Reading Time: 10 minutes


When you log into your email each morning, how do you determine which of your 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 can be difficult to avoid evaluating your emails by their subject lines, especially when trimming down an overcrowded inbox.

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

In order to enhance the value of your school’s email campaign, read on to learn how to craft click-worthy subject lines your prospects won’t be able to resist.

New call-to-action

Extra Hurdles for College Admissions Emails

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 connected on social media than ever, so your college recruitment team will have to work extra hard to be heard over a chorus of app notifications, commercial and brand messages, and competing email marketing campaigns.

Half the battle is won if you can convince leads to click on your school’s message. That’s why crafting delete-proof subject lines is an essential component of your overall student recruitment strategy. How can you ensure that your subject line is getting enough attention to achieve a successful email marketing campaign?

Thankfully, there are a 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 school’s target audience.

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

Example: Below is an example of what a student persona could look like. When putting together a persona that represents your institution’s audience, you’ll want to consider the background of your desired student body, and think critically about their motivations and concerns when it comes to attending your school.

Email Marketing

Higher Education Marketing

Once you’ve pinned down precisely who you’re writing to, you must consider a few fundamental components when launching your next email marketing campaign.

Enticement + Clarity = Higher Student Open Rates

It can be a tricky balancing act to create email subject lines that are not only enticing but clear enough to communicate their intent to be opened. However, many guides 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: Below, a mysterious subject line from the University of Kansas attempts to entice readers, but withholds critical information. Readers know they should be excited about something, but they’re not sure what.

higher education email marketing

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. 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 sending the email?
  • Why are they sending me the email?
  • What’s the point?

Thus, the perfect email subject line is one that captures interest but doesn’t fall short of clarifying its purpose and intent. Setting your recipient’s expectations and stating clearly what’s in the message dramatically boosts its likelihood of avoiding the trash and actually getting read.

Example: Instead of keeping information from the recipient, this subject line from Emerson College clearly states what’s inside, enticing the user to open the email to claim the fee waiver.

higher ed email marketing


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 good variety – the sort that prompts readers to click for more information.

Example: Here’s another “before and after.” 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.

Keep Email Subject Lines for Students on the Short Side

While length isn’t the sole determinant of open rate, one thing schools today will want to consider is the effect that utilizing mobile devices has on subject line visibility. According to data collected by Hubspot, 46% of email opens occur on mobile devices rather than laptops or computers. Typically, users can only see around 25 characters of a subject line when browsing their email on a mobile app.

Considering the impact that mobile devices can have on how an email is displayed, it’s important to take this factor into account when creating your school’s subject lines. In order to ensure that your school’s subject lines are scannable for all recipients, consider keeping them shorter than 50 characters as a best practice. Avoid unnecessary wordiness, instead opting for clear and concise phrasing. 

Example: McGill University uses a short-form subject line to their advantage, allowing users to view the message in full before opening it on their mobile device.

email marketing for education

When it comes to keeping your subject lines short, another way to catch a user’s attention without being too wordy is to include a brief question. Posing a riveting question is a great way to make your audience stop and think while scrolling their inbox, increasing the chances that they’ll open the email to find the answer.

Example: This email from Kingston University asks a simple but intriguing question, and offers the promise of the answer contained within the email. This is a great way to make a subject line concise, without being too vague.

subject line for college admissions email

By approaching email subject lines with the understanding that shorter is often more successful, you’ll be able to craft scannable phrases which say a lot in just a few words.

Make the Preview Text Count

Yes, you want your subject line to be short, but what if you could make the sneak peek that readers get of your email’s content even more valuable? Preview text is the text that is shown after the subject line of an email, revealing the first few words of the email. While the exact amount of preview text shown will ultimately depend on the email host and device used, your school can still control the message that the preview text contains. Maximizing the preview text will further entice the reader and provide them with more information, while still being easy to read. 

Example: Below is an example of the type of preview text that your school will want to avoid in its emails. Instead of further enhancing the subject line’s message, the preview text here is wasted on an automated message that doesn’t relate to the email’s content.

student recruitment


While above is an example of what not to do, the school below demonstrates a great way to maximize preview text, further specifying the deadline to enroll and elaborating on the acronym used for the program.

education lead generation

When it comes to best practices around email subject lines for students, using preview text wisely is definitely a fool-proof way to improve your open rates. By using all available space, your school can avoid missing any opportunities to generate leads.


Personalize Your Subject Line for College 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 into 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.

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 specific 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 including a name is the most popular option for customized subject lines, you could also personalize your emails based on other factors, such as program of interest, age group or location. 

Example: This email from Western New England University uses location as a factor to appeal to students, specifically targeting this subject line to potential students in the state of Colorado.

email marketing for higher education

While personalization can be a great way to catch your audience’s attention and make them feel special, it’s important to avoid the ‘creep factor’ here. With too much personalization, students may become deterred by the feeling that your school has too much information about them.

Use Student Persona-Powered Language in Email Subject Lines for Higher Education

In marketing, certain words carry more persuasive power than others. In fact, no matter your school’s industry, target audience or goals, the words you choose to use in your content will directly impact your marketing outcomes. Why? Because words can change meaning, mood, and motivation.

When it comes to creating email subject lines for higher education, language choice is especially important. It determines not just whether your email gets opened, but the initial impression your institution makes on recipients.

Something else to consider when developing your school’s email marketing strategy is to avoid using a “sales pitch” when crafting email subject lines. This is especially true for schools that want to be known as institutions of learning, not profit-driven businesses. 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,  but 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 primary 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 fundamental to your target 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: Schools want to avoid sounding like they’re trying to sell a product. Instead, college marketers should make a list of appropriate keywords that apply to their target audiences and craft clear, compelling and relevant email subject lines around those ideas. The Newmark J-School, for example, is appealing to an audience of potential students who would need financial aid for their studies.

subject line for admissions email

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.

When you adopt personalized, engaging and informative subject lines for your school, you’ll see the success of your email marketing campaigns grow. Not only will your prospective students be opening emails and actually reading the valuable information they’re receiving, but they’ll also be one step closer to confirming their decision to study at your institution.

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

New call-to-action