Try-before-you-apply: how 'taster sessions' can help student recruitment

Many universities and colleges in the UK have recognized the importance of providing prospective students with a taste of campus life and academic programs at an early stage in the recruitment journey.

Taster sessions, or taster days—also known colloquially as "Try Before You Apply" sessions—are a popular way for higher education institutions to help drive student recruitment in high-priority subject areas as well as offer students an authentic perspective on what studying at your institution would be like.a

These taster sessions can play an important role in exposing secondary or high school students to a firsthand university experience before deciding to apply to that higher education institution.  

UCAS, the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service in the UK, promotes taster days across the UK and has a searching facility for prospective students. student recruitment taster days higher education-9

student recruitment taster days higher education-5UCAS' search facility for taster courses

It's a nice way to start building a sense of community right from the start, before even the application process is underway. 

In this article, we break down exactly what they are, who's offering some great examples, and how you can start offering these experiences to high school or secondary school students before they apply.

What exactly are taster sessions?

Taster sessions, very popular in UK universities, are a key part of their student recruitment marketing.

They offer prospective students a first-hand experience of program classes, campus life, facilities and libraries over a day or a few days, so they can literally see what life would be like at that university and help the students choose their higher education institution.

They're not to be confused with campus visits, orientation events, summer classes, or enrichment programs.

While UK taster sessions often include campus tours, info sessions, workshops, and/or interactive activities with current students, they're not quite the same as other programs often seen in the US.
Taster sessions are typically longer than an open house, but shorter and more focused than enrichment or summer programs, which typically are held over several weeks.

Instead, the taster sessions are brief experiences of a specific academic subject, and they're designed to be exploratory, giving the prospective student a taste of the university experience without going too deeply into the academic program.

They're a great way to attract potential applicants, and since they're so short-term (a day or a few days at most), they don't require a big commitment.

In contrast, enrichment programs, typically targeted at students who already have a particular academic interest or may come from underrepresented backgrounds, are more academically comprehensive—sometimes allowing students to gain academic credit—and often include critical thinking, teamwork, and leadership skill development.

How do taster sessions help recruitment?

University taster sessions in the UK serve as a powerful tool for attracting and recruiting students by providing a firsthand experience of the institution, fostering personal connections, and addressing potential concerns or questions.

They're a big part of the recruitment process, offering several benefits.

  • They allow you to showcase your strengths and uniqueness, academically or otherwise.
  • They help you build connections with potential students and facilitate ongoing marketing.
  • They foster a positive relationship that can influence enrollment decisions.
  • They can be targeted at specific groups of students (e.g. underrepresented communities) or high-priority academic subject area.
  • They enhance your reputation and leave prospective and participating current students and staff with positive experiences.
  • They allow you to showcase your entire campus and community.
  • They offer higher ed marketers a chance to provide engaging content and increased marketing visibility online and offline.
  • They offer university marketers a chance to "get into the heads" of prospective students with feedback and polls to improve your marketing to this group.

What does a taster session involve?

Students going to taster sessions get to attend sample lectures, labs/workshops, or demonstrations to help them decide if they are interested in pursuing that field… in that particular higher education institution.

Taster sessions often include:

  • A sample lecture or interactive workshop for a specific program highlighted by the taster session. These sessions would often include a real sample lecture, lab, or workshop to showcase the content and teaching style of various programs and what's on offer.
  • A faculty/professor meet-and-greet: Prospective students often have the opportunity to meet with the teaching academic and other university staff, giving them a chance to see what the teaching environment would be like.
  • A showcase of campus life: Taster sessions allow prospective students to explore the campus, facilities, and accommodations. This firsthand experience helps them visualize themselves as part of the university community. The campus tour is often given by current students.
  • Social activities or networking with current students: Authentic peer-to-peer communication is really valuable for prospective students to get an idea of campus life, social activities, and the overall student experience.
  • Extracurricular showcase: Every university has its own unique selling point when it comes to extracurricular activities, and this is a way to highlight the 'extra' offer beyond academics. It could be sports, clubs, or anything that sets the university apart.
  • Q&A with admissions staff: Prospective students often have specific concerns or questions about the university. Q&As with admissions gives you the chance to provide reassurance and clarity about the admissions process and address any concerns the student might have about it.
  • Virtual sessions: Some universities offer virtual taster days for international or remote students, which can still include all the above activities.

How universities market taster events

Several universities offer taster sessions for prospective students. Here are some examples.

1. Anglia Ruskin University

Anglia Ruskin University holds several full-week taster sessions throughout the year, including the Discover! Creative Careers taster, as well as Amplify Your Summer events.

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Anglia Ruskin University's History and English Fest

2. Teeside University

In addition to other student recruitment events, Teeside University holds a Uni Residential Taster session, where high school (secondary) students can stay for free at a local hotel for students who live outside of the Tees Valley, take part in lots of social activities, discover what life is like at the University, and get help with applications.
student recruitment taster days higher education

Teeside University's Taster Session landing page has enticing graphics
to capture the imagination of high school students

3. Solent University Southampton

Solent University Southampton offers a one-day Taster Session tailor-made for prospective students, with travel vouchers for students to come visit the University and Virtual Days for those who can't make it in person.
student recruitment taster days higher education

Solent University Southampton removes friction to attend in-person by offering travel credits

4. Birmingham City University

Birmingham City University has taken a different slant and narrows the field a bit: they invite students to visit the University in person on a tailored taster day, but only after they've received an offer to study at the University (to help students make their acceptance decisions).

student recruitment taster days higher education

Birmingham City University offers accepted applicants a chance to get to know the University more comprehensively, to help them make more informed decisions about their study

5. University of Leeds

University of Leeds targets a different audience: high (secondary) schools. They offer interactive arts & humanities workshops—organized in conjunction with the school—for students, giving them a taster of what studying their favorite subjects at university would be like. They also offer the workshops online.

student recruitment taster days higher education

University of Leeds' many academic taster options

6. University of Portsmouth

University of Portsmouth does something similar, but instead targets teachers of high school/secondary students, encouraging them to book their students as groups for a wide range of subject-specific events, workshops, and activities.

student recruitment taster days higher education-

A page that targets high school students on University of Portsmouth's taster session section

7. Queen Mary University of London

Queen Mary University of London (QMUL) has an entire hub dedicated to future students, with taster days, webinars and events, open days, direct online chat with current students, and a 'request a callback' option. 
student recruitment taster days higher education-11

QMUL's page that connects prospective students to current university students
as part of their taster session offer

8. Imperial College London

Imperial College London takes a different slant, offering instead a full 10-day Summer School, similar to the model North American Univeristies: a short-term academic program offered during the summer months designed to give high school/secondary students a preview of university life and exposure to their chosen academic field.

student recruitment taster days higher education

Imperial College London offers a week-long taster

9. Loughborough University

For post-16 students (students beyond the age of 16 who are in various education and training pathways, like college, apprenticeships, vocational training, higher education, or work-based learning ), Loughborough University has a specific program of taster sessions

student recruitment taster days higher education-2

Loughborough University offers the Inspiring Minds series with
a variety of academic options for their tasters

10. The Open University

The Open University offers entire courses online for free as a taster, encouraging potential students to continue with their online programs once they've completed the course. 

student recruitment taster days higher education

An example of a full course, free of charge, from the Open University
to entice students to apply and continue their learning

In North America

In the United States and Canada, the setup is a little different, with many universities offering summer schools and enrichment programs instead of taster sessions for prospective students. 
Here are a few examples:

Positive experiences during taster sessions—as well as summer enrichment programs—can leave a lasting positive impression on prospective students.

Is it time for your higher education institution to add new opportunities to capture the hearts and minds of prospective students with day-long university or college taster sessions?

There are plenty of other examples of Try-Before-You-Apply taster sessions, so share yours with us on social media or in the comments below. We'd love to hear about them.