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Alumni Survey Do’s and Dont’s

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Alumni Survey Do’s and Dont’s

It’s no question that surveying your alumni population can generate valuable data for your institution. Accurate survey results can help you update information on your alumni’s current location, job, and communication preferences. You may be able to learn about where their on-campus affinities lie, which could inform how you engage with that alum in the future. Surveys can also provide insight into how likely an alum is to attend an event, volunteer, or donate to your university. This information would be incredibly influential in how your Alumni Relations team supports its constituents, but too often, survey response rates fall flat. At the Portland Research Institution Summit in July 2018, Jerold Pearson, former Director of Market Research at Stanford University and current independent research contractor, shared a few “Do’s and Don’ts” to help ensure the time invested in creating your alumni survey pays off: 

The Do’s of Alumni Surveys


Ask Questions in Chronological Order

Consider the structure of the questions you’re asking. Surveys have to flow cognitively, especially to get quality results. Start with questions about before, then during, and after the experience. For example, when requesting feedback about a local alumni happy hour, start with easy-to-answer demographic questions (e.g., “What industry do you work in?”), then request feedback on the event registration process (e.g., “How did you find out about this event?”), followed by questions about the actual event experience (e.g., “Did the event meet your expectations?”), and wrap up with questions that help you understand the alum’s willingness to engage in the future (e.g., “Would you be interested in attending or coordinating a future alumni gathering?”). To take it a step further, group related questions into subsections, which prime the survey taker on what you’re about to ask.

Clearly Define the Objective(s) 

Surveys aren’t fishing expeditions – you’re testing hypotheses. As your team drafts the survey, spell out what hypotheses you’re testing, and create questions that will definitively confirm or deny your speculations. Any question that doesn’t directly contribute to your survey objective should be removed, which helps to keep your survey focused and concise. This is to say that your survey at large has a unique objective, and each question should serve a specific purpose as well. You don’t necessarily need to explicitly share the objective in your survey, however, it may help alums understand why their response is so valuable to your team. The University of Pennsylvania, for example, publishes the objective of their Undergraduate Alumni Survey:


Use Labels Over Scales

Scales are a classic surveying method and may seem easier to extract quantitative results, but labels are much easier for respondents to make meaningful distinctions among, and for you to interpret later. It’s much easier to ask an alum how well their undergraduate institution prepared them for their current career using a range of labels from “Very Poorly” to “Very Well” instead of requesting they differentiate between a “6” and a “7”. Scales promote unnecessary levels of ambiguity and bias. Instead, confirm the question’s objective in advance – including how you’d like to report the data – and use labels when possible.

alumni surveys

The Don’ts of Alumni Surveys


Don’t Start the Survey with an Open-Ended Questions

This is one of the most common mistakes, and it immediately turns your survey taker off by giving the impression that the survey will take a long time to complete. Start your survey with a few multiple choice questions that are easy to answer. By the time they reach the open-ended questions, they’ve already invested time in completing the majority of the survey, so it doesn’t seem like too much of a stretch to spend a few more minutes on questions that require a longer response. For example, instead of kicking off the survey with “What was your biggest takeaway from the presentation?”, ask the user to rate how valuable the presentation was and end the survey with the open-ended question.

Don’t Ask Questions You Already Know the Answer To

Alums are doing you a favor by completing the survey, so don’t waste their time asking questions you already have data to answer. This could involve asking whether an alum received financial aid, which year they graduated in, or whether they’ve made a gift to your institution. iMake every question meaningful to the purpose of your survey. Where you have existing data, pre-populate those fields (e.g., name or other demographic data) to make survey completion as easy as possible. 


Don’t Request Responses or Ratings From a Long List

Psychology comes into play with this don’t. Due to the primacy and recency effects, which says that respondents are more likely to pick either the first or last options in a list, respectively, you’re likely to inject bias into your survey results when requesting a response from a long list.

Jerold also finds that respondents are asked to rate several different items in a list, they tend to thoughtfully answer the first few items, and then select one rank and generally apply it to the remaining items in the list.


To overcome this don’t, trim your list so each line item is relevant and actionable. If you don’t want to remove any line items, break up the longer list into multiple questions / tables. You can also try randomizing the list order to avoid bias.

Now that you’ve got the basics of alumni surveying down, what do you do with that data? Learn how information gathered through surveys can help you better personalize your messaging to alums, so that the right person is reaching out with the right message at the right time.

Co-founder & President

John Knific is co-founder and President of Wisr. An entrepreneur who is passionate about what education technology can do for students, John's on a mission to tackle the big challenge of getting students connected with jobs after college by engaging alumni.

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