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College Admissions' Secret Strategy

Grades and SATs are set in stone, but a last-minute admissions trick is more important than ever. Marc Zawel on how "demonstrating interest" can get you into your first-choice school.

09.26.10 10:57 PM ET

For high-school seniors now applying to college, most of the important pieces of the admissions process—grades, extracurriculars, standardized tests—are in the past. They can’t be changed.

But as fall application deadlines loom, one relatively simple strategy remains on the table. It’s called “demonstrated interest” and, utilized correctly, it can give applicants a last-minute leg up on the competition.

Demonstrated interest is exactly what it sounds like. It can range from attending an information session on a college campus to sending a thank-you note after your admissions interview. And although schools vary when it comes to how much weight they give it, data show that admissions officers are increasingly relying on this factor in making decisions.

A report put out by the National Association for College Admission Counseling found that the percentage of colleges rating demonstrated interest as a “considerably important factor” increased from 7 percent to 21 percent from 2003 to 2006. It’s held steady at about 20 percent since that time. In 2008, the last year data were available, that 20 percent made demonstrated interest more important than class rank and the interview.

Why would colleges value something as simple as a thank-you note so strongly? Kent Barnds is the VP of enrollment, communication and planning at Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois. He considers demonstrated interest important for two key reasons: yield and retention. “It’s clearly an efficiency if we can focus our attention on students that want to come here and are most likely to persist.”

Barnds and his committee rate all applicants on a demonstrated interest index. Admitted students that score the highest (“strong and sincere interest”) enroll at a rate of more than 60 percent. Meanwhile, admitted students rated on the low end of the index (“wondering why this student applied”) enroll at a rate of only 13 percent. Using the index helps Augustana more accurately forecast its enrollment numbers—balancing the number of offers it makes with its target class size.

“Demonstrated interest separates the contenders from the pretenders,” said one college counselor at a prep school in New York.

But the importance of demonstrated interest in admissions decisions does vary by college. “Demonstrated interest is not important to us, our yield just doesn’t make it necessary for us to take it into account,” said Tom Parker, the dean of admission and financial aid at Amherst. This is probably, he said, because highly competitive colleges have higher yields simply by nature of their competitiveness.

Our Complete College Safety RankingsEven at a school that doesn't track interest like Amherst, however, Parker still recommended that applicants take the steps to do so. “You would be foolish not to,” he said.

“Demonstrated interest separates the contenders from the pretenders,” said Michael Acquilano, the assistant head of upper school and college counselor at Staten Island Academy, a prep school in New York. “Interviews, campus visits, attending regional receptions, meeting with college reps at fairs or high school counseling offices, electronic correspondence—all of these demonstrate interest.”

But students must strike a delicate balance. “Too much contact screams desperate; too little contact can sometimes be interpreted as though the student views the institution as a backup,” said Sara Shapiro Harberson, vice president for enrollment management and dean of admission at Franklin & Marshall.

Harberson cautioned that the interest must be genuine. “Reach out with a purpose of learning something meaningful about the academic program, student experience, or application process,” she said. “If you’re just showing interest for the sake of it, admission professionals see right through it.”

And admissions officers also warned that going overboard with interest could do more harm than good. “Do not camp out on the admissions office lawn or corner the admissions dean in the men’s or women’s room,” said Dan Lundquist, an educational consultant and former director of admissions at the University of Pennsylvania and Union College. “It happened to me!”

Five Tips for Demonstrating Interest

1. Take all opportunities to demonstrate interest

Visit the college, attend an information session, take a tour, conduct an interview, meet an admissions officer at a college fair or local presentation or participate in an online chat. You want to make every effort to show a sincere and serious interest in the school. Importantly, don’t forget to sign in whenever you can—even if you’re already on a mailing list—as colleges track attendance and interest at specific events.

2. Focus on demonstrating interest at the schools where it counts most

Recognize that some colleges consider demonstrated interest more important than others. Generally, Augustana College’s Barnds said that it is schools in the “magic middle”—those under pressure to nail down the right enrollment but also just selective enough that they don’t want to make unnecessary offers of admissions—that are the most likely to consider it.

3. Students should demonstrate interest—not parents

In many cases, parents today are just as involved (if not more involved) in the admissions process. But admissions deans are clear that only interest directly from a student is considered, which means that emails, calls, or letters from parents to the admissions office play no role in ultimate decisions.

4. Make interest undeniable and clear in your application

The most effective way to demonstrate interest, according to Franklin & Marshall’s Harberson, is by “putting in the very best effort in your application.” She encouraged applicants to add a statement in the essay or attach a separate note, indicating the school as a top choice. “State your interest and show it in the most important piece of your candidacy—the actual application.”

5. Don’t become a pest

“You want to express interest in a school, but you don’t want to go overboard,” said Risa Lewak, author of Don’t Stalk the Admissions Officer. “Even if you are the perfect candidate, you undermine your case by doing something that is construed as inappropriate or annoying.”

Marc Zawel is the co-founder and CEO of EqualApp, an affordable online college admissions counseling program that provides lessons, application tools, community features and support services.