By Amy Herzog and Debbie Kanter
North Shore College Consulting 

Twenty years ago colleges simply admitted the applicants with the best numbers.  Today, acceptance to any school is never a sure thing.  A student is not guaranteed acceptance to a school merely because she meets or even exceeds the average test scores and GPA reported by that school.  In fact, in today’s admission climate, no student is guaranteed admittance to any college even if he offers the best of everything.

Across the United States, approximately 2.94 million students graduate from nearly 27,000 high schools each year.  That means that each college applicant is competing against 27,000 valedictorians, 27,000 salutatorians, 27,000 editors-in-chief, and 27,000 student body presidents.   Each year, Harvard rejects four out of five valedictorians and hundreds of applicants with perfect test scores.  According to an admissions officer at Princeton, “Sometimes the number one student is not the most exciting.”

Many students mistakenly believe that if they know someone with a worse admissions profile than they have who was already accepted to University X, then they will automatically be accepted as well.  The fact is, no matter how much you think you know about another applicant, you will have no idea why they were accepted.  Today, many schools have a holistic approach to admissions where the admission officers consider qualitative as well as quantitative factors.  Students who show some kind of interesting talent or have a compelling story to tell will often get a close look even if grades and test scores are not quite up to the ideal.  What a college is looking for can change each year and can be impacted by who else is applying and what they have to offer.

Some colleges and universities reject or wait-highly qualified applicants because they predict that these students are likely to attend a higher-ranking school.  In other words, colleges do not want to be anyone’s “safety school.”  Being turned down by students is becoming increasingly unacceptable to colleges because it affects their “yield” or the percentage of accepted applicants who actually enroll in a college compared to the number of acceptances offered.

A newer trend among colleges is to turn down some of the best applicants they get, particularly if they have not bothered to demonstrate interest.  The nebulous concept of “demonstrated interest” emerged as a key factor in the admission process during the past decade.  According to a recent study by the National Association for College Admissions Counseling, approximately 50 percent of colleges claim that a student’s demonstrated interest in a school is either highly or moderately important in the admissions process.   Colleges have a good reason for taking demonstrated interest into account as they make their admissions decisions.  For obvious reasons, schools want to enroll students who are eager to attend.  With the creation of the Common Application and the significant increase in the number of applicants, colleges began to seek ways to sort between applications from students who were serious about enrolling in the institution if accepted and those who may simply have submitted the application as a hedge against uncertainty in the application process.

The concept of demonstrated interest has certainly changed the game for college applicants today.  It is important for students to treat every college on their list as seriously as their first and second choices.  Students should go out of their way to exhibit to each college the same demonstrated interest and should exert the same effort on the application for their last choice school as they do on the application for their first choice.