Guide to Developing International Student Personas + Free Canvas


Template - International Student Persona Canvas


In order to devise effective online student recruitment initiatives, your strategy needs to reach to every segment of your prospect student body and reflect a deep understanding of who they are. However, your students are highly diverse and have their own preferences, personality traits, and needs. In an age that dictates a personalised approach to everything, it’s becoming harder to maintain large-scale international marketing operations that cater to each of your prospect student’s needs and questions.

A great starting point for your personalised communication efforts is to revisit your student persona. This exercise will test how well you understand your foreign audience and their motives to choose your university. At the very least – it will help you validate your value proposition and revise your recruitment strategy overseas.

A well-built student persona lays the foundation for the majority of your marketing activities: from targeting to messaging to value proposition. Every student wants to feel comfortable that they are making the right study choice. Your job is to show them that they will be able to achieve their dreams, goals, and aspirations at your university. Therefore the need to move away from a one-size fits all communication style to a personalised one that resonates with your future students.

What are student personas

A quick summary: A persona is a canny way to bind the diverse behavioural, demographic, and psychological characteristics of your students in a few comprehensive illustrations that will allow you to better target all your students, while taking into account their differences.

A persona represents a cluster of students who exhibit similar behavioural patterns in their study decisions, use of technology or platforms, student service preferences, lifestyle choices, and the likes. Behaviours, attitudes, and motivations are common to a “type”, as are age, gender, education, and other demographics. Let’s start with looking at the different ways to combine them into meaningful, manageable and, most importantly, actionable segments.

Segmenting and grouping characteristics

User segments are based on repetitive, shared characteristics and needs of your student audience: behaviour patterns, goals, skills, attitudes, and background information, as well as the environment in which a persona operates. A user persona is used to depict such a segment.

This is the moment to elaborate on why one persona is not enough. Think about this: depending on your university’s offer, you are aiming to attract students from different walks of life, with different career aspirations, interests, and motivations who will choose different programmes.

You encounter the type of students for whom the subject of study is most important, or the skill of living abroad; the very ambitious ones, or the very talented ones, or even the career-changer returning to school. Also, you will target students seeking to enrol in a different level of higher education degree programme – a Bachelor’s degree, a Master’s degree, a PhD or Postdoc. Each of these prospective students experiences a fundamentally different path down their journey to finding your university and enrolling in a programme of their choice. You will need to develop a different student persona canvas for each essential category of students.

What is essential for your institution is, naturally, up to you. For example, your largest differentiator might be the faculties you have, or the countries you identify as key markets, or even the financial capabilities of students to cover the tuition fees and costs of living. The ingredients for useful student personas will be unique to your university. If you are new to this, you might want to start small (3-5 personas). In this case, the five factors you are most likely to consider for your segments are:

  • Academic background: Degree level Bachelor’s, Master’s, PhD, short courses, online courses
  • Geographics: Native or international, distinctive country, region, continent or economic zone
  • Study: Business and Management, Arts, Natural Sciences, Computer and Information Sciences, etc.
  • Decision-making: Independent, convenience-seekers, advice-reliant, guidance-dependent
  • Financial resources: Prepared to finance a study abroad or dependent on financial aid

A great example of segmenting international students is a study led by Rahul Choudaha with Kata Orosz, and Li Chang for WES Research and Advisory Services. The research takes two factors – academic preparedness and financial resources – and positions U.S.-bound international student population along these dimensions to establish four profiles:

Original research “Not All International Students Are the Same: Understanding Segments, Mapping Behavior”

To understand the nuances in behavior and aspirations, Choudaha explains each profile in detail:

“STRIVERS are the largest segment of the overall U.S.-bound international student population. Almost two-thirds of this segment (63%) was employed full-time or part-time during the application process, presumably because they need to support themselves. Among all segments, they are the most likely to select information on financial aid opportunities among their top three information needs (45%). Financial challenges do not deter these highly prepared students from pursuing their academic dreams: 67% plan to attend a top-tier U.S. school.

STRUGGLERS make up about one-fifth of all U.S.-bound international students. They have limited financial resources and need additional preparation to do well in an American classroom: 40% of them plan to attend an ESL program in the future. They are also relatively less selective about where they obtain their education. Only 33% of them selected information about a school’s reputation among their top three information needs.

EXPLORERS are very keen on studying abroad but their interests are not exclusively academic. Compared to the other segments, they are the most interested in the personal and experiential aspects of studying in the United States, with 19% of this segment reporting that information on student services was in their top three information needs during the college search. “Explorers” are not fully prepared to tackle the academic challenges of the best American institutions and are the most likely to plan to attend a second-tier institution (33%). They are also the most likely to use the services of an education agent (24%).

HIGHFLIERS are academically well-prepared students who have the means to attend more expensive programs without expecting any financial aid from the school. They seek a U.S. higher education primarily for its prestige: almost half of the respondents in this segment (46%) reported that the school’s reputation is among their top three information needs. “Highfliers,” along with “Explorers,” form the emerging segment driven by the expanding wealthy classes in countries like China and India.”

Understanding your students on a personal level

The most effective methods to help you understand your students is research. Surveys, interviews, and content consumption will reveal the most valuable information you need to develop realistic student personas.

Start with having real conversations about your students and prospective students. Move forward with an open mind and don’t make any assumptions. The results you find may surprise you and dramatically alter the course of your marketing strategy.

If you are new to this and need a framework, try to picture a real person, give her a name, draw a face and set her in a real-life context, step by step. Start with some of the following questions:

Demographic characteristics

  •   Name and age
  •   Degree
  •   Discipline of interest
  •   Where they’re located (city, country)


  • What information are they looking for: programme contents, tuition fees?
  • What practicalities are they considering: visa, housing, scholarships, travelling to and back from home?
  •  Whom do they need to consult: Admissions officers, embassies?
  • How long ago did they start searching?
  • Where are they in the study choice process?

Ambitions and needs

  •    What and where would they like to study?
  •    What are their highest priorities?
  •    The personal problems / pain-points that a degree from your university will help solve
  •    What actions the prospective student has already taken to solve their key problems
  •    Where are their career aspirations?


  • Where do they search for and find the answers they need: online, peers, communities?
  • What are their commonly used communication channels: Email, mobile, Facebook, WhatsApp, Snapchat, Slack?

Final goal

  •   When do students feel confident they’ve made the right choice?

Once you’ve defined the primary segments and gathered the information you need, start fleshing out the one stereotype that will embody a common set of characteristics representative of each student persona group.

6 Steps to building international student personas 

You will find abundant advice about building personas online. Just think about this: You can portray a persona as fully as your knowledge allows, but you’ll need to sift through the information options and look at what relevant info students are looking for to make a decision they feel satisfied with.

What you really want is to focus on the questions whose answers will pinpoint the decision-making process of an applicant – or in other words, the student journey –  and thus tailor your campaign and message to those information searches.

Focusing on that will not only help you reach the quality student and hit your targets; it will solve a good deal of the frustrations students are encountering, gently nudging them to consider your university further. If you can gauge their primary information needs, via the channels they’re used to, they won’t take long to grasp that your institution can be a good fit for their ambitions.


Get your free international student persona canvas

International Student Persona Template

To help university professionals out, we decided to create an easy to use, scalable template. When crafting the student persona canvas, we selected 6 main areas to portray. Our choice is based on marketing best-practices, combined with research data from Studyportals which shows what are the main filters used by students for their study search.

The first area to define is the background of your student persona.

Step #1: Background

Write down their name, age, country and city of origin. Make sure you include your preferred markets and source countries. Have they already earned a degree? If so, in what area?

How to use it: In this stage, you will make the split between Bachelor’s and Master’s candidates or school faculties. If you are looking for students with a particular academic background, specifying previous degrees and institutions will help you target them directly: use degree and university/college names for targeting prospect Master’s students, and study areas and high-school names for targeting prospect Bachelor’s students. Use a country of origin that reflects a key market for your recruitment.

 > Pro Tip: Defining the background is the first step to help you set your targeting criteria when you are considering social media advertising: Location, age range, and career status (student).

Step #2: Study Choice

The most important questions to answer here are: What kind of study would the student like to pursue and where?

How to use it: This step will help you carefully identify the keywords to use when you chose to target students with paid advertising, or simply improve your content’s SEO. Remember, the study field is always leading the discovery phase of a prospect’s journey to finding study options overseas. They are constantly looking for their preferred field of education and location while browsing online, and you would like to be among the first results they would see. For example, if your organization has a strong business school, you might want to bid on the term “MBA in Edinburg”

 > Pro Tip: Use study choice as a guiding principle in your copywriting when crafting ads. Always include the location.

Step #3 Goals

Think about what motivates students. Many are passionate about leading a purposeful life. Some dream of applying their skills to a greater cause and finding their own sweet spot where passions, mission, profession, and vocation intersect. Others are career-driven. They will go after results and push each and every limit they encounter, personal and professional.

How to use it: Use this information to specify a student’s interests. This will help you craft the right content when you are reaching out to them, regardless of the channel. International student goals and interests can lend great subjects to your inbound strategy. Long content forms like blogs, or research projects like surveys can be entirely focused on gauging each student ambition you identify. It’s a great way to weave the campus life and values of your institution into these narratives.

 > Pro Tip: Goals, combined with clear study choice, will give you all the key elements and value propositions to build your strategic message.

Step #4 Challenges

These could range from logistical concerns like obtaining a visa, finding affordable housing, opening a local bank account, to budget restraints like financing the study.

How to use it: Completing this step will help you map the most common questions students will have. Based on the subject, you can build the architecture of your website, an FAQ page, or even templates for emails or chatbot flows to automate bulk responses.

 > Pro Tip: Identifying common pain-points will give you insight into the must-have information around which your website and support material should be structured.

Step #5 Information Channels

Think about how students look for information: Online, on mobile, through agencies, events, peers, reviews? This will help you define the right channels to execute your promotion and communication strategies. Bachelor’s candidates need considerably more guidance compared to their Masters’s counterparts.

How to use it: Defining channels is indispensable for the distribution of your communication, running campaigns, and reaching your ideal students. Additionally, students will reach out to your institution’s admissions advisers continuously, hence your communication channels work both ways and can transform conversations into a means for student support and lead generation.

 > Pro Tip: Always have a contact point open, visible and manned. This will provide you with an easy lead source.

Step #6 Career Aspirations

What career path do students want to follow? What are their needs and expectations regarding their future career?  Are they driven by their passions or are they looking for better employability and career growth? Students consider which industries provide better opportunities to enter the job market straight after graduation or even during their studies.

How to use it: Career aspirations naturally tie into Study choice. They embody the vision that either precedes or evolves from the chosen degree. Collecting as much input as you can about your prospect’s career plans will help you speak to them in terms of results. This is the most powerful, persuasive and rewarding message you can deliver. As it is positioned in the future, it will help you shape the long-term benefits to communicate with your prospects.

 > Pro Tip: Career plans translate into clear benefits of your programmes.

After you connect the dots, here’s how a complete, filled-out canvas would look like:

International Student Persona Canvas - Studyportals



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