If you are a girl, hoping a boy will ask you to go to the prom, you need to give him a clue that you are likely to accept his invitation or he may not want to risk asking you. If you find out he really wants to go with another girl but is asking you because she’s out of his league and he’ll drop you if it turns out she is available, the self-respecting response would be to turn him down.
Colleges don’t like rejection any more than students do. This is why applying Early Decision can boost a student’s prospects for admission. It’s also why demonstrated interest has become a factor in admission decisions at many schools. If you submit an application but have had no contact with the college, admissions officers will wonder if you are serious about their school. It’s like if a guy who’s always ignored you suddenly asks you out. You could be pleasantly surprised that he likes you, but you might also question his motives.
Nobody wants to risk disappointment. Students often ask whether they can apply to colleges now and then visit the schools in the spring, after they have received admission decisions. They don’t want to fall in love with colleges that may turn them down. The problem is that if you don’t visit a school, especially one that is within easy driving distance, and if you don’t find other ways to demonstrate interest, you may end up with the disappointment you are trying to avoid, when you are wait-listed because admissions officers think your intentions are not serious.
The Common Application makes it easy for students to apply to more colleges. When a college joins the Common Application, it typically gets a boost in applications. Many colleges benefit from the increase in applications, as they can then admit fewer students and be seen as more selective and desirable. The downside for colleges is that they receive frivolous applications from students who are applying because it’s easy, they are worried they won’t get into their favorite colleges and they want to be sure to have choices in the spring. But colleges won’t look so desirable if their yield, or the number of students who accept an admission offer, is low. So admissions officers look for evidence that you are truly interested in their school. A well-qualified student who is not seen as likely to matriculate may end up wait-listed so that the school isn’t wasting an offer and risking a lower yield.
Many colleges track prospective applicants, noting every contact with the admissions office. They also know whether you open the email they send you, as well as how much time you spend on their website, including which parts of the website you visit (academics, student life, virtual tour, etc).
That doesn’t mean you should start emailing the admissions office at Harvard every week. The Ivies and other elite schools don’t need to be reassured that you really like them. Most public universities also don’t consider demonstrated interest in admission decisions. But for schools that not super-selective, attending a local reception, meeting the admissions officer who visits your high school, and having an interview can boost your prospects for admission. I’m not suggesting you declare your undying love for a school you really don’t want to attend. That kind of cynical manipulation is dishonest. But when you make a genuine effort to learn about a school, by spending time on the website, engaging in conversation with admissions officers, or visiting the college, you are demonstrating interest as well as making sure the school is a good match and preparing to make your best case in the application.
Even though the most selective schools do not track every contact you have with the college, admissions officers will be evaluating whether you are a good fit for the school. I recently attended a counselor conference at a highly selective university. Every year, before admissions officers begin reading applications, they have a three day retreat, where they discuss the mission of the university. If admissions officers are concerned with the mission of the school, you should be too. Read the mission statement and think about how your goals and values align with those of a college before you complete an application for that school. Clarifying your interests and goals will help you make sure that school is right for you, as well as enable you to tailor your application to that school, and that is how you demonstrate your genuine interest.
If your goal is to study engineering but you also love dance, and you have spent many hours tutoring children in an after-school program, when you find a school that offers these programs, you can make a compelling case for admission. If you have researched University of Southern California, you will know that the school makes it possible for engineering students to minor in dance, and that the Joint Educational Project (JEP) offers volunteer opportunities in local schools. Citing these reasons for applying to USC will set you apart from the thousands of students who write about the University’s outstanding educational opportunities in an exciting urban environment.
Some students think they just need to attend an information session or visit a college campus and they have demonstrated their interest, but the time and thought you put into the application is the most important way to show that are a serious candidate. When you provide specific reasons that you and a school are a match, and give evidence that you will benefit from and contribute to that college community, you make a compelling case for admission.