Reaching Prospective Students Where They Are: Online

By H. F. Gilbert, Ph.D.

Today, Baylor College of Medicine – and 19 other institutions – is holding its second online student recruitment event. In terms of partnership, collaboration, and reach, the Biomedical Virtual Recruiting Fair is innovative.

Students today use online resources to research everything from where to get a textbook to where to go for spring break. Researching graduate schools is no exception. In the past, students and graduate recruiters flocked to national and regional conferences in hopes of making the right connections, and institutions opened their doors to students in hopes that the on-campus visit would be the experience that makes the students click “Apply.” However, the changing economic landscape around the world has made it difficult for institutions and students alike to fund traveling to such events. As a result, students choose to conduct the majority of their searches in a location that’s more affordable, but less defined when assessing how to meet their needs: online.

Traditional recruitment initiatives rely on question-and-answer sessions. This offers the institution the opportunity to highlight recent accomplishments, make specific recommendations based on the student’s interests, and reiterate such important institution-specific information as application deadlines. The student has the opportunity to demonstrate his or her specific enthusiasm for the institution, ask pressing questions, and highlight his or her accomplishments. Recently, academic institutions have adopted instant messaging to reinvent the traditional Q&A, revolutionizing the marketing and recruitment process, and meeting students where they are: online. Baylor College of Medicine is leading the way for biomedical graduate institutions.

The Biomedical Virtual Recruiting Fair, an idea developed by Holly Wilbanks from Baylor College of Medicine (BCM), enables prospective applicants to begin relationships and exchange information with people and programs at major research universities online. Working with CareerEco, a vendor with a proven track record of working with public health institutions, Wilbanks set out to recruit partnering graduate schools to participate. Creating a fair that involved multiple institutions would not only reduce costs, but increase student participation as well. There are hundreds of general graduate fairs across the country, but we wanted to create a fair that attracts a specific population of potential students that our school is looking to recruit. We reached out to institutions that have similar recruitment interests and needs, and the fair grew to more than 20 schools.

The institutions were responsible for engaging student participation. Wilbanks created a list of best practices for marketing recruitment events to students, and shared it with the partnering schools. The BCM Communications and Marketing Department created a flyer that institutions could adapt for handouts and mailings.  CareerEco provided an HTML flyer for e-mail distribution, as well as a banner for websites. While the marketing materials were unified in design and message, each partnering institution chose how they would market (e-mail, web, print ad in student newspaper, etc.) to their respective audiences, which included undergraduate students, alumni, master’s students, faculty, and even administrative colleagues. In an effort to focus our marketing efforts in the future, we tracked how students learned about the fair. E-mail messages from the partnering institutions were overwhelmingly the most effective marketing tool.

The first fair was a success in terms of student participation. More than 500 students interested in pursuing biomedical graduate education engaged in dialogue with the participating institutions. We connected with more students via the virtual fair than we do at a traditional one-day fair or conference.

Additionally, CareerEco provided each institution with a transcript of their conversations with students, a list of the students who chatted with each institution, and a complete list of student registrants with contact information. We plan to use the contact list to communicate exciting updates to potential students, as well as to track whether or not this fair resulted in applications and/or enrollments.

Feedback from partnering institutions and participating students is positive thus far, with most citing convenience as the number 1 advantage. Selecting a graduate school is a big choice in the careers of scientists-to-be, and making personalized contact accessible very early in the process is an important first step that now is widely available. We are excited by the concept, and very pleased with the number and quality of conversations we started with potential students.

H. F. Gilbert, Ph.D., is the Dean of the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences at the Baylor College of Medicine. He can be reached at hgilbert@bcm.edu.

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