Why do you want to go here? No, really – why?

Many colleges ask you this, either in interviews or on the application form. It can get old, especially with kids applying to so many colleges. After trying to come up with the 8th such answer to this question, you might be tempted to just write or say the same thing for every college:

“I really want to go to Whatever University because the campus is so beautiful and there are so many fun activities and I’m excited to take a lot of different classes and blah blah blah blah blah. And that’s why I want to go to Whatever. Go Mascots!”

OK. Here’s the thing. Even if you take a cynical view of the college admissions process, demonstrating interest is important even if it’s just because the college wants a higher yield (i.e., percentage of admitted students who choose to enroll). Because yield is a financial concern and a rankings concern, colleges have to pay attention to it. And that is why, at many schools, if you don’t show just how interested you are, you might be wait-listed or even rejected, simply because, when it comes down to a decision between you and another student, the other student seems more likely to enroll.

Don’t worry – it’s not always like that. The truth is, while rankings and enrollment are important, most colleges are still more concerned about the individuals they accept. Admissions officers will tell you that they really do want to admit students who not only are going to bring something special to campus, but also are excited about this college. So, you need to show them exactly why this college is one of your top picks.  

How do you do that, exactly? In several ways.

First, get on the mailing list. Colleges do not want your application to be the first time they’ve ever heard your name. Therefore, make sure to go to the undergraduate admissions website for each and every college on your list and put your name on the mailing list, even if you are already receiving emails or snail mail from them. That just means they bought your name from a list, probably from ACT or the College Board.

Make the Why? essay as specific as possible. Don’t rewrite the college’s brochure for them. They already know they have a diverse student body or a beautiful campus. Get specific about what particular class you’re most looking forward to, or how you will bring your high school Mock Trial experience to the college debate team.

Interview if allowed to.  And do your homework before the interview. Yes, the interviewer will ask you questions about yourself, but it’s impressive when you ask informed and specific questions about the school.

Visit if possible. Take notes – very specific notes. Have conversations with everyone from the cafeteria lady to the school newspaper editor. In fact, read the school newspaper. Notice what’s up on the bulletin boards, what students are eating, what the classrooms and labs look like. The more specific details that enchant you, the better. Referring back to those details in your interviews or essays is how you demonstrate interest.

Research, Research, Research.  What are you thinking of majoring in?  Read the bios of the profs in that major, and get acquainted with their published articles, research or books. If you are passionate about a subject, a sport or the arts, find out who the people are from whom you’ll be learning. If you will be visiting on a special Prospective Students Day, email professors or coaches or musical directors you’d like to meet to see if they will be available. These meetings are for you to find out more about courses and activities, by the way; to demonstrate interest, not sway an admissions decision. (But it’s also possible an orchestra conductor who needs an oboist or an anthropology professor who’s impressed with your arrowhead collection might end up putting in a good word – who knows? Just don’t ask them to do that, please!)

No visit or interview? At the very least, email the regional admissions officer (you can usually find that person on the college’s undergraduate admissions website) with a legitimate question (one that you cannot find the answer to on the college’s website) or to simply express your excitement over applying to Whatever University. Likewise, you can email or call the department, a coach or a club president and ask if it’s possible to talk to or message other students in that major or activity.

Stop by your colleges’ tables at college fairs. Ask questions of the representatives, and make sure they get your name.

And then there’s the most obvious way to demonstrate interest: apply Early Decision. The Early Decision process is worthy of its own blog post (which we will share with you soon), but we still need to remind you that this is the kind of demonstrated interest that puts your money where your mouth is. Early Decision, unlike Early Action, is a legally-binding decision. If accepted, you will attend. So if you’re absolutely sure that there is one school you prefer above all others, and that you’re unlikely to change your mind over the course of the next nine months, then when offered, Early Decision is the best way to demonstrate interest and, yes -- because of yield considerations, it gives you an edge.

One last bit of advice, and it’s important -- because it seemingly contradicts everything said above! There are quite a few schools, especially elite ones, who are so inundated with highly qualified applicants that they claim to not factor in demonstrated interest beyond what is required from the application. They will have no problems with yield, and their admissions folks have very little time.  Although they will field legitimate phone calls asking for information that may not be available on their websites, they may not offer interviews or welcome repeated phone calls, emails or extra materials. There is a fine line between demonstrating interest and becoming a pest! So, review each college’s admissions guidelines carefully and then provide them with everything you can within those guidelines. A single email to a regional admissions officer is great, even if the school claims not to demonstrate interest, because at the end of the day, the college admissions process is inherently subjective and human, so an admissions officer might fight harder for an applicant they “know” versus one who has not reached out. And, of course, there is nothing to prevent you from contacting faculty members, current students, alumni and coaches – but keep in mind that they cannot and do not speak for the admissions committee.

Ready to go research your colleges so you can demonstrate your interest in the most effective way? We challenge you to go to the website of Whatever University – as in, whatever one you like most -- as soon as you finish reading this sentence! Go Seniors!