Case study: The strategic overhaul of Undergraduate Admissions

Get a behind the scenes look at the new Undergraduate Admissions site - and the process that supported our multidisciplinary collaboration.

Our Undergraduate Admissions site was due for a refresh! (In the image above, the old version is on the left and the new version on the right.) We used this as an opportunity to reconsider the needs of prospective students and rethink how we serve them. The result is a new website that serves as a clear, comprehensive source of information for prospective undergraduates - from their initial exploration of McGill to the decision to accept an offer of admission. Here's how we got there.

Audience research

How can digital platforms help increase applications and enrolments from the best students in the world? And how can we get there with a small, lightweight team (composed of members from Enrolment Services' Communications unit, Digital Communications, Marketing, and the Web Services Group)?

We began with audience research. We gathered all the data we could find on prospective students (at the undergraduate, graduate, certificate and continuing studies levels). We reviewed market researchindustry research, our own user testing and journey mapping data, and interviewed key staff that interact with prospective students. 

The first finding that helped us narrow our scope? Undergraduate, graduate, and continuing education students are interested in similar topics, but their needs, expectations, and concerns differ. Since the undergraduate recruitment website was in need of a replacement, and since this is one of our largest audiences, this seemed like a natural place to focus our attention. (We couldn't resist refreshing the graduate admissions site a bit, too, but that's a subject for another day.)

From our research into the prospective undergraduate experience, we learned that:

  • Finding information about academic programs is the number one reason prospective applicants visit our site
  • Prospective applicants may not know which program they want to apply to
  • Many are confused by our faculties and the structure of our programs
  • This is a stressful time: prospective applicants need to know what to expect every step of the way...
  • Yet we don't offer them an easy path to go from exploring to applying (and accepting!)


What does a great undergraduate recruitment website look like? We reviewed over 20 direct competitors and sector leaders, looking for best practices and standards in our industry; expectations or habits users might bring to our site after using others; strong examples of program finding workflows; and emerging standards that could improve longevity or improve user experience. As you might expect, we also uncovered a number of cautionary examples that would help us focus our efforts (and avoid a painful lesson).

Our key insights from this process:

A simple, effective site is better than an ambitious (but imperfectly realized) concept

Sometimes, users appreciate novelty and will tolerate rough edges in an innovative or exciting experience. This is not one of those times. Our site should be simple, concise, and clearly branded.

User-centric organization and labeling schemes are more useful than “teaching” users to navigate internal structures and jargon

As we mentioned above, this is a stressful time for our users and it may be their first experience with academic bureaucracy. They may also apply to multiple institutions, so McGill-specific quirks are especially obvious (and unwelcome). We should use the clearest, most user-friendly terminology and structure possible. Institutional details and jargon should only appear when absolutely necessary.

To maximize success, provide a clear workflow, a limited set of options, and only the necessary information for the current step

Choose from over 300 programs! That sounds great...until you're trying to pick one. Even when a user knows what they want, there's no guarantee that we offer the exact program (using the exact name) they have in mind.

When our recruiters meet with prospective applicants, they start with the things the applicant already knows (like what they're interested in and where their academic aptitudes lie). Once the field is narrowed to a manageable number, recruiters then offer the details applicants want (like career options and information on the student experience) to help compare between top picks. 

The best websites mirror this workflow by encouraging users to narrow their choices and revealing details only when they're useful for making a decision. They also avoid useless distractions like generic images, excessively wordy descriptions, and esoteric language. 

(Note that we conducted additional user testing and research throughout the project, which supplied data to make key decisions like which terminology to use and how to organize our programs into user-friendly categories.)

What we did

Armed with knowledge, we set out to restructure and optimize the digital experience of prospective undergraduate students. The project often alternated between three work modes:

  1. Collective workshops where we drew on group knowledge (and select experts) to clarify user needs, create wireframes, and validate content choices
  2. Independent work on design, content, architecture, and development drafts;
  3. Small group work to refine drafts or solve a targeted problem

Our main deliverable was a new Undergraduate Admissions site, featuring:

  • Simplified, user-centric site architecture 
  • Concise content with consistent, engaging tone
  • An industry-leading program finding workflow
  • Complete integration of application information (formerly housed on
  • Thoughtful use of personalization by applicant type (e.g. Quebec CEGEP, U.S. high school, etc.) to further simplify user experience
  • Reduced costs and maintenance (the new site is now part of our centrally-supported WMS!)

Our small, cross-functional team also served as a pivot point and unifying force across disparate marketing and recruitment activities. (These included online ads, email marketing, support services, and events.) While the site was our main focus, our best accomplishment as a team was a persuasive, integrated recruitment approach anchored in a shared understanding of our audience. This is a great example of how a multi-unit collaboration can have an impact that's greater than the sum of its parts.  

The collateral benefits extended to the rest of the University, too: this project helped identify and accelerate high-impact design changes that benefit all 900+ WMS sites. You can read more about those changes in our recent articles:

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