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.
Where does it come into play?
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. 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).
But 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.
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