What Dating Taught Me About Wooing Colleges

I’ve been thinking a lot about marriage lately. Yeah, yeah, I’m basically revealing how old I am — I’m at that age when all my friends are going gah-gah over baby pictures (either their own drool and snot-making machine or their friends’ babies).

But all this marriage thinking reminds me of a different phase: pre-marriage (otherwise known as dating). And I’m not talking about the casual dating culture of today. No, I mean serious business – you know, going steady, LTR (long-term relationship), that kind of stuff.

Now, as I reflect on dating, I’ve realized something funny. It has much to do with your romance with the college of your dreams.

Scoring an amazing girl/boyfriend is just like scoring admission into an incredible college.

Sure, there are all the things you do to impress colleges: high GPA, top test scores, strong extracurriculars, memorable college essays, glowing letters of recommendation, and a stellar interview.

But anyways, there’s one more factor that makes such a drastic difference — both for dating and for colleges. I’m talking about “demonstrated interest.”

You may have heard this term before, but what exactly is it, do colleges even care, and how do we leverage it to your advantage?

What is demonstrated interest?

Demonstrated interest is basically what it sounds like — you demonstrate (or show) that you are interested in you potential partner or college.

In dating, most guys would probably hate hearing that they are “like a brother” to the person they’re interested in. Hello, friend-zone — the eternal place where romance goes to die because you’ll never be more than just friends. Many people choose not to pursue the relationship any further if they feel the other person isn’t interested.

The same exact phenomenon happens with colleges: if you don’t show genuine interest in them, then they figure you aren’t interested and give you the cold shoulder (reject you).

This is especially prevalent for colleges that are often considered safety schools. They know students are often shooting higher, so why would the colleges give themselves to you, a student who is simply playing them…like a player. Sure, they know you’re attractive, what with your straight As and amazing accomplishments. But do you really need to led these backup colleges on? You’re breaking their hearts, man!

Many colleges – even some elite colleges – care deeply about the applicant’s level of interest in the college. And they go to great lengths to actually TRACK and RECORD how much interest you’ve demonstrated towards them (so use the SAME student email address for everything college related, or you won’t get credit for your demonstrated interest).

So why do colleges even care?

Because no one likes to be rejected. It’s easier to reject you before you can reject them. See what I mean about the dating analogy?

There’s something called “yield rate” among colleges, a massively important figure that changes the colleges ranking and prestige, which in turn, affects what sort of student talent the college can attract.

If a college says “yes” to 15,000 students this year, that doesn’t mean all 15,000 students are actually going to come to that college. Those students likely got many acceptances from other colleges, so it becomes a competitive act now. Students choose the best one for them, and colleges hate nervously waiting.

If a low number of students actually say “yes” back, then the yield rate (% of students who say yes out of total number of students the college has accepted) goes way down. That doesn’t look good. It basically signifies that no one really wants this college, otherwise more students would have jumped on the chance to attend.

And no one likes the person no one else likes. Similarly, no one wants the college that no one else wants. That’s why if a college senses that you’ll probably say no to them, even if the school actually wants you, they will preemptively reject you.

This is why there are so many rejection stories of students who seem to be way more qualified than the normal student who gets accepted. The college figured this student is going to go somewhere else anyways, so why waste a “yes” on this student who’s only going to lower the yield rate. Colleges care deeply about their rankings – make no mistake about this, even if if they won’t flat out admit it. And yield rate drastically affects rankings because the rate indicates how attractive that college is, relative to their peers (other colleges).

Therefore, even if your GPA and test scores put you comfortably above the typical student at that school, you MUST demonstrate interest. In fact, BECAUSE your numbers are so high, you need to demonstrate interest EVEN MORE than the average student — to prove to this college that you are indeed seriously interested (even if you’re not).

The worst is having your “safety” school reject you because that puts you in a terribly risky situation. What if your reach schools all reject you AND you have no safeties that actually accepted you because they all assumed you’d be going somewhere else? How terrible!

Even if the school isn’t a safety, you STILL want to demonstrate interest. Doing so will help put you one step higher than the applicant who may be your equal in every other way but has not demonstrated interest. Again, colleges want students who want them.

How important is demonstrating interest?

It ranges from extremely to somewhat to not at all. I’ll talk about how to find out how much a specific school cares in another section below.

But I can’t tell you how many countless stories I’ve heard of students who should have been a sure bet for acceptance at a college get rejected because they didn’t show interest. I also can’t tell you how many countless stories I’ve heard of students who were below average for that college get in because they did show interest. Of course, showing interest is no holy grail and won’t counteract more important factors — but it really can matter A LOT (for certain schools).

So how exactly do I demonstrate interest?

1. Sign up and go on an official campus tour. I stress OFFICIAL. That means you have to sign up with your email address for a guided tour. If you simply show up unannounced on campus, the college probably won’t even know you were ever there, so it’s as if you showed no interest. Bummer.

Going to their campus on an official tour and spending several hours with them is the number one way to demonstrate interest because it requires the most commitment from you. You have to often fly across the country (or at the very least, drive to their campus if it’s local), arrange accommodations, then spend a sizable chunk of your day with them.

You want to sign up for the tour with the email address you intend to use when you fill out your college applications because that address is what all the info on you will be tracked under. So make sure your email address is appropriate (no inappropriate jokes or “fun” emails please). Also, make sure the email belongs to the student, not the parent.

When you arrive for the tour, be sure to ask thoughtful questions of your tour guide, as well as of any important people you are introduced to (professors, deans, program directors, even other students).

Usually, I recommend visiting during the school year (not summer) so you can see the school in action, when classes are still in session, when students and faculty are still around. It’s a lot more dead during summer, or it’s filled with summer school kids who aren’t actually part of the real admitted college class, so the vibe you get will be much different. However, if the only time you can arrange for a tour is during the summer, that’s still a heck of a lot better than not visiting at all. You can visit any year, but sophomore or junior year are typically best, since you’re probably more serious about your college search at that time and will pay closer attention to more than the pretty people or the beautiful campus.

2. After the tour, send a genuine thank you email to the admissions people, deans, or anyone you might have met with decision making power. Note: a student tour guide usually has zero power, but it’s still a courteous thing to say thank you. In your email, mention SPECIFIC things you appreciated or learned. Do not simply say the campus was beautiful or that the students were positive or that the professors seemed so passionate. You could say that about any school. Make the email feel like it could have been written ONLY about that one specific school, so make sure to take detailed notes about your impressions and findings during your visit. Remember, your tour should not be an architectural tour (wow, look at that amazing Gothic tower! Seriously, who cares! If your reason for going to the school is beautiful buildings, you need to rethink your priorities). Instead, focus on getting the inside scoop – details about specific programs, special experiences or programs offered by the school, any traditions the school has, anything they are especially proud of. Especially make note of your interactions with specific people and mention one or two of those encounters in your email.

3. Sign up for the college’s free email newsletter. Again, use the same email address you plan to use for your college apps. Make sure it’s the student’s email, NOT a parent’s. If you can’t even be bothered to sign up for their newsletter, then you really aren’t showing very much interest, are you? Now, even if the college is ALREADY mailing you flyers, brochures, or emails, you STILL need to sign up for their newsletter. The way they got your email before was probably through some testing service or other method, but you want to take the extra step to show ACTIVE interest.

4. Apply early decision or early action if possible (not every school allows this though. For example, USC and all the UC schools do not). The easiest way to boost your admission chances is to apply early, before the regular deadline. For most schools, the early deadline is November 1, but check with the specific school to be sure. Applying early indicates MASSIVE interest in the school because you are essentially committing to them, especially if it’s early DECISION (meaning you are legally obligated to go if you are accepted). Early action means you don’t have to go if you are accepted, but many schools only allow single-choice early action — that means you can only apply to ONE school early, even though you aren’t obligated to go if you get accepted. Using your only early choice on that college tells that school you care a lot about them.

Colleges definitely reward this affection. That’s why you’ll often notice that the admission % for early applicants can be 20% or so higher than the regular applicants. Some say it’s because the early applicants are stronger students, but I don’t agree with that. Applying early doesn’t make you stronger: your grades are still whatever they are, same with your test scores, same with your activities. The mere action of applying early doesn’t inherently make your achievements stronger.

I think it’s clear that colleges accept a far higher percentage of early applicants than regular applicants because the schools like to feel confident that these are the students who will most likely say “yes” back. Colleges also want to have a clearer sense of who will fill out their class as early as possible, rather than playing that nerve-wracking game of “wait and see” when the students are trying to pick from a slew of choices. Just like you, as a student, would like to know your options early, so too do the colleges.

5. Attend info-sessions put on by the college’s representatives. If a college rep attends your high school or local area for an event, you better make sure you go. If you don’t, they will feel, “Man, I came all the way out here and put myself out there on the line…and you don’t even make the effort to see me? You must not be interested, so I guess we’re not interested in you either! NEXT!”

Make sure you sign in with your full name and email address on the attendance sheet (they’ll usually have one. If not, ask if there’s anywhere to record your attendance.) Then make sure you raise your hand and ask thoughtful questions. Introduce yourself by name so you start to ingrain yourself into the representatives conscious and subconscious mind. After the presentation, go up to him and speak with him directly. Tell him what you appreciated learning from his talk and ask more questions. Get his direct email address if possible, which leads me to the next point…

6. Email the local area representative for your desired colleges. Usually, colleges will have officers assigned to specific geographic regions. Those officers are in charge of decisions from students applying in that area. Find out the email addresses of these officers (Google is your friend, though sometimes these addresses can be hard to find). Then poke around the college’s website for a while. Construct insightful questions that are not readily found on their site and email them to that representative. Be courteous and thoughtful. Don’t waste their time with dumb or easy questions. Ask questions you are genuinely interested in and show that you have done some research into their school already.

Believe it or not, certain admission officers actually track how often a student has contacted them (and the quality of your emails). Some even go as far as actually bumping up a student a notch or two if you’ve emailed them. At the very least, you’ve implanted your name in their brains.

7. Network and get anyone who may be connected to the school to put in a good word for you. Do you know a sports coach or professor at that school (or really, anyone who can get in touch with admissions for you)? A professor doesn’t get much say in admission decisions, but if he drops your name and a good review about you to one of the admissions people, your name will be more likely remembered when they get to your app. That usually warrants a closer look at your app. Compared to the typical 5-8 minutes per app, you may 10-15 minutes (any extra consideration is good, so long as you are legitimately on par with the average student there).

8. Get an interview with the school and exude your enthusiasm for them in your tonality, body language, and the ideas you express. That means you should have done significant research into their school ahead of time, so you can bring up that you know their school offers XYZ, but you were wondering something deeper about that. Ask deep questions and drop in a few references that show you’ve done your homework. This isn’t stalkerish; it’s flattery. Colleges love that.

So those are 8 tips to demonstrate interest.

Now I do have to tell you, not all colleges care about demonstrated interest. Some will flat out say they do not care if you demonstrate interest or not (especially if they know they are super popular). But even if they purport not to care, showing interest in the above ways will still subconsciously get you into their good graces, so why not.

Of course, you probably can’t go on an official college tour of EVERY campus you’re interested in, so choose a few reach, target, AND safety schools. Your goal should be to secure a higher chance of admission for ALL tiers of colleges.

And then research whether the school claims to care about demonstrated interest or not. If they say they don’t care, then you can probably decide not to visit them if it doesn’t fit your schedule or budget.

Here’s how to how much a college cares about demonstrated interest:

1. Head over to bigfuture.collegeboard.org

2. Type in the college name and click on the appropriate link for that school.

3. In the left-hand column (under “AT A GLANCE”), click “APPLYING.”

4. You should now see a list of factors that the colleges deem “very important,” “important,” “considered,” and other similar terms.

5. If you notice “level of applicant’s interest” listed in ANY of the categories, then it’s definitely worth showing your interest, even if it’s only under “considered.”

So there you have it!

Just like with dating, you’ll have a better shot if you show some love! What goes around, comes around — in this case, reciprocal signs of interest that hopefully turn into a big fat “YES!”

Till next time!



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