Beyond Rankings: Telling the real university experience


With a flurry of fresh faces on campus, fall marks an end to one enrollment cycle and brings in the start of the 2024 cohort’s higher education journey. For college marketing teams, it’s a whirlwind of frantic planning, strategizing and lots of coffee – all in preparation for the student marketing campaigns for the academic year ahead.

Against this backdrop of new chapters and fresh starts, the eagerly awaited US News rankings has already made its debut, with the publication of the highly esteemed global equivalent Times Higher Education World University Rankings not far behind.


Building brand awareness with university rankings


In the world of academia, rankings certainly have their place. Sure – universities are always happy to receive third party coverage (at least if they’re positive). But when it comes to rankings and league tables, annually they’re left waiting with bated breath to see how their school has fared in comparison to long standing competitors and new schools on the block. You can find the various badges of recognition plastered on university websites, and to a degree – rightly so. They act as a general yet reliable yardstick, gesturing towards the standards of the institution and a confirmation of the improvements they’ve been working hard on all year. 

But when it comes to university league table metrics, ultimately – students don’t really care, at least at undergraduate level. It’s like a favorite  TV show that you love, but the critics hate. Think Love is Blind- you may love it despite your better judgment. It’s not exactly high brow television. Do you really care? No. Do you still watch it because it’s fun? Yes. 

Many of these rankings are very well respected, yet the metrics aren’t very compelling to anyone who isn’t an academic, much less a Gen-Z teen. ‘Research intensity’? ‘Academic services spend’? These rankings are far more effective at satisfying academic egos as opposed to grassroots student recruitment. For prospective students who are learning about their options of where they will live and learn for the next four years – these factors aren’t priorities on the list of considerations. 

According to TSR’s Navigating Changing Options survey for 2024, only 28% of prospective students find their information from university rankings. Instead, they favor university websites, online forums and social media (amongst other sources). This all points in a specific direction – students want to read between the traditional lines. These rankings simplify the university experience into a few mere numbers and statistics, completely void of context, when the narratives worth telling extend far beyond this. Students want a deeper understanding of what makes an institution unique, so it’s no surprise they’re seeking a bigger picture elsewhere.


Telling the full story with targeted campaigns


Finding the right university is an individual endeavor, so personal experiences and anecdotes from peers are often the most powerful tool when it comes to student marketing, and ultimately – recruitment. 

So what do students actually care about?

  • Instead of focusing on student-to-staff ratios, try first hand stories from students about their favorite seminars or modules, professor dynamism or how they were assessed. A personal story about a particularly stand-out and inspiring professor or how a student’s time in the lab has persuaded them to pursue a Phd – all told through student generated content, is sure to have a deeper impact.
  • Rather than simplifying graduate prospects into a meaningless statistic, showcase how students believe their university experience has prepared them for the world of work.
  • Highlight the universities commitment to financial support by weaving real narratives of how students have received support from the university, instead of fixating on metrics like ‘spend per student score’.


There’s a reason why Youtube, TikTok and user generated content at large is having its moment. Prospects and students want real connections, real experiences, real stories. 

University rankings are just one small piece of the wider puzzle that is the college experience. Sure, they do matter – but they aren’t completely determinative. A university can’t change where it sits in the rankings overnight, but it can change its messaging. To truly build brand recognition and awareness in the minds of the student market, institutions should embrace targeted, content driven digital campaigns that tell a more comprehensive story.

By showcasing real stories and experiences, universities can paint a more vivid and compelling picture – one that goes far beyond the numbers on a ranking table.