You’ve Got Mail!

Is your student a “rising senior”?  Rising seniors are students who have finished their junior year in high school. If your answer is yes, then in the words of AOL (you do remember AOL, don’t you?), “you’ve got mail.”

Summer is the season when colleges begin communicating with rising seniors. Although this usually takes the form of postcards and brochures, some “tech savvy” colleges are also using e-mail. Students will often receive two dozen or more such communications over the next few months.

Before throwing away (or deleting) these communications, consider how to use them to your advantage. To do so, it helps to understand why colleges are communicating with your student.

How did “X college” find my student?

The College Board provides colleges with students’ names, test scores, and “interest data” that students submit when completing on-line “find a college” assessments. If you thought those assessments were just to help students, think again.

Why did “X college” communicate with my student?

Although we often focus on the fact that thousands of students are vying for admission, colleges compete for students with equal ferocity. There are over 2,000 four-year colleges in the United States. The number of high school seniors graduating each year is beginning to decline. An increasing number of families are finding college unaffordable. In this market, colleges need to reach out to students. These communications are the first salvo in a collegiate war for students’ attention.

My student does not have the credentials to qualify for “X college” – did the college send this communication by mistake, or should my student plan on attending?

There has been no mistake, but do not pack your student’s bags just yet. Some colleges that send out material – most likely the ones you have never heard of – may simply be advertising to likely prospects. These colleges have considered students’ PSAT scores reported by the College Board, selected those who are “good fits” for their incoming class, and gambled 90 cents or so to send a brochure in hopes of getting their attention. These colleges may justify your student’s attention.

Sadly, however, many colleges are simply “gaming” the system to achieve greater “selectivity” at your student’s expense.

What is “selectivity”?

Selectivity is a measurement based on the percentage of applicants whom colleges accept for admission. Colleges that accept a high percentage of applicants, say 60% of those applying, are considered “less selective”; colleges which accept lower percentages are considered “more selective”. Some “very selective” colleges, such as Stanford and Harvard, accept fewer than 10 percent of those who apply.

Colleges are rewarded for being more selective because the U.S. News and World Report uses selectivity in “scoring” each college. More selective schools move up in the rankings; less selective schools fall.

This focus on selectivity motivates some colleges to invite as many students as possible to apply for admission, including those students whom those colleges will surely reject. Indeed, rejecting a high percentage of these applicants will increase a college’s ranking. This is a perverse incentive for colleges, and destructive to applicants.

Is your student destined to be “cannon fodder” in the college ratings war?  Remember, if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. If your student is being courted by a college that is out of his league, Ivy or otherwise, beware.

The good news is that you can use college communications to your advantage. The first step is to properly “receive” such correspondence; the second is to use that correspondence to increase your student’s chances of admission.

Receiving the mail/email

Create file folders for “college mail” and “prospective colleges”. Parents should skim each solicitation and place it into the “college mail” file. Once a week, students should review their mail, transfer interesting correspondence to the “prospective colleges” file, and recycle the rest.

Students should also create an e-mail account just for communicating with colleges. This allows students to stop receiving communications from colleges after admission season is over simply by eliminating that account. Students should provide parents with the username and password for that account, and both should check it regularly.

If the account is a gmail address (a common choice), note that Google may file communications under seemingly obscure categories, such as “social”, “promotions”, and “updates”. Look for new communications in each category.

Use college communications to create “demonstrated interest”

In addition to “selectivity”, colleges are concerned about their “yield rates”. The “yield rate” is the percentage of students accepted by a college who eventually enroll. Colleges aim for a high “yield” in part because it helps them predict how many students will enroll.

Imagine a college with 5,000 spaces for its freshman class, and 15,000 applicants. Should it accept 10,000 students, and hope that half will enroll?  If 6,000 students accept their offers of admission, then the college must find more instructors and dormitory space. If only 3,000 students accept, the college must turn to a “wait-list” and admit students it originally did not find to be a good fit.

The challenge of estimating yield is becoming more difficult because the adoption of the Common Application has made it easier for students to apply to multiple colleges. The result has been a vicious circle – more students apply to each college; each college rejects more of them because the applicant pool is larger; and the resulting increase in colleges’ “selectivity” prompts students to apply to still more colleges in hope of getting into a least one of them. Thus, we see more colleges offering “early action” and “early decision” options; students willing to apply early are more likely to actually enroll if accepted.

Colleges use “demonstrated interest” to help predict which students will enroll. Students demonstrate interest in colleges in a variety of ways. Campus visits are the best indicator of “demonstrated interest” because students and parents will only spend the time and money necessary to visit if they are already interested in the school. Thus, when arranging a visit, students should always register through the college’s web site; they should also sign the guest book when they arrive.

The interesting news is that colleges are now starting to track every student interaction with the college, from “check-ins” at college fairs to student’s e-mails to the college, to measure “demonstrated interest.”  Although grades and test scores are still the most important part of the application process, in close cases a student’s “demonstrated interest” may tip the balance.

This means that students should view communications from a college as a free opportunity to bulk up their admissions files at schools they would like to attend. For example, a client recently received an unsolicited e-mail from Hampshire College. That e-mail included a fancy graphic and a big circle with this message: “Click here to access our invitation-only site:  Ideas into Action.”

With one click, the student will add to his or her admission file with Hampshire. Repeating this with every follow-up e-mail Hampshire sends will give the student an edge when it comes time to apply. The same is true for written communications; most of these will direct students to college web sites which students should patronize.

In sum, the college admission process is now beginning earlier, and students are expected to do more to demonstrate interest in their college suitors. Take advantage of this new environment.

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