It’s more important than ever for colleges, universities and private K-12 schools to understand their unique selling proposition, or USP. 

How well can your team articulate yours?

Whether they’re directly involved in recruiting, fundraising, advertising, or other marketing activities, or they have no official responsibility to pitch your school, everyone should be able to grasp your USP.

As one of my clients put it, everyone at your institution should be able to “sing the same tune.”

So let’s explore what a great unique selling proposition is and walk through how to create one.

It’s also a good idea to periodically refine your USP. An update may be long overdue.

What is a Unique Selling Proposition?

Sometimes we talk about the elevator pitch (or elevator speech) and the unique selling proposition interchangeably. That’s okay. There are many similarities.

The main difference between them is that while an elevator pitch is externally focused, a USP is more internally focused. It’s what your external message is built around.

“What is your Unique Selling Proposition? What makes you different [from] your competitors? Wrap your advertising message around that USP and communicate it in a clear and concise manner.”
– Lynda Resnick

It’s something we say to ourselves before we try to communicate it to others. Crafting a USP involves recognizing your own value, mining for substance in your own brand.

The exercise of creating a USP for your school goes beyond expressing the features I imagine you can already identify:

  • Quantifiable facts – the size of the student body, number of programs, tuition and aid, etc.
  • Basic qualifiers – liberal arts college, technical school, private Christian college, etc.

Your goal is to identify the most impactful lens through which you present information about your school. It’s an authentic, core source of inspiration for you.

And once applied to external communications, it will inspire your target audience, too.

How to Craft Your Unique Selling Proposition

There are many ways to do this. What I’m presenting here is a loose framework with a few specific ideas you could try.

Put yourself in the student’s shoes.

Hopefully, everyone at your institution agrees that your school’s value is ultimately best measured by its impact on students. 

There are other audiences, of course. But your students should be front and center here.

Start by picturing an ideal student. Ask yourself:

  • Who is this person?
  • What do they want?
  • What are their needs?
  • How do you meet those needs?

It may help to do this for multiple ideal students, or personas

For each one, consider what items they’re looking for when researching schools. Take a long look at how well you check off those boxes.

One approach to uncovering uniqueness is the “crossroads USP” method. Try to find two aspects of your school that the average person might not expect to go together.

  • Maybe your school is very small but offers an impressive number of international experiences.
  • You may offer strong STEM programs with an equally strong focus on spiritual development.
  • Your sports programs might have a strong record, but players are even better known for their service to the community.

Any time you see a pair of boxes checked that most people would consider an either/or scenario, you’re onto something.

But imagining what might stand out to your ideal students will only take you so far. I’d suggest digging deeper.

Consider other motives for choosing your school.

Even though selecting a school is a major life decision for students and parents, it’s usually not an entirely rational decision. 

Your real USP might touch on subtleties you don’t always think of as benefits. Students may be choosing your school because:

  • They like the scenery.
  • You’re closer to a cool city than they were back home.
  • They’re interested in a particular class taught by a “celebrity” professor.
  • A certain program connects with their unique sense of personal mission.
  • Their parents or siblings went to your school.
  • They considered your school to be “reputable” based mostly on name recognition.
  • A recruiter was kind to them.

Some of these reasons might be very specific to an individual, but what if there’s a pattern that you’re missing?

What if lots of students are choosing your school mostly because the campus and surrounding areas are attractive? 

Or even students who aren’t taking your celebrity professor’s class think it must be a good school just because that professor teaches there?

To find out, consider surveying your students. Many of my clients find more than enough value in student surveys to justify the time and effort. 

It helps to make your survey anonymous. I suggest this for a couple of reasons.

  1. Anonymity encourages blunt honesty. It helps to know what students don’t like about your school, too. This will help you focus your USP on strengths.
  2. Anonymity also encourages unvarnished truth. You don’t want the polished answers. You want their irrational reasons, the ones that would make them shrug while admitting.

You might be surprised by the answers. Students may be choosing your school for reasons you had no idea were differentiators for them.

There may also be a differentiator you were aware of, but it’s an even greater strength than you had considered before.

This is invaluable information. It helps you refocus your marketing efforts on what really connects with your target audience in a way only your school can.

“I’m not saying that charming, witty and warm copy won’t sell. I’m just saying I’ve seen thousands of charming, witty campaigns that didn’t sell.”
– Rosser Reeves, “Inventor” of the USP

Realign your beliefs about what truly makes your school unique.

How many times have you heard other schools just like yours proudly touting almost the same facts?

This often happens because there is an established selling proposition, or set of selling points, that are notable, they just aren’t particularly unique.

  • Notable selling points are those that help prospective students put you into a box with similar schools, helping them narrow down their college search.
  • Unique selling points distinguish your school from others in that box, effectively giving students the confidence to choose your school over the other contenders.

It’s pretty common to fall back on notable selling points but not make any that are truly unique.

This is not only because some points you think are unique aren’t. It’s also because some points you don’t think are unique really are, and you’re missing the boat by not focusing on them.

This is about realigning your beliefs about your school with the perspective of what Seth Godin calls “the true believers.”

“Instead of working so hard to prove the skeptics wrong, it makes a lot more sense to delight the true believers. They deserve it, after all, and they’re the ones that are going to spread the word for you.”
Seth Godin

You would be forgiven for feeling a little defensive about the value of traditional higher education these days. As costs rise, so does the pressure to justify those costs.

But your unique selling proposition is not about justifying anything.

A strong USP is about pointing your finger directly at those aspects of your school that students love, the benefits that alumni will never regret paying for as they look back on their experience.

If you can do that, you’ve got a powerful sense of community pride and an authentic foundation for powerful, effective enrollment marketing campaigns.

Let’s work together to uncover or rediscover your school’s unique selling proposition.

I’d love to connect with you to discuss the uniqueness of your school.

  • Maybe you know exactly what it is and you want to explore how to articulate it better.
  • Or, you might be using a USP that needs updating.
  • You might have no idea what your USP is and feel the urgency to explore that.

Wherever you are on this journey, a powerful, unique selling proposition is right around the corner. 

If you’re ready to start this conversation, just reach out and let me know.


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Featured image by gustavofrazao via Adobe Stock

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