What do students want from virtual open days?

virtual open day

After enduring over a year of lockdown restrictions, the majority of Year 13s starting university in September have never visited a campus.

It looks likely that in-person events will resume this summer; however, we predict that virtual events will continue to play a key role in applicants’ decision-making journeys.

Attending multiple open days can be costly (e.g. train tickets/petrol money) or difficult for students to organise (e.g taking time off school, conflicting commitments), and virtual open days offer a valuable alternative by providing on-demand and/or remote access to universities.

Student feedback on 2020 virtual open days

 “I really wish I could go and visit. I hate everything being online. I found it hard to navigate and found some of my questions were left unanswered.”

“At first i wasnt so sure with it being virtual if it would be any good but it was great, i heard from student past and present got a tour of some of the accommodation as well as the subject talk and live chat…So glad i went and would recommend that others go!”

“A visual tour would be good and if we were given an opportunity to speak with current students doing the course we applied for…I have no idea who to firm as my information about the uni is limited so I can’t make a decision that is as important as picking a uni to spend 4 years of my life in.”

“I’ve tried virtual open days before, but they feel very fake/staged compared to going to an actual open day :dontknow:

So, what do students want from virtual open days in 2021?

Students share their views in our open day polls

In March, we asked Year 12 and 13 to tell us how they would make decisions about university – the top result was: ‘virtual campus tours/open days’ (24.31%), closely followed by ‘an in-person event when available’ (23.58%) and ‘a uni comparison tool’ (22.85%).

This month we followed up by asking students to vote and comment on: “What would make a great online university open day?”

Here are our top tips, based on their responses:

Let applicants talk to your current students

The top choice in our student poll, with 23% of all votes, was ‘speak to current students studying my course’. An additional 4% wanted to ‘speak to current students about uni in general’.

By comparison, around 3% of votes went to ‘webinars with lecturers,’ which tells us that there is a strong appetite for authentic conversations at peer level.

We invited poll respondents to explain their answers on the thread to get further insights:

Speaking to current students is really helpful to understand if the course is for me and to ask questions
“webinar on…students tell[ing] potential students what they think about the city, the uni and what it has to offer (societies, eateries banks etc)
“Video testimonials from former students who have done well.”
“a ‘day in the life’ presentation or video would be really invaluable

From these comments, it’s clear that applicants want to gain a better understanding of what university will be like by talking to students who are currently experiencing it. Trust and authenticity are important factors in how applicants make decisions, as this student comment shows:

“its hard to trust an online event because of course they’re only gonna show you the best parts of the uni. It’s difficult to get a vibe of the place yk?”

Top tip: While FAQs, video recordings and testimonials offer a useful window into the student world, they do not offer applicants an opportunity to ask more unique or personal questions which may be key to their decision-making. Conversation is a two-way street which relies on human connection, so why not use: live chat, telephone, webinars, meeting bookings or Official Reps to communicate with prospects?

Invite them to a taster lecture or seminar

‘Taster lectures or seminar’ received 21.64% of the votes, making it the second most popular choice.

It’s important for students to sample course content because this helps them to make an informed decision about whether it will suit them.

There are many factors for applicants to consider, including the teaching quality, assessment style, their aptitude for the subject, and whether they think they would enjoy the content.

In some cases, they may not have studied the subject at school and this will be their first exposure to this field of learning.

“100% have webinars on subjects complete with questions and answers afterwards.

Top tip: finding the right course is one of the key decisions for students. Providing on-demand recordings of lectures or seminars will mean that if students miss the live event they can still get a feel for how your course compares to other universities. Here’s a student conversation which illustrates this point:

“did u go the comp sci virtual visit day? I missed it so I was just wondering what it was like if u went”
“Yikes, I didn’t know there was one on. When was it?”
“I’m so annoyed that I missed it…there’s a virtual open event happening at some point in June but idk if it’s comp sci specific”

Give them a (virtual) tour

The pandemic has prevented many students from visiting universities in person, but choosing where to live for the next three (plus) years of their lives is a big decision. It’s not surprising that ‘virtual campus tour’ (18.21%) and ‘virtual accommodation tour’ (14.51%) were popular choices in our poll.

We know that most universities offer some kind of virtual tour, but this student comment shows that the quality of your tours is key:

“Campus tour is good. Accommodation should be better anyway on uni websites with lots of videos of each accommodation type (York is a good one with the layout of the flat as if you are walking there by clicking on the corridor)”

Although lockdown restrictions are expected to end in June, this will not be soon enough for some applicants (we are thinking in particular of the challenges facing international students and those who are still fearful about meeting others face-to-face).

Top tip: Good virtual tours approximate the experience of visiting your campus or accommodation as closely as possible. Don’t just show applicants the best bits. If you can allow them to virtually walk around a space, this works well.

Bonus tip: Remember university is a big emotional and financial decision for students

One of the key challenges for virtual event providers is how to stop audiences from feeling disconnected, disengaged, or distracted when communicating in a digital space.

For applicants, this is the biggest decision of their lives so far, so it’s essential to tap into the positive emotions that will influence their choices.

The best way to do this is to make them feel valued as individuals, so wherever possible, give attendees a chance to ask questions or engage directly with current students or staff.

Want more insights about university open days?

Attend our webinar ‘The Covid Cohort: Understanding 2022 applicants’ at 10am on 6 May. We’ll be revealing unseen research about what 2022 applicants want from virtual events. Sign up here.

You can also check out our open day packages here.

Contact us about open day campaigns:

0800 999 3222

Author: Katie Hale