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Showing Demonstrated Interest During COVID-19

Cheryl Gottlieb Boxer


Fall is here, and our college-bound high school seniors are beginning in earnest to narrow down their college lists and work on their applications.

Of course it's not an ordinary application season! Here are just a few of the countless ways in which COVID-19 is changing how students will approach the application process:

  • Students may be unable to sit for standardized tests such as the ACTs and SATs; meanwhile, more and more colleges and universities have gone "test optional."
  • With many high schools going remote or adopting a hybrid learning option, students may have limited access to guidance counselors and to the English teachers who are often integral for college application essay assistance.
  • The spring, summer and fall campus visits that help many students make informed decisions never materialized. Many college campuses remain closed to visitors.

These cancelled campus visits may be problematic for students in another important way. Many colleges track what is called “demonstrated interest.” Demonstrated interest is the ways in which a student connects with a college to show how serious they are about attending that particular institution if offered admission. According to the 2019 State of College Admission report from the National Association of College Admissions Counseling (NACAC), most schools do in fact consider demonstrated interest in their admissions process to some extent.

Historically, students have demonstrated interest in well-established ways that include talking with a representative at a college fair, completing an on- or off-campus interview, or emailing a meaningful question to an admissions representative. For students who live near a particular school or have the time and money to travel, visiting a college’s campus has always been a powerful way to demonstrate interest.

Yet an in-person visit is not the only way to show a college your genuine interest, and in this time of COVID-19, it’s imperative that students get a little creative as they seek out information to determine which schools are a good fit, and connect with colleges to make a favorable first impression.

Here are some ways prospective students can show demonstrated interest when college campuses are closed to visitors, many college fairs are cancelled, and regional representatives no longer plan to hit the road to visit high schools this fall.

1. Connect on Social Media

Colleges and universities have embraced social media and are using it to interact with current students and attract new ones. They are sharing campus happenings using Instagram photos, YouTube videos and tweets. Many admissions offices, individual academic departments and even current students maintain blogs you can follow.

And don’t forget Facebook. It may not be a favorite with Gen Z, but colleges still enjoy a robust Facebook presence. Prospective students would be wise to follow and interact with all these different social media channels. They can utilize social media to ask questions and share feedback. Colleges are constantly monitoring these pages and responding to students, sometimes in real time. If you demonstrate interest in a school’s social media channels, they know it.

2. Visit a School's Website

There is a plethora of information to be found on a college’s website, especially if you’re willing to dig around a bit. Here you’ll find details about academic majors and minors, student clubs and organizations, dorm life, campus dining, course offerings, class size, current research and research opportunities, study abroad and so much more.

Colleges and universities are adapting their websites and their fall student outreach due to COVID-19. While some schools may offer limited on-campus prospective student events and tours, a great many others will only be offering virtual admissions events such as webinars, Zoom information sessions, online chats, virtual campus tours, video presentations and online Q&As. Information about these virtual events, including how to register, will be found on the college’s website. Sign up for these offerings! Colleges and universities will know you have, and this will go a long way in demonstrating your interest in that particular school.

While you’re on the college’s website, be sure to also fill out an interest form. This will put you on the school’s email list, and shows the college you want to learn more about them. But to really show demonstrated interest you have to open those emails when they eventually arrive in your inbox. Prospective students should probably even go one step further and click on a link or two. Many colleges use software to track these interactions.

3. Attend a Virtual College Fair

Regional representatives from colleges and universities may not be visiting your high school this fall, and it’s quite possible your high school’s upcoming college fair has been cancelled as well. But there are now some exciting new ways for students to learn about different colleges and universities, interact with these institutions and show demonstrated interest.

Common App, the undergraduate college admission application used by more than 3 million people around the world every year, has teamed up with NACAC to create virtual college fairs this fall. These free NACAC Virtual College Fairs, which are designed to be completely mobile experiences, will showcase live and interactive sessions with more than 600 college and university representatives.

Students should visit virtualcollegefairs.org to register for one or more fairs. (Parents are invited to attend as well!) The virtual fairs will be held on September 13, October 12, October 18 and November 8. On the day of the fair, simply log in and create your schedule by selecting which colleges you’d like to learn more about. Students can sign up to attend live and interactive Zoom sessions. There will even be opportunities to schedule one-on-one virtual meetings with a college representative.

Students should make the most of these virtual college fairs and show demonstrated interest by engaging in a few meaningful conversations with representatives from schools that might be a good fit. Take notes and jot down names. Your student can set themselves apart from the crowd by following up at a later date with a representative they met at the virtual fair.

Another free opportunity for students to connect virtually with colleges is being rolled out by StriveScan, providers of student scanning technology for college fairs and high school visits. StriveScan is partnering with state and regional professional organizations nationwide to create virtual opportunities to replace in-person college fairs. StriveScan’s Virtual College Exploration program will feature dozens of panel presentations and individual college information sessions. Visit StriveScan.com for more information and for a state-by-state schedule of available programs.

4. Schedule an Interview

Not every college or university offers interviews to prospective students, and due to COVID-19, many schools that previously offered on-campus interviews may be suspending that policy. Yet some schools, such as Tulane University, are actually adding a new interview option which will allow prospective students to meet virtually with admission staff.

Many other colleges encourage interested applicants to interview off campus with alumni from the school. If this option is offered, your student should go ahead and schedule that interview. As a result of the pandemic, it’s likely these interviews will be conducted via Zoom, Skype or FaceTime. Your student should treat these virtual interviews professionally, and strive to make a good impression. Alumni interviewers do report back to admissions offices (I know because I am one!), and the information they provide can help enhance your student’s application for admission.

Scheduling an interview, whether with admission staff or an alum, goes a long way in demonstrating interest in a particular school. Click here to help your student prepare to make the best possible impression >

5. Write a Well-Informed Supplemental Essay

This is where all that digging around a school’s website, attending a virtual fair, meeting with an alum and following a school on social media pay off.

While the Common Application and the Coalition Application each have a required essay, or personal statement, many colleges include their own school-specific supplemental essay(s) on the application as well. The most common supplemental essay prompt is some variation of “Why Us?” This essay is an important way to demonstrate interest in a school and a chance to prove you’ve done your research, you value what the school has to offer, and you know why you and this school are a perfect fit. It's where you can talk about the specific programs, classes, professors, clubs and research opportunities that interest you, and can share in turn what you will be able to contribute to the academic program and to campus life.

If you seem genuinely passionate about what a school has to offer, if you’ve done your research and demonstrated meaningful interest, you may very well increase your chances of being offered admission to the incoming freshman class.

Some schools may tell you this supplemental essay is optional. Write it anyway! If you don’t write the essay you’ve missed an important opportunity to demonstrate your interest in the school.

5. Apply Early

A prospective student also demonstrates interest in a college or university when they choose how they apply. If a student applies through an Early Action or Restricted Early Action deadline before the Regular Decision deadline, they are demonstrating a greater interest in that college, and because of this, many schools admit a higher percentage of students from these early rounds.

Applying Early Decision, where a student makes a commitment to the college that if they are admitted they will enroll, is in some ways the ultimate form of demonstrated interest, and provides a sizable advantage to the student. But this binding option is not right for everyone, and should be considered carefully. If having the opportunity to compare financial aid packages is important to a family, Early Decision may not be the best option.

But even applying a few weeks before a Regular Decision deadline can be helpful. It proves you are motivated and well-organized. If a school has a rolling admission policy, meaning they evaluate applications as they are received, applying early is very important. The earlier a student applies the more likely it is the college still has a large portion of their first-year class to fill. This way your application isn’t being compared to large numbers of already accepted students. For these reasons, it’s a good idea to submit your rolling applications before your regular decision applications.

There is no doubt COVID-19 has upended the college application process.

Yet colleges and universities are working hard to reinvent how they connect with prospective students, and how they offer these young people access to the information they need to make well-informed decisions. Students too will need to be creative in how they interact with these institutions. A student who is willing to reach out and show authentic and genuine interest in a school will surely stand out in a favorable way in this competitive college admissions process.

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Cheryl Gottlieb Boxer resides in New Jersey, where she micromanages a husband, her teenage children and a confounding cockapoo. Her writing has appeared in TODAY Parents, Your Teen for Parents, Scary Mommy, The Mighty, Grown & Flown and Her View From Home as well as in other online and print publications. Her essay on parenting while chronically ill is featured in the anthology, The Unofficial Guidebook to Surviving Life with Teenagers. You can follow Cheryl on Facebook at www.facebook.com/nosickdaysformom. Cheryl also proudly serves as an Alumnae Admission Representative for her alma mater, and represents the College in the admissions process by attending college fairs, interviewing applicants and participating in various recruitment and yield efforts that occur throughout the year.
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