How to find the elusive 'Stealth Applicant'

As a student recruitment professional, unpredictability is dangerous territory. Hitting your annual target for yield means being able to assess students’ viability for acceptance and using the correct marketing tools (like a video messaging platform, perhaps?) to ensure students develop a devotion to your brand and feel like they belong at your institution.

But a common obstacle many schools experience is the existence of the ‘stealth’ applicant. These proverbial Gen Z ninjas are appearing in your applicant pool as a complete surprise to you! They didn’t appear in purchased lead lists, they haven’t interacted with your school before (as far as you can tell) and you don’t have any information about them to work off of. And why not?

Where do Stealth Applicants come from?

The truth about all Gen Z applicants in this digital age is that none of them can truly be stealth. Information pertinent to your institution is certainly readily available across the internet and it’s a pretty hard sell to believe that students are improvising their higher education applications without an inkling about your brand. The likelihood is that they have interacted with your school’s website or social media page at some point prior to applying. You just might not have noticed! So the question is not ‘how do I deal with stealth applicants?’ but, instead, ‘how do I ensure I am aware of the channels where my applicants may be coming from?’. Simply put - the correct tracking strategy is imperative to eliminating the mystery surrounding a student’s origin. 

It’s no secret that Gen Z is hanging out online, especially on video-based social media platforms like Instagram, TikTok & Snapchat. These social media channels are likely a huge factor in how students are discovering colleges and universities, whether it’s through direct marketing from your institution, or from other students sharing their student life experiences. Creating high quality, relevant content on your social media will allow you to track which students are following you and paint a much clearer picture of who might be applying. The direct messaging channels offered with social media also allow you to open up Q&A with prospective students, creating an opportunity for engagement early on in the process. 

How to Notice Stealth Applicants Earlier

And while social media is a highly relevant avenue to pursue, the real issue is that tracking needs to be more ubiquitous in your marketing setup. This is the most valuable consideration and should be where you focus your budget. Source-tracking is a key ingredient in turning unknowns into knowns. The largest gap in marketing is understanding the data that is returned. It’s one thing to create initiatives, incentives and invitations, but it’s of the utmost importance to understand who engages with those efforts and to see how they interact with your brand afterward. The analysis of the data you receive from your online presence is the key ingredient in discovering where applicants are coming from and learning how best to engage with them before they click ‘apply’. 

Tracking activity on your website is likely going to be the most fruitful source. Googling your institution leads a prospect directly to your home page. From there, they likely don’t need to reach out to ask questions. Gen Z is a resourceful bunch, and can navigate your website well enough to likely not need to ask too many questions about a program, student life, etc. The website is a wealth of information for an incoming student and, so, tracking who is visiting and returning will give you the greatest insight into who will be submitting an application. 

How to Manage Outliers

Now, of course, with all these areas nailed down, there may still be a few mysterious students who slip through the cracks. Especially since the Common Application may drive applicants who decide, on-the-fly, to consider your school as an option. How you engage with a student after they apply matters most for fortifying your institution’s reputation. It’s never too late to gain pertinent information on a prospective student. By offering them resources and opportunities to engage with faculty and application counselors, you are extending an olive branch for them to disclose their specific interests to you and determine their fit for your school. The improvement of your tracking efforts then allows you to reach out to prospective students and ensure they go from silent inquiry to vocal applicant. 


At the end of the day, student recruitment involves a wide array of obstacles and complex considerations. The key to refining your recruitment strategy is about adapting to the trends of the generation you are appealing to. In this case, Gen Z’s online obsession offers us the opportunity to understand their interests and behaviors prior to their potential application. Armed with the correct,  technologically sophisticated, marketing tools, student recruitment can become an exact science as opposed to a mixed bag. The ability to reduce the number of ‘stealth’ applicants is in your hands.

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