Why Showing Colleges You Like Them Gets You In (Guest Post)

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Note from Ms. Sun: This advice is great for non-UC colleges but are not applicable to UCs; always do your research and be aware of college-specific quirks!

If you’re looking for a relatively easy way to boost your college admission chances, then you need to know about an under-appreciated factor that’s crucial to many schools: demonstrated interest.

Demonstrated interest is admissions-speak for “Will this applicant likely enroll if we offer them a spot?

This can be powerful for 3 reasons:

  1. Since most students don’t know about demonstrated interest, you get a leg up on the competition.
  2. Demonstrating interest is, as we said, relatively easy — we’ll give 11 concrete tips and tricks below.
  3. For schools that care about demonstrated interest, they care about it a lot. Getting this right can give a big boost.

To be clear: not all schools do care about demonstrated interest. An easy way to see if it’s a factor is to Google [school name] + “demonstrated interest.” For example, Boston University looks for it; Brown doesn’t. Tippy top schools are less likely to care.

A school that weighs demonstrated interest in admissions is also likely to ask you to write a “Why Us”-type essay. But you need more than a strong “Why Us” essay to score those easy demonstrated interest points. It’s a holistic factor, and the things colleges look at to assess your interest in them may surprise you. This blog post will show you exactly what to do.

Schools move up the rankings when more applicants accept their offers

Colleges really, really care about offering admission to students who want to enroll. That’s because “yield” is a critical factor in the influential college rankings of US News and World Report. Yield is the percentage of accepted students who actually enroll. It shows which schools students prefer over others (i.e., what school does a student choose when they have competing offers?).

Moving down in the rankings can lead to a death spiral. Research shows that, as a school goes down, their yield decreases. They then need to give more tuition aid to entice students to attend. In other words, lower yield lowers rankings … which lowers yield. And a lowered yield costs a school money.

Bottom line: a college’s ranking = money. For many schools, this is serious stuff.

True, the Harvards and MITs of the world have such high yields that they don’t care. Applicants always prefer them.

But many excellent schools just below that tippy top echelon do care. Examples include prestigious places like Tulane, Cooper Union and Kenyon, which all compete for students with Stanford and the Ivys.

For schools that care, they often give “demonstrated interest” the same weight as they do to counselor recommendations and essays — a lot. (That’s more than they give to extracurriculars, class rank, and teacher recommendations.)

Unfortunately, this system skews who gets admitted. Students who seem likely to attend get a boost; others who seem unlikely get denied. Ultimately, it’s a trap for the unwary — students can get rejected by their top-choice school simply because they didn’t know how to “demonstrate” their “interest.”

Here’s our 2-part strategy for avoiding this trap, and getting an application boost:

  1. Follow our 11 tips and tricks for showing demonstrated interest
  2. Write a strong “Why this School” essay if the school has one.

This article will show you exactly how to do both.

11 tips and tricks for showing Demonstrated Interest as you apply

Don’t look now but … they’re tracking you.

Schools use CRMs (customer relationship management tools) in which they populate every interaction you have with them. What schools track may differ, but they’re becoming increasingly similar and sophisticated.

For example, a 2017 study found students with the highest SAT scores most benefited from visiting campus. This suggests colleges are less likely to accept students if they think they’re that student’s “safety school.”

Once you know you’re being tracked, you’ve got a huge advantage! For schools that do care about demonstrated interest, here are 11 tips and tricks that will help you check that box:

Tip #1: Make sure their website cookies do track you

Give them your email address somehow when visiting their site. You can do this by:

  • requesting information from the school,
  • clicking on a link to the website from an email they’ve sent you, or
  • creating an account for a college’s website, if it’s an option.

In addition, make sure you visit the college’s website at least a few times before you apply — and always from the same computer, tablet or phone (the college must know it’s you). Poke around the website; investigate stuff you’re interested in. You will do this deeply if you write a Why Us essay, but just know that diving into a college’s academic offerings is a great way to show interest.

Tip #2: Start your application early

Once you add the school on the Common App, they can start connecting with you (and tracking you). You don’t need to complete or enter any information on your actual application for this to start helping you.

Tip #3: Attend events put on by the school + follow them on social media

Be sure to use your same email address, so they can track you easily. It goes without saying that if the school visits your high school in person, you should show up.

Tip #4: If possible, visit the school in person

Take the official tour so the college has a record of you. If it’s financially or otherwise out of reach, attend a virtual tour. The 2017 study showed that visiting both in-person and virtually gave a boost to those students’ admission chances (though less so for virtual).

Tip #5: Open all emails from the school, quickly. And click on the links

Yes, they can track your opens. When you open the email the same day you got it, you show more interest.

Also yes, they can track your clicks. While you’re at it, you might as well read the material. It can be quite helpful, especially for your all-important Why Us essay (more on that below).

Tip #6: Attend summer programs put on by the school

You may not have the means or time to attend a summer program, but it can be a helpful connection to a college and a reason for applying.

Tip #7: Get to know your region’s admissions officer

Make sure they know you really want to go there. If it’s your top choice, say so. If your admission officer has got to know you, they’ll be able to put in a personal good word for you, which can help significantly when the school reviews your application.

Tip #8: Tell your recommender you love that school

If your recommender is sending a letter to an individual school, you should let them know you’re excited about it. Don’t be afraid to tell them that they can include a word on that in their letter.

Tip #9: Tell your counselor you love that school

Similarly, let your counselor know which school(s) you care about most in case they’re in communication with those schools.

Tip #10: Be enthusiastic in interviews

This is true for any interview, but particularly so if the school considers demonstrated interest. Sell your interviewer on the fact that you’d love to enroll.

Tip #11: Write a great “Why Us” essay

Students tend to write poor Why Us essays because they don’t do their research. But with our comprehensive guidance, you’re going to do an excellent job here. If the college is your top choice, make that clear and explain your reasoning.

Finally, applying early decision, which is binding, is a strong way to show demonstrated interest. But weigh this decision carefully. This decision has a lot of serious implications, financially and in terms of how it limits your choices.

How to write a strong “Why this school” essay

A successful “Why Us” essay = [your interests] + [research on how the school matches your interests]

To flesh things out just a little more, this question is asking whether you’re a good fit for the school. Here’s an approach to writing that essay that we’ve found works well for most students:

First, pat yourself on the back. As we said above, most students write terrible “Why Us” essays. The fact that you’re reading this means you’re going to differentiate yourself. Well done.

Second, brainstorm what you’re looking for in terms of academics, extracurriculars, school, and learning style. Things you can consider include:

  • What you like to study; where you’ve done well in school;
  • What you like to do outside of school (extracurriculars, volunteering, family stuff);
  • How you learn best (ex: in groups, via big lectures, by doing); and
  • What kind of intellectual and cultural atmosphere you want during your college years.

Third, spend a few hours researching the school (the thing most students skimp on). Go on the school’s website; look at the department pages for majors you might be interested in. Get a sense of what specific classes they offer, and what professors do. Perhaps there are research opportunities with professors in areas of interest. Also look at activities that match your interests (ex: clubs, sports, school newspapers).

Fourth, mind your “don’ts”. There are a lot of off-putting cliches that colleges see in Why Us essays again and again. Avoid them.

“Don’t” examples include:

  • Don’t write about a school’s or a program’s rankings. That feels impersonal and grimy.
  • Don’t write about how great the professors are. All schools have good faculty. Instead, get specific if you write about faculty. Name names.
  • For NYU, don’t write about wanting to live in NYC. Everyone does that. Think about the most clished thing a particular campus might hear: they probably do — avoid writing it.

Fifth, read the prompt so very carefully! Answer every part of it exactly. Missing part of the question is a great way to show you don’t care.

Finally, write your essay like a love letter to the school. Write about your experience with the school to date, and why you think it’s a good fit. Convince the school to marry you! The research you’ve done will put you well ahead of most students, so you can relax and enjoy this a little.

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