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A College Admissions Secret You Won’t Believe

Updated: May 19

A whimsical collage of a man reading a book atop a mountain, with a hot air balloon in the background

I’ve been scouring the latest college admissions research lately (so you don’t have to!), and holy moly, did I find a gem.

Buried 100-odd pages into Who Gets In and Why by Jeffrey Selingo, there’s an absolutely mind-blowing college admissions secret I’ve never encountered.

In order to understand it, though, I want to give you a little background information first. Otherwise, you might not believe me!

Background (“Yield rate”):

You know how colleges are always being ranked? Well, one frequently-used metric in determining rankings measures how many students are accepted vs. how many actually enroll (the “yield rate”).

This is because if you’re accepted at a really good school, you’re more likely to go than if you get into your backup. It’s basically a crowd-sourced way to rank the schools.

The other reason schools obsess over their yield rate? Money.

If a school accepts students who don’t actually enroll, they can’t fill their classes, are forced to lay off staff, etc.

Segue (“Demonstrated Interest”)

One of the ways schools determine which students are likely to enroll is by evaluating their “demonstrated interest.”

I think many of us anecdotally know that, if your dream school comes to campus, it’s important to stop by and check in. Even better, visit the college and take a tour. Somehow, these people just seem to have a better chance of getting in.

Why? They’ve demonstrated interest! This next part is from Who Gets in and Why by Jeffrey Selingo:

About one in five schools say demonstrated interest is of “considerable importance” in their admissions decisions, according to an annual survey by the National Association for College Admission Counseling. That’s about the same weight they give to counselor recommendations and essays, even more consideration than given teacher recommendations, class rank, and extracurricular activities. WHO GETS IN AND WHY BY JEFFREY SELINGO

You might be tempted to think that the 30% who don’t are the top schools — the ones you’d want anyway — but that’s not the case.

Most top-100 schools have to obsess over the yield rate as much as anyone else. After all, if they admit too many low-achieving students to fill classes, they stop being a top school. If they only admit high-achieving students, but those students accept offers elsewhere, they develop a low yield rate, can’t fill classes, and lose money.

Think about it like this: even high-achieving students have “backup” schools.

Northeastern University, for instance, accepts many students who didn’t get into Harvard. After all, they’re only about 10 minutes from each other, and Northeastern (while ranked closer to 50 than 1), is still perfectly respectable.

Nearly every school has to juggle these numbers, determining the exact number of students to admit to fill the classes, without overselling (extremely difficult, considering how many students apply to 7-12 schools), or accepting too many students who will enroll elsewhere.

The Secret – Open Your Emails

As Gen-Z has started going to college, admissions officers have found that an increasing number of what they call “stealth applicants.”

Instead of going to college fairs and attending tours, they do their research online. So, how do schools track them? How do they evaluate demonstrated interest?

Selingo, recounting the extensive research he did at schools throughout the country, including Davidson, Emory, Tulane, and more, talks about a day he spent with the senior director of undergraduate admissions at the University of Toledo.

They are sitting in his office, monitoring the constant string of visitors to the university’s website, while a specialized software builds a profile on each applicant:

Pierce digs deeper on one of them, looking at the “engagement summary” that reveals this person – or at least this particular IP address – has visited the university’s website eight times over the last month, looking at thirty-two pages. Each click is a digital breadcrumb that follows the user…compiling every movement as he advances. Every so often, a pop-up appears…The goal is to collect some tidbit of information from this user…Once Pierce’s system has a name, it’s added to the university’s customer management system, or CRM, which Toledo like most colleges uses to track prospective students and serve them customized information. WHO GETS IN AND WHY BY JEFFREY SELINGO

According to Selingo, Colby College (currently ranked #15 in liberal arts colleges) uses the same software. So do around 50 other colleges, and many other schools use similar programs.

Here’s the deal: if you want to attend a certain school, it’s a good idea to let them build a profile of you.

Only around 30% of students actually fill out their name on those annoying pop-ups. This means 70% of students are wasting an opportunity here!

It will almost certainly mean more emails/letters, but filling out that information delights admissions officers. It gives them a quantifiable way to track how interested you are in the school.

And once you start getting all those emails? Don’t just trash them! They’re being monitored, too. Selingo continues:

How many of their emails did you open and how quickly? Did you follow them on social media? Did you show up when an admissions representative visited your school? Have you taken a campus tour? WHO GETS IN AND WHY BY JEFFREY SELINGO

Conventional ways of demonstrating interest (like applying early, or visiting the school) are still important. In fact, a 2017 study of more than 12,000 applicants to highly-selective universities found that those who visited campus increased their chances of getting accepted by a whopping 30%.

But digital activities are becoming increasingly important, especially in today’s post-COVID age.

Pro tip? Click on a link from one of their emails. This will ensure your IP address is connected to the right person.

Often we “dribble out” information, giving our first name here, city there, and intended major somewhere else. You want to make sure all of this is credited to you, rather than the “anonymous” pile.

Bottom Line

Here’s the deal: you can open all the emails in the world, but you still have to be a good fit for the school.

More than anything, schools focus on your academic history. Work as hard as you can in the hardest classes you can manage.

And, as though that’s not enough, don’t forget to be well-rounded. Being a straight-A student at the expense of everything else isn’t necessarily a good thing.

Hopefully this little tip helps you in your college hunt! Sometimes it’s nice to know that colleges are just as desperate to know you like them as the other way around!

Some of the links in this post are Amazon affiliate links, which means I may earn a small commission on qualifying purchases at no additional cost to you.

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