From Insights to Action: How To Develop A Recruiting Action Plan

Wondering why you need an action plan? Having data is great, but using it is far more valuable.

Collecting data is only half the battle; it’s what you do with it that really matters. In the words of McKinsey’s big data specialists, “Data is meaningless unless it helps make decisions that have measurable impact...Generating value from [data] is a matter of connecting data to insights to action in a fast, repeatable way.”  (Source: Forbes).  Long story short: collect data and use it to inform your strategy and subsequent action plan.

Your Dashboard provides the data you'll need for your Action Plan
Your Dashboard provides the data you’ll need for your Action Plan

Our new Dashboard tool has the first half covered, but it’s up to you to complete the second half. Continue reading for all the tools you’ll need to put your insights to work.

To develop your program’s tailored (and well-informed) plan, follow these four steps:

1. Figure out where you stand

The first step in deciding on a realistic plan of action is figuring out where you are today. Take a look around and be honest. From 90,000 feet, what do you see? Look over your recruiting results over the past few years – how close are you to where you’d like to be?

Consider the answers to questions like the following to get the full picture:

  • How do your incoming Bookmarks compare to your outgoing Bookmarks?
  • What percentage of your total Matches from 2016 became applicants? Is this a number you’d like to increase? If so, by how much? (Remember, Gradschoolmatch acts as a funnel to deliver your best Matches, but like any funnel, nothing will come out if nothing goes in!)
  • Are your Collaborators bookmarking prospects, responding to incoming Bookmarks and, most importantly, engaging with Matches through personal messages? If not, who could you add as Collaborators to be more effective – current graduate students, faculty, admin, etc – based on the type of questions you’ve gotten from prospects?

Asking yourself these questions will help you analyze your success in different areas of recruiting.

2. Decide where you want to go 

Imagine your action plan as the keys to hitting a bullseye this year.
Set your targets for the year and keep your eye on the prize.

From a bird’s eye view, you might see many possible paths to take, but you’ll need to decide which direction to go. You may choose to address your biggest weakness or you may choose to support a larger initiative your program has already decided to undertake. The point here is to be specific in what you’re trying to achieve THIS year and to limit your scope.

3. Plan your path forward

With your destination in mind, it’s time to plan your route. As a first step, consider which of these three categories you fall into based on your answer to the questions in Step 1 about your Bookmarking performance.

Did you find that your program:

A) Had an equal number of outgoing and incoming Bookmarks,

B) Received more Bookmarks than you sent (incoming>outgoing) or

C) Sent more Bookmarks than you received (incoming<outgoing)?

Your Action Plan should ultimately get you from your starting point to your desired destination.
Map out your starting point and destination and develop an Action Plan that will get you from Point A to Point B.

No matter which category you fall into, you are not stuck there, nor are you guaranteed to stay there. The process of developing an Action Plan is your first step to improving your success.

A few quick suggestions depending on where you ranked (before we move on to the nitty gritty):

  • If your Bookmark counts were equal, that’s great! It probably means you like everybody who likes your program. Go through the Stop-Continue-Start framework (below) to make sure this year is at least as good as last year. Analyze how many of these Matches became applicants (and how many of those were accepted, and subsequently enrolled). To increase the number of applicants and subsequent enrollees you’ll need to increase your engagement with the Matches you have, or generate more. Bookmark a few more prospects each month and follow up with personal messages explaining what about their profile caught your eye, and be specific. Schedule phone calls. Make yourself available to answer any questions they have. Your expertise is your greatest recruiting asset.
  • If your incoming Bookmarks exceeded your outgoing Bookmarks – you are probably missing out on great students! Your program is getting a lot of attention that is going unreciprocated, and if that’s not intentional (as in, they are not students you are interested in), your recruiting funnel has a leak! Consider adding more Collaborators who can review incoming Bookmarks and potentially send a Bookmark (and a message) back, and schedule those phone calls! You’ll definitely want to make the most of students seeking YOU out since they’ve already expressed interest on their end.
  • If your outgoing Bookmarks exceeded your incoming Bookmarks, analyze why your outgoing Bookmarks may not be reciprocated. Is your profile page missing information that may attract students? Are you following up Bookmarks with a warm, personal message to students to tell them why you are interested in them specifically? If not, you may be missing out on making quality connections (students may think you are blanket Bookmarking anyone who fits your criteria). Could your program benefit from having more collaborators engaging with Bookmarked students?

You may also consider using the Stop-Continue-Start framework to connect the dots from your current state to your ideal state.

Stop: Identify activities or initiatives that were unsuccessful or not as productive as you had hoped. If you’re not getting engagement with group messaging, stop sending them. Did you try something new that didn’t work out the way you thought they would? These are the types of things that should be stopped, as the time you spend on these things could be better used in the future (e.g. on the activities you will be continuing or starting).

Continue: Identify areas of strength and past success. What has your team done that has produced great results? Are these initiatives repeatable or scalable? List those activities in this category, as these are the types of initiatives you should definitely continue to leverage (and scale, if possible) to achieve recruiting success. Note: This category can also include activities that may not have been hugely successful, but can be modified to produce better results.

Start: Identify a few tactics you’d like to start this year. These may be things you have seen other programs do with great results or just new ideas you’d like to test. Based on what you decided in Step 2, specify a few tactics that will help you better achieve your stated goals.

The list you just created will allow you to see clearly where your energy is best spent and how to trim the fat. From this list, write out a specific Action Plan that outlines particular goals. These goals should be realistic and quantifiable, and can include things like:

  • How many Bookmarks you’d like to send each month (outgoing)
  • How many Bookmarks you’d like to receive each month (incoming)
  • How many Bookmarks you’d like to send to prospects who meet certain criteria (e.g. URM, particular background or experience, etc).
  • How many candidates you’d like to send personal messages to
  • How many prospects you’d like to schedule calls with
  • How many active collaborators you’d like to have (Pro Tip: Set up different kinds of users – faculty, current students, admin, etc – as Collaborators so that interested students are getting all of the information and attention they need and deserve. More is usually better, but definitely prioritize quality over quantity)

Using the S.M.A.R.T. goal format, try to structure your goals as follows: Reach out (actionable) to ________ (specific, measurable, agreed-upon) students using Gradschoolmatch by _________ (time-based).

3. Go forth and prosper!

This step will take a little longer than others, as you probably guessed. This is when you put your plan to work, where the rubber meets the road. Leverage your team’s strengths to implement your Action Plan – divide and conquer, if you will. Using your Gradschoolmatch account, identify students who would be a great fit for your program(s) and make a personal connection early on. Refer back to your Action Plan to make sure you are staying on track, from time to time.

4. Don’t forget the feedback loop

Rinse and repeat AKA review your action plan and make a new one.
No Action Plan is foolproof or universal so make sure to revisit it every year to make necessary changes based on the outcomes you achieved.

This is the “rinse and repeat” portion of the activity. You must revisit your plan after each recruiting cycle for this process to work well. Refer back to your S.M.A.R.T. goals to see how your results stacked up. Go back through the Start-Stop-Continue framework and adjust your goals for the following year.

Need help collecting insights from your dashboard or developing an Action Plan based on what you’re seeing? Contact us! We’d love to help you make the most of your account using our new Dashboard tool and get you set up for a successful 2017!


Data Take the Wheel: Your New Dashboard and How to Use It

As academics ourselves, we know we don’t have to sell you on the importance of data and the value of data-based decision-making. With that (and your feedback) in mind, we recently designed and launched a Program Dashboard to help you monitor your Programs’ performance at a glance (see our example below).

Dashboard insights are a powerful way to: 

  • Assess program performance in real-time by analyzing the number of ingoing and outgoing bookmarks. Ideally, your programs are receiving a good number of incoming bookmarks as well as proactively bookmarking prospective students.
  • Identify best practices and opportunities for improvement with programs that are not using the platform to its full potential. Find out what the successful programs are doing well and how others can learn from them.  
  • Develop benchmarks and an action plan for the coming year based on admission goals. Decide on target numbers for the coming year and stay tuned for our next post on how to turn your Dashboard insights into action.

We envisioned the Dashboard as a place for program users to gather all the insights you need to take action and make the most of your subscription. Here, you can monitor the programs in your account and make changes immediately. Let’s take a closer look by clicking on one of the Programs (Architecture, in this case).

The dashboard allows you to quickly monitor three key metrics.Using the Dashboard, you can easily keep tabs on three key metrics (called out in the above image):

  1. Program Profile completion – Is your profile complete and does it provide prospects with all pertinent information? Your goal here is 100% completion.
  2. Engagement with prospective students  – Is your program receiving more interest from students than your Collaborators can handle? Together, these numbers are a key indicator of how much interest a program is generating. Your target number here depends on your program size, but you should strive to maximize the number of bookmarks your program receives.
  3. Usage by Collaborators – Who are your top Collaborators? Are all of your Collaborators connecting with prospective students? Ideally, you’ve selected different kinds of Collaborators (faculty, staff and students) to answer different kinds of questions and they have all learned how to use the platform.

We built the dashboard with you (our Program users) in mind, and we hope you find it really useful. We think the new Dashboard will enhance the program user experience by making Gradschoolmatch easier to do the things you need to do to be successful. And like we said, stay tuned for our step-by-step post on how to build an action plan using the new Dashboard.

If we can help you maximize the data from this new tool, or if you have any feedback on it, please don’t hesitate to contact us . We would love to hear from you!


“The Right Match”: How Gradschoolmatch Launched One Student’s Career

The Right Match (Diverse Issues in Higher Education, September 8, 2016).

Student who found perfect match in her new graduate program.
Source: Diverse Issues in Higher Education

“The first time Alyssa Rodriguez applied to graduate school, she ended up being waitlisted. But when no spot opened up, she began work as an associate scientist at a small biopharmaceutical company in San Diego.

“My original plan was to work in [the] industry for at least two years and then apply to graduate school again,” says Rodriguez, who graduated from the University of San Diego in 2015 with a degree in biochemistry. Once I had accepted the fact that I would not be starting graduate school in fall 2015, I started my graduate school research once again that summer.”

Only this time around, Rodriguez discovered and ultimately decided to use – a new website that seeks to match prospective grad school students with graduate schools.

It only took a day before Rodriguez started to see results.

“The next day, I checked my profile and was very surprised to see that I had already received messages from various graduate school program directors,” Rodriguez says. “I was in such shock that I shared the news with my mom that programs were interested in my profile.”

Rodriguez says what surprised her the most was that she could clearly see that the messages were “not spam and that truly there were assistant deans and directors on the other end of the message.”

One of those messages came from Beth Bowman, assistant director of graduate programs in biomedical sciences at Vanderbilt University.

Bowman considers a “fantastic avenue for graduate programs to get to know individual candidates in the global applicant pool.”

“This sort of individual communication not only allows programs to showcase what they have to offer, but also allows a program to individualize their communication to a specific student,” Bowman says. “Personal recruiting is the best avenue to bring students to any program and GradSchoolMatch makes this ideal recruiting strategy a reality.”

Asked if the website was simply a nice thing to have or a necessity to attract and engage candidates, Bowman says: “I think more and more, this site is getting close to being a necessity for graduate program recruiting for any program interested in getting to know their applicants.

“These days, there are so many programs on the site that a student may miss out on a program that doesn’t have a presence here.”

Bowman says the website – which is free to students – helps facilitate the diversity of candidates as well.

“In my mind, this site helps to promote diversity of candidates in the program simply by being a free site and avenue for programs and candidates to get to know each other,” Bowman says. “This helps to remove any cost barrier that is typically present in a graduate program application process.”

Bowman says the website has helped Vanderbilt by increasing the number of candidates that the school can communicate with during the application process. “We are pleased to be able to pick the candidates that fit our program best,” Bowman says.

Inside the site was started by T.J. Murphy, an associate professor of pharmacology at Emory University.

He says that the website has around 400,000 user profiles and that the number is growing daily. About 30 percent of the student users are underrepresented minorities and about 20 percent are from overseas, he says.

The students come from a range of academic disciplines and specializations, Murphy says.”

Please click here to read the complete article in Diverse Issues in Higher Education (September 8, 2016).


Most Students Relocate to Attend Graduate School

Move_LocationLocation is an important consideration when someone decides to go to graduate school. The vast majority of graduate students, it turns out, are willing, able and make the move. In our national, randomized survey of current graduate students we asked if they had moved in order to attend graduate school. As you can see in the first figure, almost 87% of the respondents enrolled in graduate programs that required a relocation.

Half of all students reported staying within the same region of the country as their previous residence, a number that includes the 13% of students who did not relocate at all.

That half our respondents would not stray far is an interesting finding, but it doesn’t surprise us. Moving, while staying at least within the same region of one’s previous residence, is most likely a reflection of the strength of things familiar.

It may be that students want to remain close to family and friends, but we suspect it also reflects an indication of how far university “brands” are able to reach prospective graduate students. Most brands are better known in the minds of prospects who live nearby, whereas brands are probably less well known by prospects living farther away.

We did some further analysis to get a better sense of which students stay close to home compared to those who choose programs in a new city or even a new country.

Where a student chooses to go to graduate school depends on the level of degree they plan to pursue. Respondent’s location and program type are shown in the second figure.  Students pursuing Certificate and Master’s degrees tended to stay closer to home, with more than 65% of students choosing a graduate school in the same state or region as their previous residence. This number drops to about 40% for students pursuing Doctoral or Dual Degrees.

Students Relocate

Students attending graduate school in the same state as their previous residence applied on average to the fewest number of programs, 3.8. While students attending schools further from home applied to higher numbers of programs, 5.6 for students within their region, 5.9 for students in a program outside the region of their previous residence, and 6.0 for students moving to the United States from another country.

While the students staying close to home applied to the fewest programs, they had the highest average acceptance rate. Students attending school in the same state had an acceptance rate of 57% compared to a 52% acceptance rate overall. Those students moving to a different state within their region, outside of their region and outside of their country had decreasing acceptance rates with an average of 54%, 50% and 45% respectively.

In summary, the vast majority of graduate students appear willing and able to move to enroll in graduate school. Competition for the better students who live nearby is stiff, because they apply to fewer programs and get accepted into more. These survey results indicate that to recruit more successfully, graduate programs will need a strategy to proactively reach out to prospects beyond their geographic boundaries. The data show that most students will relocate to attend graduate school. They just need to hear from programs they probably don’t even know exist.


Check out the other articles on our current graduate student survey:

Survey of Current Graduate Students

Graduate Student Survey – Demographics and Fields of Study

Students Don’t Apply to Many Graduate Programs

Getting Into Grad School – How to Improve Your Chances

Are Grad Students Happy?

How to Choose the Right Graduate School


Are We At Peak Master’s Degree? Part 1

peak masters

The declining levels of graduate school enrollment at non-profit US universities begs several questions. One is whether this is systemic problem or does it affect a specific graduate degree level? Since about 75% of all graduate awards each year are Master’s, declining Master’s program enrollment seems most likely to be the culprit for the 4% drop in enrollment since 2011.

It turns out, government data doesn’t break out enrollment by level of degree program, it only counts heads in school as either graduate or undergraduate. Therefore, one way to get some insight into where the impact is being felt is to look at awards data for graduate degrees, for which levels are reported.

If enrollment is dropping in Master’s degrees programs, we’d expect to see a commensurate effect on the award levels, but one that trails enrollment as the enrolled students finish their degrees but are not replaced at the old rates of matriculation.

Sure enough, for the past three years the number of Master’s degrees awarded has not dropped, but it has remained basically constant, changing 0% year-on-year since 2012. Leading up to 2011, the number of Master’s awarded had been growing at 5.2% clip year-on-year. On the accompanying chart, the end of the red line should be at the point where the existing orange line ends. This is what lost opportunity looks like.

Things never change all that fast at universities, so what we’re witnessing here is a bit like the bus hitting the proverbial brick wall while accelerating up to city street speed. Not a total calamity, but it can’t really be sustained for much longer.

The growth in doctoral awards of all kinds has not really changed much, and is moving along at about a 2.5% pace. Parenthetically, it is hard to see in the flat slope of that green doctorate curve above evidence that the US system is producing too many doctorates. We’re probably producing all that we can afford to produce given the resources.

What I think is really interesting is the relatively phenomenal growth in the awards of graduate certificates. Though fewer in number, they seem to be gaining steam. Relatively rare in the 90’s, almost 400% more were awarded in 2014 compared to 1992. In that same period Master’s awards doubled and whereas doctorates increased by about a half. Since 2011, the year of peak graduate school enrollment, certificates awards have grown at a 5.3% annual rate.

All of this very well could reflect a fundamental shift of the demand out there for the 2 to 3 year “half of a doctorate” Master’s degree. Time will tell. But it really begs the question: Have we reached peak Master’s degree? Is the Master’s value proposition diminishing? Will graduate certificates become the new Master’s?

Or is this just regression towards the mean?

See also, Are We At Peak Masters? Part 2




Hey, Non-Profit Graduate School Enrollment is Declining Too

I’ve been munging around a bit with graduate school enrollment and award data for US universities to get a sense of the overall trends and, at least in my mind, the picture is coming into focus. We’re in an unstable period right now and I think most of the people in graduate admissions and recruitment offices that we speak with on a daily basis are sensing that things are different than before. Our sense is that those at the front lines, the program directors we speak with, seem to feel things more sharply. If I had to summarize those conversations simply, we’re hearing stories of excess seat capacity and that fewer good applicants are applying.

The data visualization that seems to tell the full story for the non-profit universities only is right here in this graph, showing declines in both total and population-adjusted enrollment trends. What this shows is graduate school enrollment has declined sharply from a peak in 2011. The decline is a lot worse when the data are adjusted for US population levels. That’s almost 4% below the peak year of 2011 in a system used to growing about 0.6% year-on-year.

Separately, since starting the Gradschoolmatch project I’ve pretty much arrived at the conclusion that graduate enrollment is demand-driven. We look at our acceptance rates and like to think we’re highly selective, but that’s not exactly true. For example, as one data point to illustrate this conclusion, decent applicants (the ones who actually get into graduate school–the ones programs all want) don’t apply to many programs and are accepted by most to which they apply. They just hold the cards.

Another reason to conclude this is a demand-driven market is that for the most part, as a group, graduate schools are really poor at creating more demand. We either don’t adequately support a marketing effort or consider the marketing of our programs as an unnecessary expense. We therefore leave it to chance whether prospects find us. We don’t calculate very well the return on what a modest marketing investment can bring. We fail to see in our cost/benefit metrics how strongly even a single matriculate can drive tuition revenue or perhaps even research dollars from their discoveries.

When we recruit prospects we do so reactively, rather than proactively. For example, for the programs that do recruit, for most it only happens after an application comes in over that transom, not before it. This process of waiting and hoping is not one that creates demand.

Let’s face it, we academics are so crappy at communicating the value proposition of our universities and degree programs to prospects that we’d also probably struggle to sell a life jacket on the deck of the Titanic. When we have tried to be more proactive, we’ve bought into disappointing high cost/low precision/low yield services, when the very nature of our product, the single highly specialized graduate program, requires low cost/high precision/high yield marketing services.

Taken in this light, these enrollment numbers are just another data point I see suggesting quite strongly that the overall demand for graduate degrees is falling. Although this may just be regression to the mean, I also can’t help but wonder if we’re in a period where this is, in fact, a new normal. What concerns me is that the toxic combination of changing economic demographics, the continued spiraling costs of attending universities and excessive undergraduate student loan burden has fundamentally disrupted the appetites of people for advanced degrees. Despite the fact that the economy pays them so well and can’t seen to employ enough of them.

Declining demand is almost certainly exacerbated by the inability of specific degree programs to effectively communicate their value proposition to prospective students.

For example, if you read the twitter and blog internets of the many unhappy students out there regularly sharing their feelings, you’d be surprised to know that the vast majority of current graduate students are actually quite satisfied with their enrollment decisions. They should be, since they put a ton of effort into making their decisions and often without a lot of help from those of us in programs guiding them to us.

The graph above has enrollment numbers at for-profit universities stripped out of the data. The enrollment at for-profits is low relative to that at non-profit institutions, but it is not insignificant. For-profits are actually experiencing a more dramatic bust cycle than are the non-profits. I’ve excluded those data even though that cycle probably shares some of the drive affecting non-profit enrollment, because for-profits are also complicated by a very different dynamic than what problems might be afflicting the traditional universities.


Students Don’t Apply to Many Graduate Programs

A principle goal of our randomized national survey of current graduate students (see an introduction and our methods here) is to better understand the application strategies of successful students. Such insight would be useful to graduate programs seeking to deepen the quality of their application pools.

Our survey respondents self-reported that they applied to anywhere from one to 30 different graduate programs, with a surprisingly large fraction, 22% of students, applying to just a single program. Approximately three-quarters of our current graduate respondents applied to 6 or fewer programs.

The median number of programs our survey respondents applied to is only four and they were accepted by a median of two programs. Overall, the respondents were accepted by an average of two-thirds of the programs that they applied to.

We segmented our respondents on the basis of the award level for the programs they are currently enrolled in and this data is shown in the accompanying figure. The application number increases for students applying to more comprehensive degree programs with an inverse relationship to acceptance rates.

For example, the median number of applications prepared by our respondents enrolled in a master’s program is only 3. The master’s students were accepted into an average of ~80% of the programs to which they applied. Doctoral students applied to twice as many programs as master’s applicants and they were accepted by more than half of the programs they applied to.

Together, these data indicate that successful graduate students don’t apply to many programs, and they are accepted by the majority of programs they apply to.

What this means for graduate programs

There are hundreds of worthy graduate programs at strong universities in any given academic specialty. Students have many options, and the best applicants are sought by many programs. These survey data show that a typical prospect will apply to only a very small group of programs that would otherwise be of interest to them.

This, of course, makes sense. Applying to graduate school takes a lot of effort and the costs quickly add up. However, even if it were easy and inexpensive for students to apply, prospects can’t possibly explore every conceivable option. Students instead invest their time and effort into researching the relevant programs that pop up on their radar, eventually applying to the small handful that seem to match their needs.

Programs that receive many applications should resist the temptation to become complacent with their overall application numbers. They are likely missing out on scores of top prospects simply because these candidates are unaware the program exists. If a program’s goal is to build a deeper and stronger application pool, the first step is to get on the applicant’s radar.

But even this is not enough. Programs must also effectively communicate their value proposition. That case can be made by taking the known assets and advantages of their program in consideration with the unique interests of a prospect. One can’t expect that value proposition to be immediately obvious to a prospect.

In the end, the goal is to convince prospects who, as a general rule do not apply to many program, that it is worth their time and effort to prepare just one additional application.



Check out the other articles on our current graduate student survey:

Survey of Current Graduate Students

Graduate Student Survey – Demographics and Fields of Study

Getting Into Grad School – How to Improve Your Chances

Are Grad Students Happy?

How to Choose the RIGHT Graduate School