Love Matters: Show Colleges You Care

The same explosion of data-driven marketing which prompts targeted ads to appear during your Facebook sessions has reached the world of college admissions. Thinking of college applicants as consumers and predicting their enrollment behaviors based on data analysis is one of the most significant evolutions in college admission over the past 20 years. This practice is one factor in students’ admission decisions that you will not see discussed in a glossy campus brochure. But smart college-bound students should know that how they demonstrate interest in a college and other demographic factors they do not control can be pivotal in the decision to admit or deny them.

Colleges can analyze data points such as how you originally contacted them and your demographics, predict whether you will accept their offer of admission, and then deny you if they think you are not likely to enroll. One consulting group which works with colleges touts their own forecasting model which assigns, “each student a score from .99 (extremely likely to enroll) to .01 (extremely unlikely to enroll).” Students who are predicted to be less likely to enroll are “segmented” from the rest of the potential applicant pool so that marketing dollars won’t be wasted on recruiting them.

Who suffers from this practice? A few examples are students who:

  • have college lists composed of “safety” schools. (If your grades and testing results are significantly above their usual applicant profile, colleges may assume that you will be accepted to a more competitive school and will choose to attend there instead.)
  • don’t have the time or money to visit campuses (Personal visits are the strongest indicator of interest in a college.)
  • live farther away from the college (Students from far away are less likely to enroll.)
  • list the college farther down on their FAFSA (Some colleges are looking at the order in which a student lists colleges on their FAFSA to find indicators of their enrollment preference.)
  • aren’t comfortable talking on the phone with student recruiters who call from phone banks (If you don’t talk “long enough” on one of these surprise phone calls, you may be “dinged” for lack of interest.)
  • happen to be contacted first by the college when it buys the student’s name from a standardized testing company (An unsolicited inquiry from you to the college is the strongest kind of lead that the college can receive.)

Years ago, if a student took the time to write an application and pay their fee, then admission offices assumed that the student’s interest was genuine. Few, if any, colleges would deny an exceptional applicant based solely on the possibly mistaken assumption that the student was not going to accept their offer. Applicants rightly expected their own credentials to play the largest role in their admission decision. Today, however, the additional burden of demonstrating interest has complicated the admission process for students who want to position themselves strongly for admission to a variety of colleges.

It is a fair question to ask whether colleges should use data analysis and prediction of student enrollment in making admission decisions and financial aid awards. There are always individual exceptions to the behavioral models, and this leads to mistaken assumptions in the admission process for those students. Unfortunately it is the student and the family who pay the cost associated with a mistaken assumption on the part of the admission office.

The best way to avoid these pitfalls is to demonstrate your interest appropriately in your top choice colleges and in your safety colleges. Here are some ideas:

  • If you are interested in a college, go to their website, sign up as an interested applicant and register for more information.
  • Make official visits to campuses whenever possible. Sign in at the admission office and attend an information session; don’t just walk around campus on a Saturday when you are in town. 
  • When admission representatives visit your high school, attend their information sessions, or send an email with your regrets to the admission officer if you cannot attend for some reason. Thank them for their visit later by email.
  • Read emails that you receive from colleges carefully. Sometimes emails which appear to be sent to a large group for marketing are actually individual and should be acknowledged. You should answer any emails which might be personal, even if it is with a simple thank you. Be sure to respond if the college asks you for more information.

Genuine expressions of interest take time, but they will ensure that a college knows how you feel about attending there. It’s the best way to make sure that a mistaken assumption about your interest doesn’t affect an admission decision.

Works consulted:


About the Author

Hope Murtaugh is an associate with Dunbar Educational Consultants, an organization that helps students seeking to attend boarding school (including special needs), college, or graduate school.

Hope’s passion is helping high school students and their families navigate the college search process in order to find and attend the school that best fits their needs and interests. Her experience includes work in all dimensions of the college admissions process. As an Assistant Director of Admission at Princeton University, she learned the university’s view of the process from Fred Hargadon, one of the most respected deans in the world of college admissions. Responsible for recruiting in the Southeast, Hope learned what makes students stand out in the global applicant pool at highly selective universities.

Hope’s subsequent years in the college counseling office at Charlotte Country Day School gave her experience from the high school side of the college admission process, where she worked in particular with students on essay composition. As the mother of two current college students, she also knows personally the challenges that selecting and applying to college can pose to family dynamics, and the value of an objective third party at this time in a family’s life.

Hope graduated from Princeton University in 1986, with a degree in English.

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