Demonstrated Interest: A Brief and Practical How-To Guide

This blog post was inspired by podcast Episode 108 with Monica James, in which we discuss everything from how to find out which colleges track demonstrated interest to whether you should or shouldn’t like a college’s Facebook page. You can find that episode here.

Spoiler alert: In this blog post I’ll share with you a list of potential Action Items that involve (among other things) attending college fairs, speaking with admission reps, and maybe even opening a few of those emails that colleges send you--things that might stress you out. And why, you might wonder, would the “ease, purpose and joy” guy ask you to do things that mostly bring you anxiety?

Why are we talking about demonstrated interest in the first place?
Demonstrated interest (which I’ll explain in a moment) has become an important factor that some (keyword: some!) colleges consider when deciding whether to admit students or not. In fact, take a look at this NACAC survey from 2015 asking colleges which factors most influenced admission decisions:

That’s right, it’s #7. TWO SPOTS BELOW ESSAYS.

That’s right, it’s #7. TWO SPOTS BELOW ESSAYS.

For the entire 2015 NACAC state of college admission report, click here.

In short, demonstrated interest can play a big part in increasing your chance of admission. Want more proof? Here’s a 50-page report that concludes that, for the colleges mentioned in the study (those that track demonstrated interest), “off-site contacts [such as sending an email to a rep or requesting info from the school] increase the probability of admission by 10-13 percentage points,” while making both an on-site contact (like taking a campus tour) and ALSO making on off-site contact “increases the probability of admission by 21-24 percentage points.” Source. (Heads-up: There’s a lot of math in that report.)

And get this: according to a 2012 NACAC report, between 2004 and 2011, the percentage of colleges that rated demonstrated interest as being “considerably important” rose from 7% to 23% (see page 23 of the report), although since then it has stayed right around the 20% mark.

Demonstrated Interest: What is it?
Simply put, demonstrated interest is something that many colleges and universities use to track a) how much you (prospective student) like their school and, more importantly b) how likely you are to enroll if the school admits you.

Why do schools want to know which students are likely to enroll?
A few reasons:

1. Schools have a target enrollment number, which means that each year they want a certain number of students to enroll. Why? Think about it: if they enroll 200 (or even 20) too many students, they’ve got a problem: where do they put everyone? Similarly, if they enroll 200 (or even 20) too few students, then they’ve got a different problem: 20 or 200 empty dorm beds. And when you multiply that number times that many tuitions, it can add up to a really big reason (or, if you like, millions of reasons) why schools want to try and hit their target enrollment number.

2. Schools want to protect their “yield.” What’s yield, you ask? It’s the percentage of students who decide to enroll at a particular college or university after being accepted. So, for example, if Northwestern offers ten spots to ten students and all of them accept, that’s great for them! That means Northwestern is a great place to be and everyone loves Northwestern yay! But if the school offers ten spots to ten students and only one student accepts, then that’s bad. Why? Because then they seem like that one giraffe at the zoo that none of the other giraffes want to play with. #sadgiraffeemoji Why else is it bad? Because yield is tied to a school’s ranking in US News and World Report, which is a place that some parents and students look when deciding which schools they should apply to. (Here’s a better way to build a college list, bee tea dubs.) Put simply, if their yield gets worse, this can have a negative impact on their rankings.

In short, colleges want to know:

Who really loves us?  

And can you blame them? If you were running a college, wouldn’t you want to know who was not only likely to enroll, but also likely to stay all four years and graduate?

Quick personal anecdote: In college I applied for a job at a Mongolian BBQ restaurant in Evanston, IL and they required me to come to not one, but four interviews. Four interviews! The first interview went great, but I was ten minutes late to the second interview and, when I showed up late, the hiring manager said, “Sorry, we won’t be hiring you.” I asked why and they said, “We just really value punctuality and this shows us you don’t really share that commitment.” And at first I was like, “Daaang,” but then I was like, “Yeah, you’re right.” By showing up late I was basically demonstrating a lack of interest in the job.

That hiring manager was saying what schools are saying: Show us you care. Like, actually care.

Okay, so you may be wondering: How do I do that? I’ll tell you in a sec. First, I want to share…

A Few Ways That Colleges Track Demonstrated Interest (DI)
Note: this info is from a presentation given at a conference in 2015 by a few college admission counselors who track demonstrated interest. If you’re really into this stuff, click here for the presentation, as it shows screenshots from the computers of actual reps showing the details. But here’s what they track:

  • Interaction and inquiry card submission (or scan) at college fairs
  • Campus visit during junior year or summer after junior year
  • Early application
  • Supplemental essay: showing your particular interest in that college and how you have researched that school specifically
  • Speaking with alumni or students who may share information with admission office
  • Campus info session/tour in fall of senior year
  • Interview with admission rep/alum
  • Second visit to campus in senior year
  • Overnight program
  • Contacting admission rep
  • Meeting with faculty on campus or by phone
  • FAFSA form--how student ranks the school on the form (Ethan note: NOT true anymore. This was stopped in early 2015, so ignore this one. Source.)
  • Oh, and you know those 42 questions that you answer when you sign up for the SAT? Some colleges pay for that info too. So those are, y’know, 42 other things they track.

Side note--and you can skip this if you wanna’ get to the practical stuff: At a party last night (yes, actually) I met a business analyst for the development office of a highly selective school (and “development office” folks are those who call alumni asking for donations) and she let me know that student engagement is tracked even while students are on campus and--get this--even after you graduate. Why? Because a student who attends alumni events may be more likely to donate. Fun fact: they even use something called “wealth screening” to find out how much money you might have. Yay for data!



Okay, given this information, what should you do?
A couple options:

1. Nothing. That’s right. You can just keep getting good grades and participating in the activities and projects you love and keep living your awesome life. So there is literally nothing that you have to do differently now that you know this. For real. You can still get into a great school without demonstrating interest.

But if you’ve read this and you’re thinking, “Okay, I could probably go to a college fair, and maybe reach out to an admission rep, and I could maybe even like the college’s Facebook page,” then here’s what you should do first:

2. Spend some time developing your college list. Why do this first? So that you don’t stress yourself out trying to “demonstrate interest” for like 20 schools, some of which you may not apply to anyway. Here’s a resource for creating a great college list, for free.

Once you’ve done that, and by the way developing your list may take some time, then…

3. Pick a small number of schools to which you’d like to demonstrate some interest. How many? I don’t know, pick three or four. But…

4. (Heads-up: this is important!) Make sure that each of these schools actually tracks demonstrated interest. Otherwise it’s like you’re buying gifts for someone whose love language isn’t even gifts! (Okay, pretty obscure reference for this crowd, maybe.)

How do you find out which schools track demonstrated interest? Here, lemme Google that for you: “Does [school’s name] track demonstrated interest?”

I love this site.

I love this site.

Once you do, you might learn that, for example, Brown does not track demonstrated interest. In fact, none of the Ivies do. (Don't get me wrong: even though Ivies don't track DI, it's still a good idea to interview, visit campus, and learn about each school you're applying to, just make sure you’re spending your time wisely.) And, btw, if that Google search doesn’t turn up an answer, Google the school name and the words “Common Data Set” and you can scroll down to find a list of factors that a particular school takes into account. It’ll look something like this screenshot from the 2016 Common Data Set for Loyola Marymount University:

See: LMU doesn’t track demonstrated interest! So stop demonstrating!

See: LMU doesn’t track demonstrated interest! So stop demonstrating!

And here’s a look at the Common Data Set for Bates College:

See: they do track it! (So they do care that you care.)

See: they do track it! (So they do care that you care.)

Wow, schools publish this info? Yup.

For more schools, check out the huge Wiki list of Common Data Sets at this link.

Should You Demonstrate Interest?
I’ll make this really simple. You might consider demonstrating interest if a) there’s a school that you’re super excited about attending and b) that school actually tracks demonstrated interest.

If You Decide You Want to Demonstrate Some Interest (and It’s an Important “If” Because We’re About to Go Down the Rabbit Hole!), When and How Should You Do it?
Okay, with all those qualifiers in place, here are 13 ways you can demonstrate interest, adapted from a great article by Lisa Rubin-Johnson. Note that I’ve added how much time each one should take because a) the word “practical” is in the title of this post, and b) it’s a great way to help you make sure you’re doing this with ease, joy and purpose.

13 Ways You Can Demonstrate Interest (in order of the college process)

  1. Get on the school’s email list. (2 min.) You can do this by Googling the name of the school and filling out an “information request” form like this one.

  2. Open the emails you receive from a school and click on something in the email. (3-5 min.) That’s right: actually read the emails they send you, then consider clicking on something in the email (if it’s interesting to you), and maybe even spend a few minutes reading what’s on the web page that it sends you to. (Some schools track these things.) But mostly do it because, hey, you may learn something! And while you’re there...

  3. “Click deep” on the school’s website. (15-30 min.) This is my friend Michelle’s phrase; it basically means spending some time researching to learn, for example, if the school has a rad program that may be right for you. This will not only help you eventually write your “Why us” statement (assuming the school has one), but will prep you for a potential conversation with your regional rep if and when you…

  4. Attend a college fair. (2-3 hrs.) For tips on making the most of a college fair experience, check out podcast episode 107 with Maria Furtado and read the accompanying blog post.

  5. Contact your regional rep. (10-30 min.) More tips on developing an authentic relationship with your rep below.

  6. Follow the school on social media. (5-10 min.) Google to find out what social media platforms the school is on, and follow or like their pages, then maybe even share or re-Tweet something from the school.

  7. Visit campus. (Time spent depends how far away you live.) This isn’t possible for everyone, but if you’re within a couple hours from the school, it’s a good idea (if you do live close to the school and never visit, a school might wonder why). Make sure they’ve got some record you were there by signing up for a tour or meeting with a rep.

  8. Interview. (1 hr prep + 2-3 hrs driving to and doing actual interview) Some schools have interviews, some don’t--you can find out by Googling--if yes, do the interview. An alumni interview is fine; an interview with your regional rep (i.e. the person who is likely to read your application) is better. More tips on interviews at this link and note that at that link I address, “Does the interview matter?” For schools that track demonstrated interest, the interview matters.

  9. Supplemental essays. (You’ll have to write these anyway if you’re applying; time will vary.) The big one is the “Why us” essay, where essentially you get a chance to show the school why you feel you’d be a great fit for one another. If the school is (actually) your #1 choice, say that in your “Why us.” Lots more tips on how to write that essay at this link.

  10. Apply Early Action or Early Decision. (Takes pre-planning, but no extra work to do beyond actual application.) Early Decision (ED) is something you can do for only one school and means that, if you get in, you have to go. Early Action (EA) is something you can do for several schools and, if you get in, you don’t have to go, but doing so shows you’re interested enough to apply earlier than most students. A few schools have something called Restricted Early Action, but make sure to check the school’s website to see which school offers what. Why might you apply ED or EA? Because the ED and EA acceptance rates are often higher. How much higher? Wouldn’t it be great if a resource existed that compared the difference between regular decision and early decision numbers?

    Behold: a PDF that compares Regular Decision and Early Decision percentages for 2016. You can thank Jennie Kent and Jeff Levy for the time it took them to contact all the schools on this list and put together all this info. (Thanks, Jennie and Jeff!) Keep in mind that students applying early often have stronger applications and more access to resources, so the applicant pool for EA and ED is sometimes stronger. But still: look at the difference in acceptance percentage for regular decision and early decision applicants to American University. (Spoiler: 32% for RD and 82% for ED.) Think it matters? Uh huh.

  11. Submit your application before the deadline. (No extra time required.) This is especially true for schools that read applications on a rolling basis (in other words: in the order applications are submitted). As Monica James says on the podcast, better to be the first oboe player that a reader reads than the sixth!

  12. Thank you notes and emails. (10-15 min.) Hello, life skill. Spend a few minutes following up after an interview or college fair meeting with a little, “Thanks for talking with me!” You can even ask a follow-up question, if you’d like to keep the conversation going, but don’t go crazy (see tips below for more on this).

  13. Follow the waitlist instructions. (10 min-2 hrs, depending) If you’ve been waitlisted by a school, make sure you do whatever they tell you to do--including the optional stuff. They may for example just ask you to fill out a simple form declaring your interest (10 min.), or they may say that you can submit one additional recommendation letter or a short letter detailing any additional information not included in the original application (if they do, send the one--not six--rec letter, and in the follow-up letter you write, only include new information, as they've asked). The school website will tell you what to do; if you can’t find the info, give the school a quick call to ask what to do and take careful notes.

All right, at this point, you might be saying…

Hey Ethan, this all sounds exhausting and I don’t feel like doing it.
Great, then don’t! You do not have to do any of the 13 things mentioned above. Colleges will still read your application and you will be considered for admission. Assuming you have good grades and test scores, you have followed all the directions on the application and (this is important) assuming you have developed a balanced college list, you will still end up at a great school where you can get a great education and find happiness.

But before you decide not to do anything, remember: You don’t have to do all 13 things for all 9 or 10 schools you’re applying to and you certainly don’t have to do them all in one day or even one week. You could just pick a couple schools that you’re 100% certain actually track demonstrated interest, then pick a few things from the list of 13 things and do those.

Here’s the key:

Focus on building on authentic relationship with your regional rep from 2-3 schools on your list.
How? Here are...

Four Practical Tips for Building an Authentic Relationship with Your Rep

  1. Search the school’s website to find out who your regional rep is. This is as easy as Googling, for example, “Davidson College regional rep.”

  2. Email your rep and ask a question you are genuinely interested in. If, for example, you’ve looked on the school’s website (important if!) and have been unable to find out if your rep will be in your area sometime soon, you might write briefly to say, “Hi! I’m wondering if you might be in the Bay Area (or wherever you live) sometime soon, as I’m really excited to apply to your school and I’d love to meet you.” Or you might ask something really specific like, “Hi! I’m writing to find out if it’s easy for freshmen enrolled in the School of Speech to easily take advanced courses in Journalism, as I know that they’re separate schools. But I’m really passionate about both, and I’m especially excited to apply to your school, since I know it has great programs for both of my interests: Communication Studies and Journalism.” Then sign off with a simple, “Thank you!” and give your name and perhaps the name of your high school. (Pro Tip: I’ve even seen some students create a simple signature for their emails where they pop in a headshot so reps can attach their name to a face.)

  3. Keep the email conversation going (for a little bit). Not forever, just a couple emails. How? Ask a question at the end of each email. Careful: this can get annoying after awhile, so don’t go crazy with this. And make sure you don’t email until you have a good and real question. You might, for example, ask if they’re going to be in your area visiting other schools and see if they might have time in your schedule to visit your school (make sure to check with your counselor first!). But treat this like you’re having an actual, in-person conversation at a college fair. Speaking of which:

  4. If the rep is coming to a college fair near you, go and meet them! Especially if you won’t or may not be able to visit the campus. And if you’ve already met the rep because they visited your school, still go and just say hello.

Why do this?

Quick personal story: A few years ago I was chatting with a rep at a selective school and a student came up to him and said hello and introduced himself. The rep said, “Oh, yeah, I remember you!” and they chatted for like 90 seconds, then the student said good-bye. I was impressed by how the student carried himself and, once the student left, I asked the rep half-jokingly, “What do you think? Is he in?”
“Oh, he’s in,” the rep said. But he was serious.
“Really?” I said? “If he’s got As?”
“Oh, even Bs. He was the student ambassador when I visited his school and he showed me around--he’s a great kid and we’d love to have him.” I don’t know if that student ultimately ended up at that school, but his demonstrated interest game was on point.

Okay, that’s enough for you to do and think about so I’m gonna’ cut this off here and let you either get to work or get back to your life.

If I had to re-cap the most important things from this post, I’d say:

  1. Check out that PDF that compares Regular Decision and Early Decision percentages for 2016, as it can help you decide if you want to apply ED or not.
  2. Get to work on your college list, so you can decide which schools you may like to apply some of the 13 tips to.

That’s all. Now go back to having an awesome life.

Links referenced in or researched for this post: