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It can be easy to overlook email marketing when faced with new digital marketing tools and constantly changing trends within higher education. However, there’s a reason why email marketing managed to maintain its relevance across a wide range of industries throughout all these years—because it works. A recent study by the Content Marketing Institute shows that email marketing was considered to be the most effective channel for securing and nurturing leads among B2C organizations:

email marketing

Source: Content Marketing Institute

A strong email marketing strategy allows schools to directly reach interested prospects, giving them a channel that can be used to forge natural and meaningful relationships. Through personalized messages with clear calls-to-action (CTAs), schools can engage interested prospects and encourage conversions. And it all starts with the email subject line. 

The subject line can easily make or break your efforts, playing a key role in attracting the student’s attention. This is especially the case in an overcrowded inbox. Here, your subject line acts as your email’s first impression—potentially making it more important than the content itself. If your subject line fails to do its job, then it’s safe to say that prospects will miss out on your message. 

With so much at stake, it can be difficult to know how to get started. That’s why we’re sharing our list of tips and examples to help set you on the right track.

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Keep Email Subject Lines for Students Short, Simple, and Clear

When creating your email subject line, you’ll want to keep in mind that prospects may be looking at numerous emails at once. Saving time will likely be their priority, so keeping your subject line short and punchy can be yours. Doing so can help your email stand out, making its content and purpose clear for your students. 

Although finding the right character length may be difficult, there are some general guidelines you can follow. According to Return Path’s research, most email subject lines range between 41 and 50 characters long and those with the highest read rates (17%) were between 61 and 70 characters long. Upon further investigation, it was revealed that there was no significant correlation between email subject line lengths and read rates. So why should you consider keeping your subject lines short?

The answer boils down to mobile devices. 

There’s a set limit to how many characters can appear on your prospect’s mobile devices without being truncated or cut off, with that number typically ranging from 25 to 30 characters. By saying less, you can ensure that prospects can view your whole message. However, that doesn’t mean you have to be blunt or dull to get your point across. You can still be descriptive—just make sure that every word counts for something. In this way, being concise can be your strength. 

Example: École Nouvelle de la Suisse Romande shares an email with a subject line that is both clear and short. With a total of four words, prospects can quickly grasp the purpose of the school’s email and are more likely to view the message in the subject line without sudden cut-offs in the text: 

subject line for admissions email

Source: ENSR 

Ultimately, you’ll want to start your email campaign with a clear goal. The subject line can reflect this, giving you a guideline to follow while setting up prospects’ expectations. The example below, from Randolph-Macon Academy, shows an email subject line that shares a monthly “newsletter.” By using that keyword, prospects can better anticipate the information you’ll provide and may be more willing to go over the details with that expectation in mind: 

email marketing for schools

Source: R-MA 

Speak Directly to Your Prospects by Adding Personalization 

Interestingly, HubSpot reveals that emails containing users’ first names in the subject line had higher clickthrough rates than those without. Personalization is a quick and easy way to instantly attract your prospect’s attention all while making your efforts feel like a natural conversation. Choosing to personalize your email subject lines can make prospects feel that your school is ready to put in the work in forging a strong relationship with them—laying the foundation for loyalty and trust.

To do this, you’ll need to look into adding personalization tokens or merge tags. These extra bits of code, courtesy of your Email Service Provider (ESP), allow you to integrate user data from a mailing list into the email itself. You can use them to add your prospect’s first name as well as relevant program interests and start dates. Take a look at the example below from Columbia Business School:

Subject lines for college admissions email

Source: Columbia Business School

The email subject line includes the recipient’s first name, pushing them to zero in on the message. Here, Columbia Business School takes it a step further by making a strong statement while referencing the recipient’s program of interest. This combination can be used by your school to drive positive results.

Another way to personalize email subject lines for higher education is to use pronouns strategically. Consider adopting “you” more often, particularly as it feels more inclusive and direct. Cumberland College takes this approach in the email subject line below, directly speaking to prospects in a way that makes them feel personally invited: 

higher ed marketing

Source: Cumberland College 

Ask Personalized Questions that Address Student Interests 

Asking questions is a great way to start a conversation and draw in prospects. You can use the data you have on your prospects to generate intriguing questions that reflect their current interests and goals. Through automated email workflows, you can send the right prospect the right email. But in order for them to open that email, you’ll need to engage with them and pique their curiosity. This is where a well-structured question can make all the difference. Consider the example below:

email marketing for higher education

Source: Texas Lutheran University 

Prospects interested in a Nursing program at the Texas Lutheran University received this email. The subject line aligns with their interests and goals, showing that the school has what prospects are looking for. By doing the same, you can make it clear that your school can address your prospects’ needs and help them fulfil their goals.

Pro Tip: If you’re sending a general email and are interested in using a question in your subject line, then be sure to keep it open-ended. That way, your prospects won’t have the chance to decline and miss out on your message.    

Engage Hesitant Prospects by Adding Urgency in Your Higher Ed Email Subject Lines 

Urgency can push people to take action, making them feel like they’ll miss out on something if they don’t. According to recent research, email subject lines that generate urgency and exclusivity can produce a 22% higher open rate. Your school can use this sense of urgency to motivate prospects to open emails. If your school is hosting an event or accepting new submissions, this approach can be particularly effective. 

For example, subject lines for a college admissions email can incorporate phrases like “Act now,” “Time-sensitive,” and “Deadline approaching,” to trigger action from hesitant prospects. Alternatively, subject lines that introduce a popular event can use phrases like “Don’t miss out,” or “Hurry! Save your spot” to do the job. In the email subject line below, the London Business School uses this type of language to increase urgency and encourage the right response from prospects:

college email subject lines

Source: London Business School

Below is another example that incorporates language effectively. The phrase “last chance” in the subject line naturally instils a sense of urgency, which can motivate prospects to open the email quickly in order to avoid missing out.

emails subject lines for students

Source: Cumberland College  

Pro Tip: Your email campaign should be focused on delivering the right message at the right time. This also gives you the chance to tailor what you have to say to the current context—keeping your message relevant and topical. For instance, career colleges can capitalize on the New Year buzz to attract prospects eager to change careers as part of their new year’s resolution. 

Integrate a Clear CTA Into Your Email Subject Lines for Higher Education 

When creating your email subject lines, it’s important not to overlook the impact a clear call-to-action (CTA) can have. With the right words, you can encourage your prospect to complete desired actions without seeming too pushy. Here, urgency can help—but so does making your text short and positioning your CTA at the beginning of your message. To make a real impact, you’ll also want to use action-oriented words that stand out from competing emails. 

It all connects back to your original goal, which encapsulates the purpose you want your email to have. Match your CTA to that goal and position it front and centre in your email subject lines. The actions words you may need will largely depend on your goal, though good ones will typically evoke emotion by creating exclusivity, urgency, excitement, inspiration, and other compelling responses. Action words you may want to consider can include:  “Join,” “Apply,” “Discover,” “Attend,” “Launch” “Kickstart,” and “Explore” to name a few.   

Example: Concordia Continuing Education’s email subject line uses a CTA that urges prospects to register–a word that immediately signals an action. This is made more appealing by the promise of a reward (10% discount), making it difficult for an interested prospect to ignore. 

higher education email marketing

Source: Concordia Continuing Education 

Generate Interest with New Announcements or Bold Statements about Your School or Program

Creating the perfect college email subject line can be a daunting task, but you shouldn’t let it stop you from trying something new and being creative in your approach. Instead, think of your subject line as a space to showcase your school’s unique voice and personality. This allows you to be a little bit more playful, giving you the ability to entice recipients with new announcements and intriguing statements that naturally pique their curiosity. 

Here, you can choose to be clever or mysterious with how you reveal your school’s programs and services, using your creativity to engage prospects in a fun and unpredictable way. Oregon College Savings Plan does this very well in the example below, being purposefully vague to increase the open rate of their email.

higher ed email marketing

Source: Oregon College Savings Plan 

Your subject line doesn’t have to be vague to generate interest. Schools can use engaging language to share specific information with their prospects–the key is to be accurate and avoid being misleading as much as possible. For example, Griffith College embraces a conversational tone to drop hints about funding opportunities for prospective students. The wording used encourages curious recipients to open for more information.

automated email marketing in higher education

Source: Griffith College  

Pro Tip: Numbers can be a great way to add detail to your statements without making them feel too text-heavy. If your school is hosting a virtual open day that generated lots of interest, then you can motivate more prospects to sign up by sharing the numbers (i.e. “Join over 150 students online!”). The same can apply for program applications—giving you the space to share success rates and other interesting facts to spice up your email subject lines. 

Consider Emojis and Punctuation Carefully when Crafting Email Subject Lines for Prospects 

The use of emojis in email subject lines has been garnering some popularity over time, particularly as past research shows they can help improve open rates–especially around holidays and special events. However, the use of emojis has created divisive opinions. Newer research by the Search Engine Journal shows that they could have a negative impact on your school’s marketing campaign, potentially making it harder for your prospects to take your email more seriously and share it around. 

In fact, the same research shows that emails with emojis in the subject line received more abuse complaints than those without, and were also opened at a lower rate than their counterparts. A positive outcome that came from using emojis was a higher click-through rate—though ultimately, it all depends on your audience. For this reason, your school should consider emojis carefully, being extremely selective in order to ensure that your choices send the right message.

Adding emojis can help you add colour and personality to your prospect’s inbox, but they can also be easily misinterpreted. If you plan on using them, make sure they work in your favour by testing the email beforehand. Another tip is to place them between words or at the end of the text. The email subject line below is an example of how you can use emojis thoughtfully, incorporating ones that directly reflect the text:

email marketing for education

Source: Shillington 

The same rule applies to your use of punctuation. Too many exclamation points can land your email in the spam folder. You’ll also want to avoid using an open-ended question that’s immediately followed by an exclamation. In addition to being overdone and spam-triggering, this format can also prevent your school from making deeper connections with your prospects. Your email subject lines for students should instead prioritize value and personalization, allowing these elements to stand out on their own merits.

Remember to Track Your Performance and Optimize Your Efforts

As you’ve seen above, testing your emails can provide you with immense value.  According to HubSpot, 47% of marketers test subject lines before sending out their emails in order to optimize their performance. By looking at your school’s email marketing engagement metrics, you can discover exactly what works for you and your students. 

A/B testing allows you to try different approaches, giving you room to test out emojis, personalization, catchy puns, intriguing statements, targeted questions, and much more. You can then monitor your engagement and open rates to see which subject line format performed best. 

You can even use this method to discover the magic words that lead to higher conversion rates. An interesting article by the Content Marketing Institute reveals the power of choosing your words carefully and understanding how exactly they convert your prospects. Your school can conduct similar A/B tests to identify which words motivate your students the most. 

The key here is to never assume and to always test. This enables you to regularly monitor your own performance and tailor it to better suit your student’s needs and interests—even boosting student recruitment. You can try out different tools online, such as Net Atlantic’s free Email Subject Line Grader, to help you optimize your efforts. You can also keep an eye out on changing trends that can help you further enhance your email subject lines and campaigns. By being proactive in this way, your school can improve its relationship with prospective and current students alike.

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