My College:
High School

The Flip Side of "Demonstrated Interest"

V. Peter Pitts, M.A.

Parents always ask me how important “demonstrated interest” is in the college application process. At elite colleges with competitive admissions, the interest a student shows in the college (visits, calls, social media interaction, responsiveness to emails) does become a significant factor in admission decisions.

But as you go down the list of colleges in terms of ranking and selectivity, there is a “tipping point” where the college wants (and needs) the student more than the student wants the college. Actually, this is true at probably 80% of all colleges and 90% of all small private colleges.

Then the question for the student becomes “Which college will I choose to attend?” rather than “Which colleges will accept me?”

When demonstrated interest flips in this direction, it is the personalized interest that a college shows in a student and their family, rather than the other way around, that becomes the most significant “demonstrated interest” factor.

In a recent survey of high school juniors, only 16% said that the communications they’ve had with colleges is personalized. Rather, they are receiving communications that are “transactional, impersonal, generic and mass-message sounding.”

Before joining My College Planning Team, I was an admission representative for 42 years at seven different colleges. None were in the super-competitive-elite category, so we would recruit hard right up until the first day of classes. Demonstrated interest in the student was always of paramount importance: handwritten notes, personalized emails, family visits at Starbucks, phone calls, video calls.

Other ways that smaller colleges show interest in the students include:

  • Introducing prospective students to alumni in their field of interest
  • Introducing parents of prospective students to the parents of current students
  • Offering free or reduced airfare or arranging transportation to facilitate visits
  • Attending a high school student’s event (concert, play, athletic event, etc.) and chatting with both student and family afterward.
  • Giving students an opportunity to visit with, and ask questions of, a current student, faculty member or alum
  • Free meals and swag when students visit campus. Some colleges even put the student’s name on a sign in the visitor parking area! Anything to make a lasting impression.
  • Generous scholarships, awarded at ceremonies

These are all ways for colleges to go the extra mile. Translation (in the mind of students): “This is how personal and attentive things will be if I choose this college.”

What is the most important factor to students and parents? Responsiveness! It is so important, in recruiting students, to really pay close attention to the needs of the students and their parents or advocates.

How can you tell if a college is being responsive?

Here are my tips for students and parents to evaluate a college’s “demonstrated interest”:

  • Pay attention to responsiveness. Make notes. Are the college reps “sweating the details”? Are they following up on things? If not, it should raise a red flag. Give these colleges grades! You need to find that A+ college out there!
  • Keep track of the time it takes for colleges to get back to you — or if they get back to you. Pay attention to the way they respond. Was their response personal? Conversational? Specific to your needs and questions?
  • Pay attention to promises that admission reps make (or don’t offer to make). If they say they will find something and send it to you, did they follow through? Did they check with you after a visit to see how it went? If the college does not offer something (a certain program or activity for example), are they honest with you and even referring you to other colleges?
  • Push the envelope. If you aren't getting a response, go to the next level up. Or (and this works well at very small colleges) send a note to the Office of the President.

You deserve attention.

Your family is spending a lot of money for college and you need to make sure you are getting value for your investment. If a college is ignoring your student, maybe they need to check out a different college. What they experience in the recruitment process is usually a pretty good predictor of the total four-year experience.

This is why I have enjoyed working for small colleges. It is much easier to be personal, attentive and responsive when you are dealing with hundreds of students and parents than it is with thousands.

V. Peter Pitts, M.A., is an advisor with My College Planning Team based in the Chicago area. He retired after 42 years in the college admission business, most recently spending 27 years at Monmouth College. Peter holds a master’s degree in sociology from the University of Iowa and a bachelor’s from Wartburg College.
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