Jun 28, 2013

Playing the 'Demonstrated Interest' Game

Kent Barnds, who is the executive vice president of Augustana College in Illinois, has done the college advising industry a huge favor.

As a college admissions insider and an enrollment management expert, Barnds laid out in the plainest terms possible a detailed explanation of “demonstrated interest” for all of us to consider and factor into the advice we give to college-bound students and their families.

In an article posted on Huffington Post, Barnds describes the college version of “big data” and details ways admissions offices “…spend substantial money, devote considerable human resources and rely on big data to help them do their job and bring clarity to a cloudy crystal ball.”

He outlines how admissions gathers information and makes assumptions based on data trails left behind by prospective applicants. 

This information is fed into “enrollment management” software and various decisions—admissions as well as financial aid—are made based on the likelihood that a student will actually accept an offer of admission should one be forthcoming.

And the conclusion is clear:  the more interest a student demonstrates, the more likely it is that an offer will be made—at many colleges. 

Make no mistake.  It’s all about the yield—or what has become a numeric proxy for institutional popularity and a metric for ranking in US News.  Yield (the percent of admitted students who matriculate) is vital to the economic health of institutions needing to be able to precisely predict how many students will sign on the dotted line and ultimately enroll.

A number of admissions professionals like to distance themselves from the concept of demonstrated interest and many claim that nothing substantial has changed in the admissions world for decades.

But with the amount of money being invested by colleges anxious to get inside the heads of prospective applicants, it’s never been more important for students to establish a trail of demonstrated interest throughout the college admissions process.

Here is the takeaway from the Barnds article along with some tips for playing the demonstrated interest game:

Data Mining
Colleges purchase names from the College Board, ACT, and various online student recruitment organizations that collect huge amounts of information every time you complete a registration form.  Colleges also gather very important financial information if you’ve identified yourself while completing a net price calculator.  And they even get a heads up from the Common Application (CA) unless you specifically tell the CA not to share information with institutions on your working list of colleges.  Once accumulated, schools know a great deal about your academic performance, possible major, outside activities, test scores, and financial situation.

Tip:  Allowing certain organizations to share your information with colleges enables them to contact you and begin the recruitment process.  It’s an opportunity to begin a conversation.  But don’t be deceived into thinking that just because a college is emailing you or sending packages of information, the school is either a good fit or even interested in you.  And be careful of how much information you provide.  Take charge of your profile and feel free to skip questions you feel uncomfortable answering regardless of who is doing the asking.

Making Initial Contact
According to Kent Barnds, colleges track how they first learn about a student and use this information to predict the likelihood of a student applying and ultimately enrolling.  A student who takes the initiative to contact a college is considered a good prospect.

Tip:  You can reach out to a college by completing an online “request for information” form or by emailing questions to the admissions office.  But once you get on an email list, you have to sort through tons of spam and keep an eye out for communications to which you really should reply.  And note that this is not a license to stalk admissions staff.  Be respectful and adult in your communications or risk doing more harm than good.

Targeted Communication
It’s no secret that colleges have invested in sophisticated computer-based systems for tracking demonstrated interest.  This may include tracking every form of communication the student initiates, interview outcomes, campus visits, email exchanges, references on Twitter, Facebook engagement or any other contact that can be checked off, quantified, or fed into a computer.

Tip:  By all means visit campuses, schedule interviews, request an overnight or visit a class.  But be very careful of your internet footprint.  Publicly-stated interest in a particular college can signal disinterest to other institutions.

FAFSA Pitfalls
One of the more eyebrow-raising revelations contained in the Barnds article is the extent to which colleges use information provided on the FAFSA form to determine a student’s level of interest.  Not only does FAFSA sharing with the admissions office give the deciders a good look at the other colleges to which you are applying but it also signals how important a college is relative to other schools on the list.  Students (families) placing a college in the first position on the FAFSA are perceived as those more likely to enroll.  They might be the first to receive financial aid awards and a little more personal attention.

Tip:  Although you can’t deliberately leave colleges off your FAFSA list without risking losing aid offers from those schools, you can take care with how you rank them.  And evidently, that’s a good idea.

Early Applications
When a student applies early speaks volumes about level of interest.  Those who apply earliest in the process are often the most interested and most likely to enroll.  Barnds suggests that these students “might receive more attention throughout the process, and even special invitations to events and priority consideration for scholarships and financial aid.” 

Tip: Regardless of how you decide to apply—binding Early Decision, nonbinding Early Action, or Regular Decision—get the application completed and sent as soon as possible.   Getting the entire application package together takes time and some coordination of test scores, recommendations, and transcripts.  Don’t wait until 15 minutes before deadline to push the button, as procrastination is apparently interpreted as disinterest.

Colleges vary enormously in terms of how much attention they pay to the trail of data crumbs you leave behind.  But make no mistake, most collect it in one form or other.   

And even if they don’t use sophisticated algorithms or make hatch marks on a sheet of paper to document contacts, admissions staff take note of a sincere thank you, a firm handshake, or a well-written essay.

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