Students tell us how they pick their schools: Part 2

The factors with the biggest impact on students’ choice of postsecondary institution become more important every year, as schools must increasingly compete with one another to bolster the quality (and in many cases, quantity) of their student bodies.

To delve deeper into this aspect of the postsecondary experience, we asked the members of our StudentVu panel to tell us about which institutions they considered when applying for PSE and how they ended up making the decision to accept (or not).

In Part 1 of this series, we looked at the factors with the most powerful influence on students who apply to only one postsecondary school. In this week’s article, we’ll take a look at those who reported applying to more than one institution.

First and second Place:


While the number of institutions that a student applied to varied across the board, the most common answer was three. After we established this, it was a matter of learning more about how students prioritized these three institutions.

To start, we wanted to make sure that we shared the same understanding of the terms "First choice" and “Second choice” as our students. When given the opportunity to select the definition(s) that they felt best applied to the term, 83% interpreted “Second Choice” to mean a backup institution that they would attend if not accepted to their First Choice. The next most common answer – that it meant the second institution applied to – was only chosen by 15% of respondents. Thus, we can assert that Second-Choice is most commonly viewed as being a backup school.

Most students in this group ended up attending their first-choice schools, but a full quarter said that they went on to attend either their second choice (15%) or another institution (10%). This number was relatively stable regardless of whether these students went on to a college or university, and whether they were a first-generation applicant or not.

How do they feel about their decision?


Those who attended their first choice institution felt that they had a clearer idea of what they were looking for when they applied, and were less likely to say that they would choose a different postsecondary school if they could go back to the time they applied. These results seem fairly intuitive: the student who knows what they want out of PSE and subsequently attends their first choice school will be less inclined to regret their decision later.

What we found interesting – and what we bet you enrolment experts will be intrigued by as well – was that students across the board generally indicated that another postsecondary institution could have swayed their enrolment choice. While those who attended their first choice institution were relatively neutral on the possibility of being swayed by another institution, their counterparts were significantly more likely to feel that the right offer could change their mind.

Making an offer they can’t refuse

When it comes to changing a student’s mind about where to enroll, many institutions will immediately ask: at what price? Students who suggested they could have been swayed were asked what another school could have done to make them change their mind. The majority of students pointed to financial qualities – an offer that included an entrance scholarship (81%) or lower tuition and fees (70%) – as factors that could have swayed their decision. As one respondent put it:

"I ended up changing my mind and didn’t go to my first or second choice despite being accepted, my third choice offered a large scholarship."

Further, about a third of respondents noted that having a better location would have swayed them (35%) – a concern that some campuses meet by playing up the beauty of their location or opening a branch campus. It was also quite common for students to point to program-based factors, such as the school offering their program of interest (34%) or improving the reputation of offered programs (31%). University students were more likely than college students to say that improving the school’s overall reputation would make them change their mind (30% vs 18%), while college students were more likely to say that providing better information (32% vs 19%) could have improved a school’s chances with them.

Outreach programs were also a particularly key part of this experience. As one student noted, the quality of the information they received from a recruitment officer was a major decision factor:

"Fanshawe did a presentation at my high school in which I had a lot of questions answered by the man who did the presentation. Made a good impression for the school."

Communication was also a particularly key factor, as one student explained that their second choice school brushed them aside entirely.

"University of Toronto Scarborough was also the first to offer me admission and actually seemed genuinely interested in me attending, whereas my second choice did not seem to care."


When it comes to choosing which schools to apply to and enroll in, students across Canada weigh a number of factors, some more importantly than others. Timely and accurate information about these kinds of perceptions and preferences is crucial for any institution whose enrolment plan makes increasing access a priority. On top of these findings, it is also crucial for schools to be aware of the factors that most powerfully impact students’ decision to apply to or accept admission to a particular school.

What you can do about it:

Get to know your applicants and your decliners. Academica’s enrolment research can give your school the information it needs to boost the quality of applications it receives and to fulfill its enrolment strategy. Contact us online at your convenience to get more information about our research products or reach out at 1-866-922-8636 ext. 228.

At Academica Group, we’re proud to work with hundreds of committed, passionate higher ed professionals who want to drive improvement at their institutions. By providing enhanced research capacity and expert guidance, we allow these professionals to work beyond resource limitations and seize more opportunities to positively impact the lives of their students, colleagues, and campus communities.

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