Rules for dating (getting admitted to) a college or university

Every few years there’s a new series of books on dating that discourage you from showing any interest whatsoever in the person you want to date. You probably know how that works – don’t be the first to call, don’t act too excited to go out, NEVER be the first to admit you like the other person, never buy them a really expensive gift just hoping she’ll agree to consider a date…sorry, thought process interrupted by a flashback.

Anyhow, getting into college is generally considered the exact opposite. The more enthusiastic you are about a college, the more they want you. You’d think that’s a no-brainer – that any university would of course want enthusiastic students, but actually it usually has more to do with marketing. Colleges want to admit fewer applicants, and have more of the applicants they admit say yes – it helps with different rankings, and there’s a common belief that the more applicants we deny the more desirable our institutions become.

As a result, colleges and universities use different methods to determine just how interested you are. At the most basic level we just take your word for it if you bother to tell us in your essay or in a separate statement. Some colleges ask you, either in the application or at other times in the recruitment process, what other institutions you are considering (even though we’re not supposed to do that anymore). This all seems innocent enough, until we begin factoring that into admissions decisions, guessing whether the other universities will admit you, and if so whether you’ll pick them or us.

In case you had any doubts about how sneaky we colleges can be, we don’t just use what you tell us. Some colleges use evidence of interest, which may range from how many times you visited or called, to how you originally contacted us (yes, you might actually be considered differently at some schools if we met you a college fair, herd from you by email, or if you responded to a mailing we sent). Worst of all, we might even use things that have no relation to your interest in our school: some universities will look at the list of other places you are sending your SAT/ACT scores, and/or the list of institutions where you’re submitting your FAFSA. Many not only use that to determine where else you’re applying, but actually consider the order of schools related to your interest.

If you want to be as tricky as we are, you can try to manipulate this side of the process – make sure your top choice school is listed first on your SAT/ACT/FAFSA, make sure you visit, write and call (bear in mind, as I often note, the fine line between advocating for yourself and stalking – you know who you are).

There is a downside to consider, however, in appearing too interested. If schools think are you SUPER interested they have less motivation to give you financial aid and scholarships. The basic theory is that the most interested students will pay more for our colleges and universities, and many schools, especially the highest priced ones, have REALLY sophisticated models to factor in just how your excitement translates into a lower need to discount your cost.

So there you have it – interest is often a factor, but can also work against you. I guess it’s a bit more like dating than I thought. Be seeing you.


3 Responses

  1. I would be interested in seeing other resources that would help my clients determine how they may be hurting themselves from an aid award point of view by expressing “excessive” interest in a college


    John Pearson

    • Great question! Unfortunately, colleges that practice “leveraging” in this way, offering less attractive packages (generally the same size, but more loan and less gift) to those who show more interest will talk about it with colleagues at conferences, but not to prospective students or their families, and they DON’T publish the information anywhere. If you want evidence, google “Financial Aid Leveraging” and look at all the companies that help colleges figure out the best way to manipulate their prospective students.
      Fortunately, since Mason is already one of the 50 top values in higher education and the only best value in the D.C. area, we don’t need to be all sneaky about how we award our aid!

  2. I think that it is a very interesting and amusing article. Practically all its main points are true.

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