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Enrollment Insights Blog

Insights from Secret Shopping Traditional 4-Year Undergraduate Admissions

This research is from 2019. If you’re looking for the most up-to-date research, find it here.

Estimated read time – 8 minutes

Print materials from a college.

Are you sending too many emails to students? What about your print communications flow? Are your student telecounselors being used effectively? Is your inquiry form set up to maximize the signup rate and provide a good user experience? How would you know?

Benchmarks are invaluable to the work we do in enrollment management, but they can often be hard to come by. Finding benchmarks that are segmented and more applicable to your institution are even harder to find. Last year I decided to build my own benchmarks for the inquiry process, and after some conversations, I decided to open the playbook and share what I had learned. This isn’t likely to be the largest secret shopping project going on, but it’s the largest one that was shared with everyone.

The Method

I wanted to know how traditional undergraduate schools communicated to their inquiries, so I selected a group of schools and filled out their online inquiry forms, and tracked the responses in a spreadsheet with dates for each piece. This project was done while I worked at Manchester University, so I identified our peer and aspirational schools, as well as other institutions in Indiana, and reached out to schools that I wanted to know more about based on things I had seen or people I knew.

In total, 49 schools were identified and contacted. I filled out the forms on 8/30/18 in the persona of a high school senior interested in a business major with no music or athletic interest. I created an email address just for the secret shopping and a Google Voice number that was used for tracking calls and texts.

The Results

Inquiry forms

  • Average number of fields – 19
  • Only 4 institutions had fewer than ten fields.
  • 10 institutions made the forms very difficult to find and site search had to be used. 2 could not be found with site search and had to be found with Google.
  • 1 institution did not have an inquiry form. Your only options were to apply or visit.
  • Public institutions averaged 17 fields, but only 33% used an autoresponder.
  • Private institutions averaged 20 fields and 51% of them used autoresponders.
  • 2 institutions never responded beyond the autoresponder.

Communicating with inquiries

  • Average number of contacts per institution within first 7 days – 1
  • Average number of contacts per institution within first 30 days – 3
  • Average total number of contacts per institution – 26
  • Average emails per institution – 22
  • Average mailings per institution – 4
  • Average personal outreaches/institution (call/text/handwritten card) – 0.6
  • Only 46% of institutions sent information about my declared major interest. One sent information about their art program instead.
  • Public institutions were more responsive early and decreased frequency over time.
  • Private institutions took longer to respond and increased frequency over time, but sent more relevant and personalized information.
  • Neither public or private colleges provided quick responses to inquiries. Outside of autoresponders nobody called or made a personal outreach attempt.

Action Items – How to use this information

Inquiry forms

  • Fewer fields leads to higher conversion rates. Look at the traffic to your inquiry form vs the number of inquiries captured to determine your own conversion rate. There is no reason to have more than name, email, entry year/term, and any other identifier you need to assign a counselor in your CRM. If you qualify them in some other way prior to putting them in your CRM you need even less. 
  • Great practice: One institution had the form embedded site-wide. Since every page is a landing page for students researching your institution, you should treat them that way. Don’t expect students to take a flow from the homepage to admissions and then to the inquiry form in the way your site is structured. Use the journey mapping in Google Analytics to track their current flow and prioritize pages to test placements.
  • Don’t disregard your autoresponders. This is an opportunity to make a first impression! Think about the subject line and the sender, here are three examples of how not to do it:
  • They weren’t all bad, in fact most subject lines and senders were well done. Many told you who it was from in both the sender and subject and didn’t sound like a robot speaking to you. This was the strongest autoresponder I received. I like the tone and the resources linked to, but it still didn’t teach me more about the school or culture and “proposes on the first date” with the first link being to the application. Also love the offer for phone backgrounds in this, definitely unique.
Image of an autoresponse from a college with links to application, majors, and downloads for phone backgrounds.

Communicating with inquiries:

  • Almost every institution ignored one very important thing: Students fill out a request for information form to learn more about your school, or to request information. Do not make your autoresponder and early communication flows solely about steps to apply. Students know how to apply, and if they were ready to they would have applied. Instead they want to get to know more about you, opportunities on campus, unique experiences, student stories, and insider advice to succeed and make their college dream affordable. Answer their request and respond to the questions that those of us with the experience know they will have before they are forced to ask, because they may never do so, and we owe it to them to support their success.
  • If your inquiry form collects an enormous amount of information (which it doesn’t need to) then your communication flow better use that information. At a minimum, if a student tells you their academic interest, then that information needs to be included your communication flow. Your emails can be highly targeted to every major you offer, and if you have information about their extracurricular, artistic, or athletic interest, it should be used as well. Your print flow can be customized as well, although at a higher cost. 
  • If a student took the time to come to you and say they were interested, they should be responded to quickly, while they’re still in the mindset of looking at your school. If you can’t do it with personnel due to volume, at least have a great autoresponder that does more than acknowledge that they inquired. Provide next steps, information about upcoming events, student stories, exciting outcomes, videos, social links, SOMETHING other than “you inquired, we’ll be in touch” or “here are the steps to apply.” 
  • Make sure your communication flow acknowledges that they came to you. These students have a very different mindset and level of awareness than others, especially prospect names. You could even have multiple identical forms in different places on the site and customize the communications to the location of the form and the content of the page it came from, or the campaign landing page in the case of digital ads. Get creative and try new things to improve your yield. There will be a significant investment of time, but can you afford not to improve your results in the current climate?
  • Test using an emoji or two in a subject line. When you receive a lot of emails it can really make them stand out. Don’t get crazy and have excessive amounts, but test it out and measure how it affects your open and click through rates.


For this particular secret shopping project, the only differences seen were in whether the institution was public or private. The size of the institution didn’t change the communication volumes, interestingly. Here are some benchmarks to help you compare where you stand. As identified, these are all traditional 4-year institutions and the process was based on an inquiry from a first-time domestic undergraduate student.

Benchmarks: Fields on Inquiry Form, Private 20, Public 17. 7 day contacts, Private 1, Public 2. 30 day contacts, Private 2, Public 4. Total contacts, Private 28, Public 17. Emails, Private 24, Public 16. Mail, Private 4, Public 1.

And here are the percentage of institutions falling into each category:

Benchmarks: Used autoresponders, Private 51%, Public 33%. First contact within 7 days, Private 60%, Public 89%. Used Email, private 92%, Public 89%. Used mail, private 80%, public 44%. Used calls/texting, private 23%, public 0%.

What’s next?

For institutions, the next step is to use this data to start conversations and improve the experience and efficiency of the inquiry process, as well as the communications flow that leads to the rest of your enrollment funnel. For me, the next step is benchmarking transfer student processes and 2-year schools. The work is never done. There’s always more to learn!

Prior to coming to Niche in 2019 Will served 9 years at Manchester University in roles as an Admissions Counselor, Associate Director for Admissions Operations, Social Media Coordinator, and ultimately as Digital Strategist. Will surfaces tactical insights from user behavior and surveys to help higher ed build recruitment strategies. In addition to the Enrollment Insights blog, webinars, and podcast; Will is a frequent conference speaker and podcast guest. He has presented at NACAC, AACRAO-SEM, AMA Higher Ed, CASE V, EduWeb, and EMA. Will's work has been featured in Forbes, Inside Higher Ed, CNBC, CNN, the LA Times, and The New York Times among other outlets.