INDIANAPOLIS — Some high school counselors are worried about another college admissions hurdle students have to clear: repeatedly showing interest in certain colleges, even though they have already applied.
During the annual meeting of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, admissions officials from several colleges laid out how they used students’ “demonstrated interest” to make admissions decisions. The concept of demonstrated interest isn't new — and colleges have long been wary of applicants who might not be serious — but its role has grown in a significant way.
Students may demonstrate extra interest by applying early, communicating with recruiters or visiting campus, among other things. Colleges that use demonstrated interest to make admissions decisions say it helps them decide where to focus recruitment efforts and signals to them who really wants to come.
A few high school counselors strongly questioned the emphasis on demonstrated interest, suggesting that its use blurs the lines between education and business, and that it may be a needless ego trip by college admissions offices. If a student has already applied to the college, isn’t that demonstrating interest enough?
Demonstrated interest seems to be about “how loved you guys feel,” Noel Blyler, associate director of college counseling at Charles Wright Academy, in Washington State, said to a panel that included officials from three colleges that use demonstrated interest to make decisions.
“We’re all going to get good at teaching our kids to jump through hoops for the sake of jumping through hoops,” Blyler said. He said he felt “despair” over what the panelists had said because demonstrated interest sounded like a “game of gotcha.”
He received applause for his remarks, which he made from the audience during the question-and-answer portion of the panel.
At times, it was unclear which attempts to demonstrate interest might help students, and which might hurt them.
“I think we’ve all seen, the line between being famous and being notorious is somewhat thin when it comes to demonstrated interest,” said one member of the panel, Owen Wolf, associate director of admission at Pitzer College in California.
Wolf said he didn’t want hear from students “a ton” because if they run out of meaningful things to say he is less likely to pay attention to their emails. If they send a letter, it ought to be a page or less, because the admissions staff members want to be able to project it onto a screen to look at it. And they can only read so much.
“We don’t have a lot of time to be parsing through pages and pages,” Wolf said.
He also said that students should steer clear of being too enthusiastic.
“Don’t get all King Lear and say, 'Oh, I love you more than any college in the world,' ” Wolf said — presumably referring to the hyperbolic but inconstant affection of two of Lear’s daughters, Goneril and Regan, in Shakespeare’s play.
Jon Reider, director of college counseling at San Francisco University High School, said in an interview after the panel that he’d had a curious thing happen several years ago to a student of his. The student, who was Hispanic and a first-generation college student, applied to 13 colleges, including Pitzer.
The student got into 12 of the 13 — including Harvard University and Yale University — but was waitlisted at Pitzer. Reider suspected Pitzer knew the student had applied to other colleges and didn’t admit him out of a suspicion that she would enroll elsewhere. The student would have, Reider said, but he said that’s not really a reason to deny someone admission.
Reider said students applying to a college that uses demonstrated interest may not be able to visit a campus — which can be too expensive for some families — or they might miss a visit to their high school by an admissions official because they are studying for a test. Both things could later count against a student at a college that uses demonstrated interest.
Often times, sheer numbers make clear how colleges want students to demonstrate interest.
Jeff Schiffman, associate director of admissions at Tulane University in New Orleans, pushed back against the idea that demonstrated interest is asking too much of students.
“I’m not asking students to jump through hoops, I’m asking students if they are very interested in the school, to write an essay about that,” he said.
Tulane is keen on demonstrated interest. Schiffman, who writes a blog about admissions, said 70 percent of Tulane’s freshmen applied early as part of the single-choice, early-action application that Tulane encourages.
Students who apply this way are asked not to apply early to any other private college. That is one surefire way to demonstrate interest.
Reider called Tulane’s process “breathtaking,” and an example of the way demonstrated interest has “dissolved” the line between education and business.
“The early bird gets the worm,” Reider, a former admissions official at Stanford University, said in an interview after the session. He also stood up during the panel, which he was not on and which did not feature any officials from colleges that do not use demonstrated interest, to question demonstrated interest policies.
“He says, ‘We’re not going to make kids jump through hoops’ — no, he’s not, but I will,” Reider said.
If that’s what students have to do to go where they want, he’ll help them do it. “But,” he said, “it’s not genuine. We’re teaching the kids to turn themselves into a product.”
Schiffman said some things a student does besides applying early make clear they really want to attend Tulane — thank-you notes and telephone calls count. And if two students have nearly identical applications, but one has filled out an optional statement on their application, Schiffman said he will admit the student who has filled out the optional statement.
“I think you should all know that the word ‘optional’ should be stricken from the record, because rarely is it optional,” he said.
Carey Thompson, vice president for enrollment and communication at Rhodes College, in Tennessee, said demonstrated interest helps the college sort through who is really interested in coming to Rhodes and who simply applied. “Our goal is to reduce the noise in the system,” he said. “We can go through our admit pool and identify consistently 400 students we don’t believe are interested in Rhodes College.”
To those students — who are qualified but have not shown interest beyond applying — Rhodes sends a letter saying, in effect, that it doesn’t believe they really want to come. If they do in fact want to attend Rhodes, they should do a Skype interview or visit the campus and they will be admitted on the spot.
Last year, 17 of those 400 or so students followed up on the letter — about 4 percent.
The practice cuts the college’s acceptance rate — because Rhodes isn’t admitting the other roughly 380 students — something that could help it appear more selective.
“Does it cut our acceptance rate? Yeah,” Thompson said. “Is that why we do it? No.”
Susan McCarter, director of college guidance at Girls Preparatory School in Tennessee, praised Rhodes and other colleges that at least make clear they use demonstrated interest as a factor.
“Not everyone is as upfront about it,” she said.