Working in higher education right now can feel like walking in a blizzard. Everyone is doing their best to put one foot in front of the other without being able to see too far ahead. We’ve all been there. It’s very common to lose sight of anything beyond the next step — especially as the recruitment and application season picks up. However, this is also the exact reason it is important to plan ahead. Trust me, future-you will thank you.

In our recent College-Bound Student Survey for the Class of 2026, 65% of students indicated that they began to seriously look at college prior to the summer of their senior year. What is your plan to start engaging students before their senior year begins?

Let’s focus on an effective sophomore/junior search. Building early brand awareness is the foundation upon which you can begin to widen your funnel, putting your enrollment goals within reach. Being familiar with your institution is a prerequisite for students’ curiosity: When surveyed, almost 45% of the Class of 2026 said they would not open an email from a college if they had never heard of it. So, how can you make sure they’ve heard of you? Read on to see how we break it down step by step, focusing on the “who,” “how,” “when,” and “where” of an effective sophomore/junior search.


of students indicated that they began to seriously look at college prior to the summer of their senior year


of the Class of 2026 said they would not open an email from a college if they had never heard of it

Step 1: Figure out who you’d like to connect with.

What kind of students do you want to enroll? Where are they? What are their interests? Oftentimes, answering these questions is a daunting task in and of itself! Using tools like Spark451’s Purchase Modeling and Predictive Modeling can make this a breeze. By analyzing your institution’s historical data and comparing it with national enrollment trends, we can help you make a strategic name purchase, and then assign a score to those names ranking the likelihood of their enrollment.

Step 2: Determine how to talk to them.

27% of students from our College-Bound Student Survey indicated that they did not open an email from a college if it was too generic. While keeping brand messaging simple and clear is important, adding personalization is the name of the game. This is the Instagram/TikTok generation, where everyone has their own page, their own individualized timeline — and uniqueness is often celebrated. Getting creative with segmentation and personalized messaging is a great way to begin your relationship with these students.

Once you’ve managed to capture their attention, providing easy ways for them to indicate their interest is very important! Make sure you have a user-friendly lead form that is easily accessible in all of your communication channels.

Step 3: Plan for where you'll talk to them.

Multi-channel communication plans are going to be the most effective tools for building brand awareness. To start, introducing yourself through digital media is an excellent way to foster passive engagement. Having a social media presence on Instagram, TikTok, and Snapchat — or even better, running ads on these channels — is an excellent way to make your name more recognizable.

Of course, email will be the primary vehicle to discuss who your institution is and what it has to offer. 95% of students noted that they used email for their communication during their college search, with mailed materials (47%) and texting (43%) coming in as the next most popular channels. Reflective of this, students ranked email as their preferred communication method, with traditional mail coming in second and texting coming in third. (Also, 30% of respondents noted they were OK with receiving texts anytime!)

Email chart

Once you’ve established your multi-channel communication plans, you can start passing the baton to your admissions counselors. Spring high school visits and college fairs are the best time to connect with sophomores and juniors in their natural habitat. In fact, according to our College-Bound Student Survey, almost 40% of students preferred to research a college with presentations/visits at their school. Pairing data insights from your communications with the student names you purchased (and potentially scored) can help you determine where to travel for the spring. Additionally, these trips provide the opportunity for counselors to make a personalized connection, as they can enter each visit with a list of students they know have already received and/or engaged with your communications. Making a good impression here, with the right students, is a recipe for success! (Did reading this just remind you that you need materials for the road? We can help with that, too!)

Another way to build relationships is to offer specific visit opportunities for sophomores and/or juniors on your campus. After all, 27% of the students we surveyed indicated that they knew their chosen school was right for them immediately upon visiting campus, so any way you can get students to your campus will likely result in a boost in enrollment later on. Something like a “Tips and Tricks for College Admissions” workshop could be a great way to garner interest from sophomores and their parents. For juniors, focusing more on your campus, scholarships, academic opportunities, etc., may be more appropriate.

Step 4: Engage the stakeholders.

We know parents/guardians are a huge factor in a student’s college search, with 88% of surveyed students indicating that their families had an impact on their college decisions. Engaging parents/guardians through their own specific campaign (separate from their students), is a very effective way to build brand recognition and establish relationships with these key influencers. Tailoring these messages to make them feel personalized is paramount, as the way you’d engage with a first-generation family may sound very different than how you might speak with a parent who is an alum, for example. At Spark451, we have the ability to append parent/guardian data to purchased names, making it easy to include them in your communication plans.

In a nutshell, running a successful sophomore/junior search comes down to playing a strategic long game in a thoughtful way. We know there are plenty of students who would be a great match for your institution — the challenge is finding them early enough in the process so that they are excited when it comes time to apply. Ensure you are talking to them as an individual so the student feels that any email, text, or postcard you’ve sent was meant for them — it can really make all the difference! If students and their families feel special, and that your school genuinely cares about them and their academic future, they’re going to be more likely to enroll.

To further discuss the details of your college or university’s sophomore-junior search, please reach out. We’ll be happy to help you refine your strategy and deliver a campaign that will support your goals. Trust us, future-you will thank you!