campus_tourHardly a day goes by where something in the news is not described as “Orwellian.” Whether in reference to the government’s latest surveillance efforts or the latest app for your smart phone that is secretly mining your personal information and selling it to advertisers, the term has become nearly inescapable. Its proliferation is a sign of the computerized, information-saturated times in which we live and it’s visible in our everyday lives. Amazon.com seems to magically know when we need to order more toothpaste. The UPS driver delivering your resupply of Colgate is being monitored by his employers every time he puts his seatbelt on, backs up the truck, or gets an electronic signature. Of course, it is only a matter of time before drones completely take over package delivery, a change that may be more Asimovian than Orwellian.

In this climate, it should be of little surprise that a flavor of 1984 has entered the college admissions game. So, you ask, what exactly is Dean Big Brother watching? In this case, it’s the level of “demonstrated interest” you show toward a college. Are you their pal on social media sites? Did you visit the campus in person? Have you emailed an admissions rep to ask questions or introduce yourself? At the majority of colleges and universities today, this information is being tracked, recorded, and can actually factor into a school’s decision about whether to admit or deny an applicant.

The importance of “demonstrated interest” by the numbers

According to a recent NACAC (National Association of College Admission Counseling) survey, 20% of colleges and universities consider demonstrated interest as “very important” to a student’s application, the highest such distinction on the survey’s scale. More ballyhooed application components such as essays and counselor/teacher recommendations actually rated at the same level or lower in terms of importance. With another 34% of institutions assigning “considerable importance” to demonstrated interest, the percentage of schools who strongly value a little attention from applicants is 54%, a higher total than that of class rank, the interview, or extracurricular activities.

This emphasis on demonstrated interest is a relatively new phenomenon.  Back in 2003, just 7% of schools identified interest as being a highly important factor and a decade earlier in 1993, the category did not even exist.

What type of colleges are in the 54%?

Less than elite private colleges and universities comprise the majority of schools in this group. Most public institutions employ a largely formula-driven admissions process that accounts for little more than grades, test scores, and on occasion, extracurricular activities. In addition, public colleges can often rely on many in-state residents (who seek affordable education) to meet enrollment targets. Similarly, elite private universities always attract more highly qualified applicants than they are able to accommodate, so they rarely have to worry about filling their classrooms or coffers. Moderately and selective privates, on the other hand, have to worry about their yield rate (the percentage of admitted students who enroll) and the impact a low yield rate can have on their revenue and rankings. Institutions with a low yield rate typically have to inflate their acceptance rates and admit students with less than desirable credentials–both have negative influence on a college’s standing in U.S. News and other publications.  Just as your fifth-choice prom date doesn’t want to know that he/she was a distant back-up, schools don’t appreciate this feeling either. They want to feel wanted. Below are five tips on how to make every school on your list feel like the belle of the ball.

1. Email your admissions counselor: At most colleges, there will be one counselor responsible for reviewing applications from students in your region of the country. It’s typically, with some clever Googling, pretty easy to find your assigned counselor on any institution’s admission website.  Once you find your counselor, send a brief email introducing yourself and describing your interests in the institution. An introductory email also presents a great opportunity to ask questions related to the admissions process or a particular academic program. It is also an ideal time to show that you’ve done your research on their school by asking targeted questions about unique aspects of their campus or academic program. Remember, keep it brief. They don’t need to know your life story or your thoughts on Cartesian dualism—just the fact that you are a high school student who is interested in their school.

2. Complete an online information request form: Just about every college in the world features a page on its admission website where prospective students can request general information, subscribe to the college’s blog or admission newsletter, and/or indicate academic programs/activities that are especially appealing. They’ll likely send you piles of printed materials through snail mail which, whether you carefully peruse or toss directly into the recycle bin, will serve the purpose of communicating interest.

3. Visit campus:  Campus visits may be the strongest indicator of interest, and allows you to become intimately acquainted with a particular college.  Anyone can click on a website but only the truly interested will make the effort to travel. While there, make every effort to schedule an interview or informal meeting with your admissions counselor. Connecting in-person with an admissions officer provides you the opportunity to show your counselor that you are more than just your grades and test scores and of course gets you brownie points when they calculate your so-called interest quotient.

4. Attend admissions events in your area:  If an admissions representative from a prospective college visits your high school for an information session or college fair, make it a point to be there, and be sure to introduce yourself. If you are interested enough in a school to apply, you should definitely be interested enough to meet a rep who has traveled (sometimes across the country) right to your backyard. Afterward, send a brief thank-you email. Yes, their mailboxes are likely full of perfunctory thank-you emails—yours may even be funneled to a special folder in their email exclusively for perfunctory thank-yous. The important thing is that…you guessed it, it shows that you are genuinely interested.

5. Connect on Social Media: More schools are offering applicants the chance to create an online admissions profile where they can submit and track their online application, schedule a campus tour, and interact with college staff via Facebook, Twitter and other social media.  Take a minute to create an admissions profile at each of your target colleges, and if possible, provide detailed information about your academic and extracurricular interests. It won’t take any more time to connect with a college on social media than it did to retweet Katy Perry’s latest deep thoughts about eating tacos on the beach (believe it or not, this is an actual message which was retweeted by over 13,000 people).

Don’t go overboard

It’s nice to “like” someone’s Facebook post when it resonates with you. It’s weird to “like” every single post and picture on their entire account. The line between showing interest and stalking to the point of a full on creep-out is a fine one but there are clear divisions. To put it in movie terms, you want to be more like Hugh Grant buying someone flowers and chocolate in a romcom and less like Robert Deniro in Taxi Driver—shirtless, sporting a serial-killer mohawk, and repeatedly screaming “You lookin’ at me?” into the mirror.

Many guidance counselors and students resent the entire concept of “demonstrated interest” and see it as further evidence of the corporatization of college admissions. While they’re correct, our recommendation is to just give in and play the game—it’s simple enough and won’t take too much of your time. Plus, there’s a darn good chance you’ll learn more about your prospective institutions through this process, an outcome that will benefit both you and Big Brother.

Dave Bergman
Dave has over a decade of professional experience that includes work as a teacher, high school administrator, college professor, and independent education consultant. He is a co-author of the book The Enlightened College Applicant: A New Approach to the Search and Admissions Process (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016).