Nine ways to improve your university course descriptions

Jo Marshall | April 3, 2023 | Copywriting |  Higher education |  Writing Tips | 

(Uni marketers: this one’s for you.)

Let’s talk about your course pages.

You know the ones. The pages on your website that include all the information about each course you offer as a uni, and what it covers.

Not likely to be as high up the priority list as your prospectus or high profile ad campaign, granted.

But for many unis, course pages happen to be some of the most visited pages on their website.

Because…after you’ve sparked prospective students’ interest with your high profile comms, and nudged them along with your social media content – it’s your web pages they’re likely to head to, to get the detailed info on each course, and what they can expect.

So, how do yours measure up?

Be honest:

Are your course pages presenting an inspiring and compelling case for why someone would want to study with you, over another institution?

Or does the way you talk about your courses on your website feel a bit cobbled together somehow, or not thought about enough?

Or (even worse) could your course entries potentially be putting good candidates off?

If you fall into the second or third camp, this post is for you.

We’ve pulled together ideas we’ve gleaned from working on hundreds of course entries for leading unis.

What have we learnt along the way?

What’s the key to getting them right?

Here are our top nine tips to keep in mind when you’re developing or reworking a course entry, or commissioning a copywriter to do that for you.

1. Shine a light on what makes you different

If you’re not doing this clearly at the moment (spelling out your points of difference), this is the place to start, if you want to add value to your course descriptions.

It’s still surprisingly common to see unis falling back on dry descriptions of their subjects that do little to sell what sets them apart. So do your very best to not fall into that trap with yours.

As is the case with your prospectus, your course copy is the ideal place to:

  • Highlight the benefits students can expect from your teaching
  • Underline the reasons why someone would want to study with you rather than anyone else
  • Bring your student experience to life.

Your ultimate aim? To give aspiring students a clear idea of the value they’re going to get for their £9,000. So they feel confident in your offer, and have all the info they need to take the next step (whether that’s to sign up for a virtual open day, request a prospectus or contact the PL – anything that’s going to move them closer to making you one of their coveted ‘UCAS five’.)

2. Get it straight from the horse’s mouth

Once you know where you need to get to with your course entry (copy that gives a definitive answer to the ‘why you’ question), the next step is to pull together all the information you need to articulate that convincingly.

There are documents that can feed into this, like the programme spec or information you’ve collated inhouse as part of your course development process. And it is possible to write a course entry from supplied material alone (we know, we’ve been asked to do it more than once).

But we wouldn’t advise it as an approach – if you want your course entries to really sell what you’re doing.

If time and diaries allow, it’s far better to talk to the people delivering the course, to get their on-the-ground take on things. You’ll get better material, as the PL will often find it easier to talk about what the course offers than put it in a document.

And it’s a chance to really probe and dig into the detail of what’s being promised, and what that means from a student’s perspective – information that’s likely to not have been covered fully (or, in some cases, at all) in the spec.

3. Find the right words

With all the relevant info to hand, it’s time to write up your course description in language that’ll appeal to 16-17 year olds (assuming we’re talking about undergraduate courses here).

In short, that means weeding out any dry, sector speak that’s going to detract from your narrative, stripping away material that’s too detailed or internally focused, and presenting your messages in the most logical flow. (Always bringing it back to ‘what’s in it for students’, of course.)

Does your university or college have a defined tone of voice? If so, this is the moment to refer to the guidelines, to make sure what you’re writing fits with those. Or if that kind of document doesn’t exist, set the tone you want to achieve (‘clear, accessible, engaging’ for example) – and apply that consistently across all your entries (so they all sound like they’re coming from the same place).

4. Pre-empt what students want to know

There’s no getting away from the impact of recent years. Going to uni isn’t an easy decision right now. People are unsure whether to do it at all, or whether they’ll get as good an experience with some of it happening online. Or whether they can afford it, with the cost of living crisis making everything more expensive.

And the best way to approach all of that? Make sure the things prospective students are most likely to want to know are as prominent as possible on your site. Such as information about online teaching, financial assistance and support with emotional wellbeing. (Either by including that info on your course pages or links to parts of your site where people can quickly access it.) Clear information will go a long way to reassuring anxious students.

5. Address readers as you

When it comes to it, good copy is all about connection. You want your words to resonate with the person reading them. And one of the simplest ways to do that is to talk to your reader directly (by using the word ‘you’ – a lot). 

Writing in the second person immediately makes people feel more connected to what you’re saying. And more likely to want to connect with you back.

Rather than saying: This flexibility offers our students unique opportunities to start shaping their CVs as their career aspirations take shape.

Say: You’ll have the flexibility to start shaping your CV as your career plans unfold.

6. Use descriptive headings

Layout is worth mentioning at this point, too (if you can have some input into the template you’re using).

Lots of research has been carried out into how people read online. But the key thing to know is that researchers used eye tracking software to assess how people read on screen – and all the studies pretty much showed the same thing:

Most of us don’t read websites in a linear way. We scan.

So be sure to structure your course entries with ‘scanners’ in mind. Use descriptive headings that clearly explain what that part of your entry is about. And weave benefits into them so readers can take in key messages at a glance.

7. Paint a picture with stories

Another layout point to remember is that the best course web pages tend to have several different elements in them – all working together to tell your story and bring your student experience to life.

We’ve talked about underlining the benefits of what you offer in your main course description. But case studies or testimonials are another good way to reinforce important points.

Say you want to emphasise your industry connections. You could have a student talking about their placement and how it’s helped them in their career. Quotes or videos from current students are also great for adding that human, authentic touch.

Think about including videos of mini lectures recorded for your virtual open day. Or use student stories to highlight the best parts of the course.

8. Don’t waffle on

As for level of information, keeping things succinct is the general ‘good copy’ rule. But it can be a challenge to stick to that in course descriptions, particularly when programme leaders want to add in lots of detail.

It’s worth pushing back on that, if you can. Concise copy works best on screen, and the last thing you want to do is bombard people with too much info.

Instead: opt for short sentences, keep each paragraph to one main idea, and use concise language.

In the vast majority of cases, less copy has more impact (especially online).  

9. Edit and check

And finally… a general piece of good writing advice, but worth stating nonetheless. Because after all that effort crafting your compelling course description, you don’t want mistakes and inconsistencies creeping in and undoing all your hard work.

Watch out, in particular, for people adding extra info along the way. Edit any new content so it’s all in the same tone – and get someone else to check for typos or inconsistencies.

In short: if you want to attract more students to your courses, there’s a lot of value to be gained from giving your course entries some love, particularly if you’ve left them languishing a while.

Let us know how you get on, or if you have any questions (on LinkedIn or by email). We’d be more than happy to answer them.

And if you need a hand rewriting your course descriptions, you can find out about our course entry writing service here.