college email subject lines

When you log into your email each morning, how do you determine which of your many messages to actually open and read? And what kind of emails get moved immediately to the trash – or worse, marked as spam?

The answer often has something to do with their subject lines. Although they say not to judge a book by its cover, it is difficult to not evaluate your emails by their subject lines, especially when trying to trim down an overcrowded inbox.

If your school wants its prospects to actually read its emails, you’ll first have to master the art of eye-catching, enticing subject lines. After all, what’s the point of creating effective email content if no one opens it in the first place?

Read on to learn how to craft click-worthy subject lines your prospects won’t be able to resist.


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Extra Hurdles for Higher Ed Emailers

For higher ed marketers hoping to reach prospective and current students, the challenge of creating click-friendly emails may well be even greater. Post-secondary hopefuls are more social media connected than ever, so your college recruitment team will have to work extra hard to be heard over a chorus of social media notifications, commercial messages, and competing email marketing campaigns.

If you can convince leads to click on your school’s message, half the battle is won. So, crafting trash-proof subject lines is an essential component of your overall student recruitment strategy. But then you may ask: is there a simple recipe for subject line success?

Thankfully, there are few hard and fast rules for creating the perfect subject line for college admissions emails. Rather than relying on a one-size-fits-all approach, we know that all good content begins with consulting your schools’ target audience.

Example: Each school has its own unique prospective student base. Before you can determine what your subject lines should say, you’ll need to know what, exactly, will get your prospects’ attention – and personas are a great way to find that out. Personas can help you figure out what selling points to emphasize and what concerns to address in your subject lines.

Once you’ve pinned down precisely who you’re writing to, there are a few fundamentals to consider when launching your next email marketing campaign.

Enticement + Clarity = Higher Student Open Rates

Creating enticing emails that are also clear enough in their intent to actually get opened is a tricky balancing act. Many how-to’s focus on the power of “mysterious” subject lines to get more clicks, claiming that merely wanting to know more will compel recipients to open the message.

Example: Proponents of mysterious subject lines may suggest something like this for your school’s campaign:

email marketing for schools
The above subject line contains a question to elicit further interest, and a bit of mystery surrounding the offer… seems pretty enticing right? Well, not exactly. According to Brad Bortone’s Marketing Experiments blog, mysterious subject lines like these fail to capture clicks because they don’t address the three questions every recipient wants to know before opening an email:

  • Who is this from?
  • Why are they emailing me?
  • What is this all about anyway?

So, the ultimate email subject line is one that captures interest, but doesn’t fall short on clarifying its purpose and intent. Unbounce agrees that setting your recipient’s expectations and stating clearly what’s in the message dramatically boosts its likelihood of avoiding the trash.

Example: With this in mind, here’s how we could re-work that first subject line to be more clear and direct:

subject line for admissions email

There’s no need to “tempt” leads with a full-blown mystery. It will serve to confuse, rather than attract, which translates quickly into trashed.With option number two, the recipient understands who the message is from, and what it will contain – but there’s a nice balance of enticement with regard to the special deal on tuition. The questions raised here are of the good variety – the sort that prompt readers to click for more information.

Example: Here’s another “before and after” from U of Admissions Marketing. Again, this is simply too mysterious to warrant a click. Prospective students will not be swayed by clichéd messaging. They need more reason than vague allusions to click on your school’s message. The second subject line would be much more effective. Enticement lies in discovering what those thousands of reasons are, and the sender is very good about identifying both the school and the program.

education subject line

higher ed email subject lines-04
When it comes to education lead generation, don’t let the mystery muddle the meaning. Use your marketing team’s creative muscle to genuinely address the concerns and interests of your target personas.

Shorter Isn’t Always Sweeter When it Comes to College Email Subject Lines

Conventional marketing wisdom bows down to the “60 characters-or-less” rule for crafting trash-resistant subject lines. But a finer look at the details reveals that shorter is indeed not always sweeter when it comes to whetting the recipient’s appetite. An in-depth study by MailChimp revealed no statistical connection between open-rates and length alone. They analyzed 12 billion email sends in order to de-bunk the 60 characters or less rule. MailChimp found cases where yes, shorter subject lines got more clicks:

email subject open rate

Subject character count vs Open rate graphs from MailChimp

But they also found examples where shorter subject lines fell flat, and longer descriptions scored the greatest number of opens:

email open rate marketing
And here’s another analysis where subject line length made little or no difference at all!

email marketing subject open rates
What can higher ed marketers learn from this data? That simply restricting characters will not guarantee an email open. According to SendGrid, relevancy is far more important than length when it comes to grabbing reader attention.

Example: If you’re focused solely on paring down line length, your admissions team could end up sacrificing on clarity or on truly targeting the needs of your most prevalent personas. You may end up with something generic like the first subject line. Character-count never trumps content that your student personas actually want to see, and need to know. The second subject is longer, yes, but it’s far more relevant and compelling than the first.

education subject lines



higher education email marketing

Of course, getting to the point is best practice for crafting subject lines – particularly when optimizing for a mobile browser – but brevity alone shouldn’t be the guiding force behind your email marketing campaign.

Borrow From Your School’s Blog Titles

You don’t need to re-invent the wheel. One way to quickly conceptualize everything we’ve discussed so far about college email subject lines is to think of them as effective blog titles. A lot of the same rules apply. Tried and tested techniques like the “How To” guide or “Top Ten” list work very well for higher ed subject lines – and they typically capture all of the elements we’ve touched on here: clarity, relevance, and concision.

Example: Your prospective student is more likely to open the second email for the same reason they would scan through a blog by the same title – because you’ve quantified the amount of reading the task entails, established clear expectations for what’s to come, AND you’ve used your knowledge of your persona to create a message relevant to healthcare-oriented prospects. Perfect. Your recipient is primed to click and learn more about your program.

university subject lines


top higher ed subject lines

Here’s another set of subject lines for personas concerned about balancing work and study.

Example: The second subject line tells recipients you’ve taken the time to put together a “How To” list that is pertinent to an issue that concerns them. This is inbound marketing 101 – offer thoughtful content that genuinely helps your leads succeed.

subject lines for college admissions emails


subject lines for admissions emails

While we caution against following just one or two “rules” of thumb for crafting excellent subject lines, taking a lesson from blog titles can definitely offer a comprehensive go-to solution for busy admissions departments. Lines like these are relevant, to-the-point, and persona-driven. Which leads us to our next suggestion…

Personalize Your Subject Line for Admissions Emails

With all this talk about the benefits of tailoring your emails to your personas, why not go the extra mile and include your prospect’s name in the subject line?

Personalized subject lines stand out amongst a sea of anonymous messages. If prospects see their name, bolded, in their email inbox, they are more likely to take notice.

Now, this doesn’t mean you have to create unique emails for every lead. CRM and marketing automation software can help speed up the process.

Example: In HubSpot, you can add a “personalization token” to customize your subject lines based on a certain contact property. In this case, the subject line will start with your contact’s first name.

personalized subject lines

The resulting subject line may look something like this one from Yorkville University.

personalized subject line

While name is the most popular option for customized subject lines, you could also personalize your emails based on other factors such as program or location.

Use Student Persona-Powered Language

Much research has been compiled on the persuasive power of certain marketing words, such as BufferApp’s Words That Convert by Kevan Lee. Lee reminds his readers that regardless of objectives, industry, or target audience, the words we choose directly impact our marketing outcomes. Why? Because a word can change meaning, mood, and motivation.

And when it comes to creating a subject line for admissions emails, language choice is especially important. It determines not just whether or not your message gets opened, but the initial impression your institution makes on recipients.

MailChimp urges marketers to “tell it, not sell it,” when crafting email subject lines. This is especially true for schools who want to be known as institutions of learning – not profit-driven businesses.And the advice is in line with what we’ve discussed here already in terms of persona-worthy email subject lines.

Example: This London Business School email not only makes use of personalized subject lines – it also uses the word “us” to create a down-to-earth subject line that feels more like a conversation than an automated email.

subject lines for schools

However, one could (and should) push the concept of language power a step further by identifying the keywords most likely to resonate with specific student personas. What are your school’s main target audiences? Which keywords should you incorporate into your subject lines to help boost open rates?

For example, many colleges focus on affordability content to convert cost-conscious students. If this issue is particularly important to your lead personas, why not incorporate affordability keywords into some of your email subject lines? These could include:

  • Lower tuition
  • Debtless degrees
  • Affordable training
  • Work-study program
  • Job placement success

Example: Using Kevin Lee’s list as a reference point is great – but schools shouldn’t sound like they’re trying to sell a product, which is how the first subject line comes across. Instead, college marketers should make a list of appropriate keywords that apply to their target audiences, and craft compelling, clear, relevant email subject lines around those ideas, just like the second subject line.

higher ed subject lines


emails for schools
Once you’ve crafted a compelling subject line, the next step is to make sure that you fulfill prospects’ expectations when they begin reading through your email. It’s not enough to simply create an eye-catching subject line – you’ll need to back up your claims in the body of your email. That way, you’ll sustain your prospects attention from their initial click to your email signature.

**This blog was originally published in August 2014, but has been updated and expanded to reflect the latest trends and developments in the industry.

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