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If recruiting more international students is becoming a priority for your institution (and where isn’t it?), understanding how global prospects will interact with your website is critical to improving results.

Here are five ways international students view your site differently than their domestic counterparts:

1) They are rarely native English speakers.
Just because they’re going to do a program in English doesn’t mean it’s as easy for them to read your website as it is for native speakers. Making this even more complicated, they may be much more familiar with British higher ed terminology – and words like “fees”, “faculty”, “halls”, “marks”, etc. mean entirely different things in the US.

What does this mean for your site?
Rely on images and video to communicate important messages and give international prospects a sense of place. Text should be written in simple, easy-to-understand language that avoids idioms, jargon, and huge blocks of text – particularly because international students are also more likely than your domestic prospects to be visiting the site via a mobile device! Use “global” English, explaining really important terms and/or using both the British and American English variants.

2) Their parents may not speak English at all.
The decision about where to study is made with the parents or even extended family in many countries – and the benefit US parents have is that they can usually read the university websites just as easily as their kids can. This may not be the case for parents of international prospects.

What does this mean for your site?
If you decide to translate some key text for your priority markets, make sure to cover things that parents are likely to want to know: university profile, info about funding, safety, etc. Some universities are creating videos of international students speaking in their own languages, but this would be a great idea for international parents as well.

3) They don’t have the domestic context to understand specifics of the higher ed system, your local town, or institution.
It’s tough to guess what international prospects might not understand on your website, so this is where focus groups or user testing can come in handy. Things that are extremely obvious to you, like the fact that we can enter PhD programs directly after the bachelor’s degree in the US, or what “homecoming” entails, may draw a total blank with your international visitors.

What does this mean for your site?
Avoid “insider language” as much as possible, particularly acronyms that relate to university offices or places on campus – the last thing you want is for international students to feel stupid for not understanding something they shouldn’t be expected to know! Explain things that may not be obvious to people from outside the US – and double check with current prospects or international students where someone might get confused.

4) They are generally (even more!) career focused.
This is a broad generalization, but students who leave their countries for education often do so to gain access to better higher education options than they have at home and, ultimately, better career prospects. It seems to no longer be the case that the majority of students want to stay in the US beyond an OPT year, but they need to know that your degree will be worth the expense and stress involved in studying overseas.

What does this mean for your site?
Keep international students in mind when discussing things like internships, career services, etc. Very often the content on individual program pages or for the career services office is targeted at domestic candidates only with little thought about what help international students might need or want in finding a placement for OPT or access to the alumni network back home.

5) They (and their parents) worry most about money and safety.
The 2014 international “E-Expectations” report by Noel-Levitz showed how funding, safety on campus, and safety in the surrounding area are the three “top concerns for international students”. Their parents are probably even more concerned.

What does this mean for your site?
Clear information about funding is critical for many international students – as is information about safety that may seem superfluous to domestic candidates. The safety concern is anecdotally growing even more important as campus shootings rise, so giving concrete data or info about why students are as safe as possible on your campus and in your city or town is important.

It’s difficult to generalize about “international” students since they represent such a diverse group of countries, disciplines, individual backgrounds, and so on. Prioritizing your target markets and doing research to improve your website can really pay off in terms of generating new leads and yield rates. At the very basic level, though, simply trying to put yourself in the shoes of a nervous, excited prospective student living very, very far from your campus will already help create content that speaks to their particular needs and concerns!

Megan Brenn-White has nearly two decades of experience in international education and content development, most of which has been helping higher education institutions communicate more effectively online with international audiences. She founded The Brenn-White Group in 2010.

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