Dec 18, 2012

What the Common App tells Colleges BEFORE You Even Apply

Over the past several weeks my cat, who prefers to remain anonymous, has received a number of very informative and encouraging emails from the University of Virginia. 

She’s also received glossy view books and personalized letters from several highly selective colleges and universities, including Dartmouth and Northwestern.

Yet “S” has never visited these campuses.  Nor has she asked to receive information via college websites or during local college fairs.  She hasn’t even registered for or taken a standardized test.

So how do colleges know she’s even vaguely interested? 

“S” has an account with the Common Application, where we have posted the names of 20 colleges and universities on her “My Colleges” grid.  And most of them have been in touch via the internet or through snail mail inquiries (no one has called).

“Once a student has added a school to the ‘My Colleges’ list, the school can see basic demographic information (name, address, phone number, e-mail address, and high school) and can export that information into their database to use the same as if the student had filled out an interest card at a college fair or submitted a web form requesting additional information,” said Kelly Farmer, director of freshman admissions at Stevenson University. “Some schools export this information on a fairly regular basis to start communicating with the students.”

And as a service to their members, the Common App provides an email function where a college can search for students who have added their school to “My Colleges” and then email them through the Common App site without ever exporting their information.

From the college perspective, this is a relatively inexpensive way to build a mailing list and encourage students who have already indicated some interest to go ahead and finish up that application and push the submit button. 

According to Scott Anderson, director of outreach for the Common Application, when students register for an account, they are asked if they would like to receive communications from member colleges.  Most say yes and promptly forget they’ve given permission to be contacted.

But regardless of whether or not you agree to communication, schools listed in My Colleges will have access to basic information including name, city/state/zipcode, ethnicity, sex, date of birth, high school CEEB and name, academic interest, and a few other items.  If you permit schools to communicate with you prior to submitting an application, they will ALSO have access to address, home phone, cell phone, fax, email, social security number, and IM address.

The Common App assures us that none of this information is shared with third parties for marketing and/or promotional purposes.

If you’re uncomfortable with this arrangement, you may change your “opt-in” selection at any time by going to the account link posted on every page of your application and changing the response to the communication question.

There’s really not too much of a downside unless you have a privacy problem or hate college spam. No specific credential information—GPA’s or standardized test scores—is released to the colleges, so they have no way of determining the strength of your candidacy.  It’s simply an easy way to “demonstrate” a little interest and begin engaging prospective colleges.

And sometimes a curious relationship evolves, especially if you persist in not sending an application.  Not only has “S” received invitations to local events, but she has also received some fairly insistent emails from colleges seemingly desperate to hear from her.

In fact, colleges have even extended opportunities to submit applications after published deadlines.  Of course, we’ll never know if a late application would be afforded the same consideration as one submitted on time or if these offers are simply thinly disguised efforts at bolstering application numbers.

So if you don’t want the mail or are no longer interested in the college, either remove the school from My Colleges (only possible if you have not submitted an application) or simply change your account setting.

[I open a Common Application account every year in my cat’s name to get up-to-speed on the Common App form and software as well as to have access to essay prompts revealed only on application supplements.  “S” and I always make clear that we are not “planning to enroll” in college, but much to our amusement that doesn’t stop the flow of mail.]

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