It’s no secret that the Direct Applicant is the most elusive type of student when it comes to every institution’s Clearing. Often they have received their results in previous years, and aren’t waiting for that Results Day green light. This can make it difficult to track and measure whether your Clearing campaigns are really working for them. ​

direct applicant

But you shouldn’t take this as a sign to overlook this group. In fact, Direct Applicants now account for the second largest group of Clearing applicants, with their market share continuing to increase from 18% in 2016 to 35% in 2020. Long story short? There’s opportunity here, you just need to know how to attract and measure these direct, decisive students. And it’s all in the data.

We took the complex Direct Applicant persona and broke it down even further into three different subgroups, to really get to grips with the students who make up this segment, and most importantly, how to connect with them. 

Group 1: The typical student

The first core group of the Direct Applicant persona share the motivations and behaviours of the traditional student. Think similar demographic breakdown, age (17-18), household income and spread of course choices. They also mirror the same priorities, favouring higher-tier universities if possible and the same concerns, worried about accommodation, rather than fielding family or work commitments like their older counterparts. 

The only major difference? They didn’t make an application in January. Either missing the deadline, or believing they had a better chance of securing a place by going directly into Clearing. The good news? From a marketing perspective, this segment is already covered within your traditional Clearing campaigns.

Group 2: The gap year student

The next subgroup could be considered the gap-year group, either taking a break from education, working for a year, or going travelling. Like the previous group, there are some similarities with traditional students, in that most students in this group have completed A Levels, are free of family and work commitments and are influenced by similar figures.

However a notable difference is shown in their researching behaviours:


The key takeaway: this group get serious about Clearing in June and July when Clearing places open. As they already have their exam results, they have no need to wait and so can apply earlier than the younger cohort.

As a result, it’s worthwhile pulling this subgroup out as a separate segment  and focusing some of your budget on a June/July campaign for this age group alone. This will provide a better ROI than lumping them together with the younger audience who are on a different schedule waiting for their results to come in.

Group 3: The mature student

The final subgroup of the Direct Applicant persona best shows the benefit of further segmenting your audience. Not only because this group shows quite different behaviours to the other two, but also within this group, the older the student, the greater these differences become.

Firstly, looking at when this group start researching Clearing places: there is a peak in July leading up to A Level Results Day, however, there is a much longer tail for weeks after, with 11% actually starting to look for a place more than two weeks after Results Day.

Next up, we quickly start to see a much wider split of studies and qualifications:


For the 21-29 age group, there is a higher percentage of students who completed BTECs, NVQs, Access to HE courses and Certificates of HE, rather than A Levels. For the 30+ group, there’s a real swing towards NVQs, Access to HE and Certificates of HE, but a large number also have a wide range of previous undergraduate degrees, suggesting that they’re a group looking to retrain and potentially move into a new sector.

As we progress through this age group, the subject split becomes more and more focused on nursing and subjects allied to medicine. This matches the findings of UCAS this year, with a record number of nursing applications influenced by the impact of Covid-19 and the great work done by healthcare professionals during the pandemic. Arguably an overused buzzword from 2020, but how can you lead with messaging of retraining to really connect and drive action from this group? 

From a strategic marketing standpoint, there is huge value in targeting this growing and interesting segment with a very different approach. Certainly, the positioning of specific courses, access to funding opportunities and flexibility is important, but you will need to really think about where to target this audience, which local population centres are going to be within a commutable distance, and your platform and channel choices to match the older student profile. 

This group has significantly higher usage on Facebook and Messenger, while Instagram is only really prevalent in the 21-29 group with a drop off among the over 30s. So this must reflect in your advertising. This group are also more likely to be living with a partner and family, so again, how does your messaging, timing and positioning differ to that of your traditional Clearing campaigns aimed at the first two subgroups? ​

Another consideration is to focus spend in July combined with a much longer tail, always-on approach to continue to drive applications long after Results Day. Remember the Gap Year Student’s activity should drive action a month earlier, showing how a slight tweak in your campaign timing can make all the difference to your results. 

We’ve only scratched the surface of what we’ve uncovered from the 2020 National Clearing Survey (download the full report here), but this simple segmentation shows the power of digging deeper to understand your audience. We’ll be bringing you more insights from the NCS throughout 2021, but if you would like to talk to our experts about your 2021 Clearing campaigns in the meantime, get in touch today. ​

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Article by

Nick Willmer

Head of Marketing