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What Colleges Look For

The Truth About Demonstrated Interest

Picture of Tom Barry
By Tom Barry on April, 21 2021 | 13 minute read

 One of the often cited but little understood factors for students applying to college is a deliberately vague feature called “Demonstrated Interest.” We’ve written before about what demonstrated interest is and why it’s important to some colleges and not others (spoiler alert: MIT doesn’t care if you click the links in their emails or not), so I’m not going to rehash all of that here.

Basically, even though colleges know that not everyone they admit will ultimately enroll, they still want to be wise about how they distribute admission offers. So in trying to make that determination, they use how much interest a particular student demonstrates in their college search and application as one way to gauge the likelihood that student will enroll if admitted. Hence: Demonstrated Interest.

But as you might imagine, it’s not quite as simple as that. Many colleges – particularly the most selective ones – don’t really bother tracking the level of interest a student demonstrates in the process. Harvard, Stanford, Yale, and the other ones most students can name off the tops of their heads have a 70+% yield all on their own. There isn’t any reason for them to worry if they’re going to make their class or not. (In case you’re curious, the average yield nationally is about 25%.) And many more – particularly larger institutions – don’t track interest because they view it as both unfair and too onerous of a task to bother. They ran the numbers and decided that a student’s track record of engagement isn’t important enough of a determinant to spend the energy trying to track it.

So, what constitutes demonstrated interest, how do you show it, and where does it come into play in the admission cycle? To answer those questions, it’s best to start from the end and work backwards.

How do colleges use demonstrated interest?

Aside from the many important factors that are used in the application review process - your grades, test scores if you submit them, activities, essays, and recommendation letters - demonstrated interest can be another factor colleges consider when making decisions.  

Surveys show that 25% of colleges rated demonstrated interest as having “moderate” to “considerable” importance as a factor in the application review process. Simply put, colleges want to admit students they believe are going to enroll. 

Where does it come into play & does demonstrated interest matter?

Chronologically, demonstrated interest doesn’t really become a factor for most applicants until the hair-splitting stage at the end. The main exception to this is Early Decision, which we’ve covered here and is basically the ultimate demonstration of interest.

Yes. At some schools, particularly the ones that are more selective AND offer some version of ED, this kind of demonstrated interest is absolutely taken into account, even if they don’t keep track of whether you visited or opened all their emails (more on that later).

Also, no. Aside from Early Decision agreements, the majority of applications at most colleges are reviewed and assessed based on the merits of the student’s academic record, essays, and overall fit for the school. At colleges that use demonstrated interest as a factor in admission, it’s usually for those students about whom they are still on the fence even after all of that thorough review. True, many schools that have Early Decision programs will admit a higher percentage of students applying ED. But that’s not because those students opened more emails. It’s the simple reality that the yield on students applying ED is more-or-less 100%, and if you’re using demonstrated interest as a way to assess likelihood of enrollment, you can’t really ask for more than that.

So, what does it look like for students who aren’t applying Early Decision at colleges where demonstrated interest actually does come into play? Let’s say there are two otherwise identical students. Elsa wrote a thoughtful and compelling answer to the “why this school?” supplement, took time to interview with an alum, and attended an online information session and campus tour. Anna applied out of the blue (the so-called “stealth app”) and doesn’t seem to have given much thought to how her priorities and those of the school might be aligned. In such a case, they’ll be more likely to admit Elsa because the amount of time and energy she took to engage means she’s more likely to actually enroll in the end. Does that mean Anna did anything wrong? No, not really. That’s just the college being judicious with their admission offers and all else being equal, when given the choice between someone who seems ready to enroll and someone who has shown limited engagement, they’ll opt for the former.*

* In case it’s not clear, we’ve been watching a lot of Frozen at home lately.

Which brings us to….

What really counts as demonstrated interest (and what doesn’t)?

Real demonstrated interest isn’t about checking a box. If it’s going to mean anything, it should be a two-way street – an opportunity to engage, for the student to learn more about the college and, in turn, the college to learn more about the student. Online school visits, taking the time to meet with an admission counselor during a virtual college fair and ask thoughtful questions, signing up for a remote campus tour, following up with a thank you message to the person who helped you – those are all points of meaningful engagement.

Opening emails, clicking links just to show you followed through, sending formulaic emails to your regional admission counselor letting them know how interested you are in their school? Not so much. These are hollow gestures. Sure, admission offices, even those that don’t factor in demonstrated interest, keep track of who opens the emails they send out. But they don’t keep track of whether YOU open an email, at least not in any way that would impact whether you’re admitted or not. They keep track because if they send something out to 80,000 prospects and only 50 of them actually open it, it means they need to refine their messaging for better impact. They don’t track it as a test to see if Anna, who opened it in five seconds, will demonstrate more interest than Elsa, who took a day or two.

And emailing your regional counselor to ask a sincere question that you still have, even after looking through the website and attending an information session, is fair game. But sending a generic email just to demonstrate interest won’t get you very far. At best, it will be ignored and chalked up to a minor waste of everyone’s time. At worst, it will violate the most basic rule of college admission: don’t annoy the person who’s going to read your application. (And according to our colleagues on the admission side of the desk, this has become a pretty common thing. Please stop.)

If you look closely, you’ll notice a theme here. As with so many things in life, there aren’t shortcuts. If you want to get credit for something, you need to do the work. It takes time, it takes thoughtfulness, and it takes reflection. But the great part about demonstrated interest is that, if done correctly and with the sincere intent, the work is the reward. When you engage with an admission counselor through an online college fair or a Zoom Open House, you open up a dialogue, a chance to learn more about the college and why it might – or might not – be a good fit for you and for your goals. Colleges get to do the same thing and learn more about you and your interests and why you might be a good fit beyond what you can squeeze into a 300-word “why this school?” short answer. So take this as an opportunity to engage, to learn, and to show colleges what sort of person you’ll be if they admit you to their campus. That’s the sort of student that every college wants to have, whether they track demonstrated interest or not.

Ways to demonstrate interest

Campus Visit

I remember spring break of my junior year of high school when my parents took me on driving tours of colleges. My mom and I went up to Maine to do the Bowdoin-Colby-Bates swing, and my dad and I toured the Pennsylvania countryside. The campus visits were incredibly helpful for me—seeing a campus come to life after reading about it in a book really helped me see if I could envision myself there. It helped me parse out which colleges I wanted to apply to, and which ones took a backseat. From the college’s perspective, tracking students’ college visits helps them see if there is a correlation between a student visiting campus and ultimately enrolling. They can use this data to tweak or enhance their on-campus programming. Not everyone has the time or ability to jump on a plane and visit a school in person, so if an on-campus visit isn’t in the cards for you just yet, there are plenty of virtual options to explore (see below).  

Attend a College Fair

While seniors are busy filling out applications and writing essays during the fall semester, college admissions representatives are driving and flying all over the country (and world!) to meet prospective students at high school visits and college fairs. You may see an announcement at your high school or even from a college itself about an upcoming college fair. (Bonus: If you sign up for a college’s mailing list, you’ll receive emails and even text messages alerting you to when they’re going to be in your area!) 

Attend a High School Visit

There is an actual, live, human on the other end of this process reading your application. Often, the person reviewing your application will be the same person who visits your high school in the fall, if your school hosts college reps. If you’re thinking about applying to a particular college and you see that their rep is visiting your school, try to attend that session (don’t miss an important test to do it, though!). It’s a great way to learn more about a school in a smaller, more personalized setting, and it could end up being something that the school tracks when they review your application.  

Reach out to your Admission Counselor

As a way to break down the thousands of applications a college receives, most colleges assign their admission counselors to specific high schools, states, regions, or even countries. And their contact information is often easy to find on the admissions website. Your admission rep is frequently the first person reading your application, but they’re also there to help if you ever have a question. Even if you’re not able to meet your admission rep in person, know that they’re available as a resource for you throughout the process. And if you need some guidance before writing an email to your admission counselor, check out this blog post. 


Many colleges offer students the chance to have an admissions interview. Often, these interviews are more informational than evaluative, and sometimes they are purely informational and won’t impact the application at all. Essentially, it's a chance for you to learn more about the school as much as it is for the interviewer to learn more about you. In a holistic application review process, your admission decision is never going to come down to one single factor, and that includes your interview report. The interview report serves to confirm what the admission reader is already going to learn about you from your application—but it could be a great way for you to come alive off the page a little more.   

The person interviewing you can vary—for some schools, it could be the admission counselor who will be reviewing your application. More commonly, it’s an alum of the school. Alumni interviewers go through extensive training from the admissions staff to make sure they are able to relay important information about the school, no matter if they graduated from the college last year or 40 years ago. Some colleges even have current students (typically tour guides or admission interns) interview prospective students. They’ll spend anywhere from 30-45 minutes asking you questions, learning more about you, and then they’ll write up a brief summary at the end that will go into your application file to be considered in its review.  

Especially over the last few years, the interview format has largely transitioned to Zoom interviews, though you may still find yourself meeting with an alum in your local Starbucks or even on-campus if you schedule one during a campus visit. In most cases, these interviews are completely optional, and by “optional,” I mean recommended because it can give you a chance to come to life off the application page. (Though, if I have a student who really doesn’t want to interview, or a student for whom an interview may not be additive to their application, we may decide to not have them interview.) My students often tell me that their interview was much less intimidating than they expected it to be- that it was much more of a casual conversation than an interrogation.  

Virtual Resources

Over the last few years, colleges have really ramped up their virtual offerings, especially when it became harder to visit schools in person. Though many on-campus events and programs have resumed, many of those virtual options are still available, and remain a great way to engage with a school from afar. You can take a virtual tour; watch a pre-recorded information session; or sometimes even tune into a live Q and A panel with current students.  

Applying Early Decision

Perhaps the biggest demonstration of interest is applying Early Decision, which is where you apply to one school Early Decision and make a commitment that if you are admitted to that school, you will enroll. It is a serious decision to make with your family about if Early Decision is the right option for you, and there are many factors to weigh. For more on the differences between Early Decision, Early Action, and Regular Decision, check out this blog post 


So, does demonstrated interest matter? The answer is, as is often the case in admissions, it depends. It depends on the school. It is a completely fair question to ask schools directly if they consider demonstrated interest- most will give you an honest answer. And if a college does consider it, you want to make sure you’re doing what you can to show that interest. But remember that all the ways I’ve recommended you can show your interest in a school serve dual purposes. They will ultimately help YOU decide if it’s a school you like and that would be a good fit for you—so don’t overlook that inherent importance!  


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About Us: With more than twenty years of experience, Collegewise counselors and tutors are at the forefront of the ever-evolving admissions landscape. Our work has always centered on you: the student. And just like we’ve always done, we look for ways for you to be your best self - whether it’s in the classroom, in your applications or in the right-fit college environment. Our range of tools include counselingtest prepacademic tutoring, and essay management, all with the support of our proprietary platform, leading to a 4x higher than average admissions rates. 


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