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Discovering how satisfied students are with the application process and what is important to them at this crucial stage in their international education journey can help us improve the services we provide. This information can also help admissions teams develop their processes to provide an enhanced student experience, so they are better able to recruit a diverse, well-qualified student cohort.

In this article we will explore what our most recent Emerging Futures 4 (EF4) survey is telling us about student perceptions and attitudes towards the application process. We will look closely at data on student expectations of acceptable application processing timelines.

EF4 also asks students for their opinions on the use of artificial intelligence (AI) in their international education journey and at which points human interactions are important.

What is important to students when applying to an institution?

We asked more than 3,000 prospective students who had not yet applied what was most important when applying to an institution. Out of three options given, they were ranked in the following order of importance:

  1. That I receive a decision quickly based solely on my past grades and/or predicted grades.

  2. That I receive a slower decision I know has been read and assessed by a member of admissions staff at the institution.

  3. That I receive a slower decision, but it takes into account my work experience, volunteering activities, or aspects of why I want to study the course.

Of the top five respondent source countries for this survey question, students from China, India, Nepal, and Pakistan all chose ‘a quick decision based on grades’ as their most important factor. Students from the Philippines chose differently, opting for ‘a slower decision based on assessment by a member of the admissions team’ as being most important. Students from India and Nepal felt that ‘a slower decision which considered their work experience, volunteering activities or other aspects’ was the second most important option behind ‘a quick decision based on grades’.

The EF4 survey results demonstrate that application processing speed and turnaround times are very important to prospective students. Half of the respondent cohort (intending to study internationally but not applied yet) told us that a quick decision based solely on grades was more important than other application considerations.

IDP’s Emerging Futures dashboards enable our partners to use filters to see the information for the factors that are important in their recruitment strategies. This provides a customized view of student perceptions and motivations that can effectively inform marketing and recruitment messaging.

How long do students think is a reasonable time for a decision on their application?

In our EF4 survey, of the entire cohort (prospective, applied, and current international respondents), most students (40%) feel that between two and four weeks from the date they submit their application is a reasonable amount of time to wait for a decision. Twenty percent think that less than two weeks is a reasonable time to wait.

Of all prospective students (current and applied), 43% said between two and four weeks is reasonable. This has increased by one percentage point since our previous survey (Emerging Futures 3 in March 2023).

In EF3, 18% of all prospective students felt less than two weeks is a reasonable amount of time for a decision; while in EF4, just over 20% of the cohort feel that less than two weeks is reasonable.

In the latest research, prospective students from Nepal and Pakistan (those intending to study and those who have already applied) were most likely to say that less than four weeks is a reasonable time to wait – with 73% and 67% respectively. Students from China and the Philippines were the most patient; 39% and 42% of prospective students from these countries respectively feel more than four weeks is a reasonable time to wait.

In EF4, six out of ten prospective, applied, and current students (60%) said that four weeks or less is a reasonable time to wait for a decision.

When we asked prospective and applied students at what point they would review their choice of institution, 30% told us they would start to reconsider if they have not received a decision from an institution within four weeks. 21% would start to reconsider after two weeks and only a third of respondents (36%) were prepared to wait more than six weeks. From these responses, relating to application processing time frames, we can see how quickly institutions could lose applicants if they do not provide application decisions quickly.

In the graphic below, we show how many students out of every 1,000 applications will reconsider as time goes on after an application is submitted to an institution.

By week 10, the institution might only be left with 130 students out of the original 1,000 applicants. The most qualified applicants may have already been accepted at other institutions.

From our workshops and client interactions, we know that admissions teams have recently been coping with increased volume of applications, and sometimes this has led to delays. Our findings show that many international students are eager to receive a decision quickly, and relatively few are willing to wait more than six weeks. This could mean that some oversubscribed programs with early deadlines and long processing timelines might suffer because some of the best-qualified students may have made other plans by the time they receive their decision.

Student views on the use of AI in the admissions process

In our EF4 survey, we asked students whether they had used or intended to use ChatGPT or any other form of AI during their decision making and application journeys. The results demonstrate drastically different attitudes towards AI from key source markets.

Students from China were the most likely to use AI. In fact, when it came to using AI to help submit applications, the number of ‘Yes’ answers from the China cohort was almost double the global total. Students from India were less likely to use AI than the total global cohort.

We also asked prospective students who had not yet applied whether they expected institutions to use AI to assess all or part of their applications, and the results were mixed. Of the global cohort, 41% said ‘Yes’, 32% said ‘No’ and 27% didn’t know. Once again, students from China were far more likely to expect AI use by the institutions they are applying to – 67% said ‘Yes’.

EF4 data shows some incongruity between what students want in terms of the application process and their expectations of the use of AI, which could speed things up. For example, 73% of prospective and applied students from Nepal said that less than four weeks is a reasonable time to wait for a decision and 56% said they would reconsider their choice of institution if they had not received a decision by four weeks after submitting their application. However, more than a third of this cohort (37%) said they did not expect that institutions would use AI to assess applications.

We wanted to understand whether an institution’s use of AI might affect whether or not students applied and the survey responses showed that international students are more likely to apply if an institution uses AI to make initial assessments of applications but the final decision is made by a member of staff.

We also wanted to understand student attitudes around bias and AI in the admissions process. Of the students we surveyed, 32% felt that the use of AI by institutions may cause discrimination against certain types of students when determining an applicant’s eligibility for a program. However, 35% said it could make the process fairer.

Students from China are most likely to feel the use of AI could make the process fairer (49%), while students from India and the Philippines are most likely to say it may discriminate (35% and 37% respectively).

Students told us that it was most important to have input from a trained counsellor or staff member at the institution during the application phase – more important than while shortlisting and confirming institutions, submitting a visa application or during online research. Combined with other EF4 findings, this shows us that while students want speedy turnaround times which can be facilitated through the use of AI, students still want human interaction at the moments that matter most.

Admissions as a key promotional factor

When we asked international students to score their satisfaction with the admissions process experience, the top first-choice destinations all received similar average scores out of 10: the UK and Canada tie with 7.9, Australia sits in second with 7.8, and the US comes in next with a satisfaction score of 7.5.

These scores mean that students are largely satisfied with the admissions experience, but there is room for improvement. Application processing efficiency continues to be a strong driver in student decision making and swift action in this respect continues to be a key recommendation if institutions wish to avoid losing applicants who may be likely to switch their choices when the process of receiving a decision takes too long.

We recommend that institutions consider how to ensure transparency, particularly in relation to how AI and data science are used in the process; informing students about how their application will be assessed and how decisions are made. Questions of discrimination need to be handled carefully. Use of AI can be transformative for speed and efficiency, but it needs to be employed alongside human decision making or students could see it as discriminatory and, ultimately, a negative part of the process.

As recruitment for ongoing intakes marches on and pipelines fluctuate, some partners are telling us they are not currently in the positions they felt they would be. One of our key insights following evaluation of the EF4 data is that institutions must seek out all immediate and practical actions that will assist with their marketing and recruitment messaging. In terms of admissions, this means letting international students know how their applications will be processed and by giving realistic lead times for a decision.

Rachel MacSween, IDP’s Director of Partnerships & Stakeholder Engagement, UK and Europe, said, “All aspects of your customer service offering which are working well should be used as part of your promotional package. By streamlining your admissions processes and making your decision-making as efficient and quick as possible, you can promote this as a primary ‘reason to apply’ factor.

“Quick admissions’ turnaround times will be especially attractive to particular source market students and especially those choosing popular subjects and programs, who want to ensure they have a place secured as soon as they can.”

Emerging Futures – Powered by IDP research and data science expertise

IDP Core Partners have access to the full Emerging Futures data set within their IQ Demand data dashboards, allowing them to filter survey responses by source market, destination market, and study level.

IDP Connect’s Head of Intelligence and Analytics, Samir Shah said, “Emerging Futures dashboards within our IQ Demand tool are just the start of understanding student motivations and shifts in the market.

Our IQ team also offers customized Analytics and Consultancy services that can deliver actionable recommendations for institutions, using not only responses from the Emerging Futures survey, but student demand and our other unique data sets.”

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Jane Venn
Jane Venn29 January 2024