A good friend of mine used to work in the admissions office of a hyper-selective liberal arts college. This was a few years back, and while the technology has changed, the process has not. He shared with me that whenever there was an interaction with a student, no matter how early in high school, it was recorded in one way or another in a manilla folder, so when the application arrived, it joined a cataloguing of visits to campus, inquiry cards completed at fairs, email exchanges with the reps, etc. Essentially, all manner of “demonstrated interest” (or DI) was kept on file and taken into account during the application review. However, if an application arrived and no materials existed for that particular student, the application was deemed a “phantom applicant” and placed in a red folder (instead of the manilla folder). Now I won’t go into the details about the ways in which this particular institution factored the paper-trail of DI into their application review given how varied this can be among different colleges, but suffice it to say that the students in the red folders began the application review process at a disadvantage compared to those who had demonstrated interest.
Now the mistake in hearing this is to manufacture and construct artificial mechanisms and reasons for demonstrating interest. As I share with my students, while I may not be able to give any secrets about how to guarantee admission into any particular schools, I can share unequivocally how not to be admitted to any institution: be disingenuous! The college admissions process mostly has a great sense of that which is genuine and that which is not. So, to be clear, I do not advocate demonstrating interest for the sake of demonstrating interest. Instead, I adhere strictly to a belief that good DI is merely good research.
In today’s day and age, the internet is our primary means for research, and some college websites are better than others. However, what it means to research a university is something that we, as educators, do not always establish with our students. What does it mean to research a school? Here’s a thought that I use… I encourage students to defer immediate, gut reactions when researching. It is not a light-switch, either on (yes) or off (no). Instead, I want students to consider it to be an accounting and balancing, more of the variety of a pros and cons listing. Unfortunately, what I have found is that a student will go to a website and find two or three things about a school — maybe even the elements of their criteria that initiated the search — and then stop researching. Instead, I ask students to withhold that final determination of yes/no in favor of a more thorough examination. What I ask is for them to come up with at least three pros and at least three cons. The diligent researcher might come up with 50 pros before she comes up with 3 cons; this school, then, might be a yes! Conversely, a student might come up with 8 cons before he finds that third pro; this one might be a no! In proceeding through this process, though, a student is really just deepening their search criteria by establishing which elements of a school are most important. In the end, though, the student needs to keep researching past their search criteria, to keep digging at what elements of a school are particularly important to them and which unique elements of specific schools really stand out.
However, coming back to the internet and demonstrated interest, at some point in the research process there will come a need to learn more. In an ideal world, the student would be able to visit each college of interest, but this is increasingly impossible. However, in lieu of going to the school for a formal visit and information session, the student should absolutely reach out to the trained professionals in the admission office to get their questions answered. It is true that there are plenty of institutions (e.g. USC, NYU) that do not track DI as part of their process; however, if a student’s outreach and connection with a school — the traditional domain of DI — are genuine and related to his or her active research process, regardless of whether the school tracks DI, the outreach benefits the student by providing the answers to their questions. Again, good DI is just good research.
In the end, when a student takes their search and research process seriously, there should be no concerns about DI, as their research should have led them to an effective demonstration, whether or not the individual institutions track it. Seen this way, the parable of the phantom applicant makes a bit more sense: the students in the red folders can be seen, through one lens, of begin poor researchers. So, ultimately, don’t be a phantom applicant! Be a good researcher!