help schools learn more about their ideal students, where to find them, and how to speak to them. By arming the institution with more detailed information, the student persona provides guidance to achieve better enrollment outcomes.

How to build your student persona in three steps:

  1. Define your ideal student data set: 

    As an institution, ask what you know about  your “ideal” students. If the answer is, “nothing” or “my gut says … I have a feeling,” that’s OK!
    A good start is to focus attention on the students who enroll and stay with your institution. Alternatively, if you have program or geographic specific enrollment goals, you may want to put a lens on a segment of students enrolled in a particular school or program, or hailing from a certain geographic location.
  2. Describe the Data Set:

    Once you know the segment of student data to pull, find out what attributes are available to analyze. A single student attribute can tell you quite a lot.
  • Age: Provides insight into student responsibilities, challenges, and interests (Working mother? High school age? Retired?). Age may also indicate whether students or their parents are likely the primary decision-makers in choosing or paying for their education.  
  • Zip Code: Distance from your institution drives informational needs in terms of class modality, scheduling, and faculty availability.
  • Outside Interests: Clubs, memberships, and sports provide clues into what activities prospective students may be interested in and where they spend free time.
  • Institutional Relationships: How did students learn about your institution? Who did they speak to? All of this information is useful to determining which university offerings are most appealing to which students.
  1. Build Your Persona:

    Now that you have a workable set of student data, you can begin grouping data according to common sets of characteristics. Create one master student persona or identify two or three persona clusters based on common sets of characteristics. If you don’t have much information, you have several options:
  • Conduct surveys or focus groups among select individuals in the data set. Ask students questions to discover the reasons they chose your institution, sources visited to gather information, influencers who affected their decision making process, and additional institutions they considered attending.
  • Work with current vendor partners: Your partners may have existing relationships with companies that provide customer segmentation services and geo-targeting strategies to expand the reach to more best-fit students. 
  • Evaluate tools available online:  Websites such as,,, and help institutions with persona building.

The resulting composite pictures, or student personas, provides directional information for choosing effective recruiting events and channels to help guide the content, tone, and timing of your outreach initiatives and meet the needs of your best-fit students.

For more information about strategic institutional student recruitment and retention, read this blog post.


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