Make Yourself Stand Out

By Amy Ciccone, Director of College Counseling

The importance of demonstrated interest: something universities measure to determine the level of a student's interest in their school.

College Admissions has become an increasingly complex game with many moving pieces. How can students give themselves that extra edge and show demonstrated interest in a specific school? Whether students are completing applications, researching and responding to emails from colleges, writing or answering questions, they must be authentic and thorough. 

Not all colleges track or care about demonstrated interest. However, more and more are looking at demonstrated interest to help them sift through the increase in applications they are receiving these days. Schools are experiencing high volumes of applications, especially as colleges and universities moved towards test-optional, which does not require students to submit ACT or SAT scores for consideration. Another factor that has increased the number of applications to individual colleges is that most are now on The Common Application (and/or the Coalition Application, which is similar). These more universal applications purport to "streamline" the college application process—one application and one main personal essay, which allows students to apply to many schools at once. 

Because it's so "easy" to apply to colleges via the Common Application (applicants can list up to 20), many colleges often want students to write a little extra to show true investment in a particular school. The added effort helps schools learn more about an individual applicant, and the "extra" may include a series of one or several short essays. When Virginia Tech decided to join The Common App last year, their Washington, DC, representative, Mario Cruz noted, "We saw a 36% increase in our applications last year, which roughly translates to an additional 12,000 applications...for 42,000 applications last year." Ultimately, colleges want to know if you will take the time to write a quality and thoughtful response about yourself that appeals to their institutional goals.

While The Common App expedites the basics of the application process, each college or university also has a set of its own questions to answer. Some require just a couple of answers, while others may require many. These questions can be as simple as "Did anyone in your family attend this college?" to "What is your intended major, and why are you interested in this field of study?" If this is the extent of the application and question section, students can hit send and relax. However, many colleges ask students to differentiate themselves through writing prompts and essays.

The Importance of Writing Supplements 
Many schools have shorter essays that ask you to expand on topics that may include one of the following: 
  • A Significant Activity: "Elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences." (Babson College) 
  • Leadership: "Share about a time you held a leadership role. Explain what you learned about yourself and others in this experience." (Morehouse College) 
  • Community: Please share a specific instance in which you challenged yourself or stepped out of your comfort zone in order to impact your community." (Fordham University) 
  • Identity: "Every student holds multiple identities that create the diverse fabric of our community. Our committee would like to hear about the intersectionality of your identities and how those have played a crucial role in your life." (Chapman University) 
  • Quirky Questions: Some colleges ask questions that challenge students to think outside the box. "What's your favorite word and why?" (UVA) "Share a time you were awestruck?" (Emory), and "Which Ben & Jerry's ice cream flavor (real or imagined) best describes you? (University of Vermont)

The "Why?" Essay

Some schools may phrase the question with a little more detail, mixing intended major with "fit." Examples include: 
    • "What are your intellectual curiosities, and why do you think Occidental is the right place for you to pursue them? 

    • "Please briefly explain your reason for wishing to attend Loyola Marymount University and/or how you came to select your major." 

    • "Why Tulane?" 
Ways to Show Interest and Learn More!

There are many great ways students can show a school vested interest in a school. 
  • Register for and take an in-person or virtual tour. Registration ensures your visit is recorded.  

  • Register and attend student or faculty panels online

  • Attend an open house (virtually or in-person)
  • Attend a major/department-specific webinar 
  • Develop a relationship with your regional college rep. This person is often the college representative who will read your file and be your primary advocate. 

  • Meet with the college rep when they visit campus or email the representative to set up a Zoom meeting to ask questions. Field's college counseling office hosts more than 200 college and university reps who meet with seniors each fall.

  • Interview (virtually or in-person) if offered

  • Open any emails from colleges of interest (colleges use the platform "Slate" to track and see when a student opens an email.) 

  • Apply Early Decision. If a student has an absolute top choice school and it's economically feasible for their family, Early Decision is a good option. 

  • Email the college rep after you apply, noting that "X is my top choice school."
A positive pandemic outcome is that colleges have created a more robust array of online options for tours and information deep-dives. Students no longer have to visit in person to demonstrate interest. 

How Do You Know If A School Tracks Interest?

It is not always easy to know whether a school tracks interest. A good rule of thumb is that typically, many smaller to medium-sized schools track interest. And even if they don't, it doesn't hurt to follow the advice above—it will help you learn more about schools that might be great fits for your list. 

We (Field's College Counselors Amy Ciccone and Jessica DeVera) dedicate our time guiding juniors and seniors through this sometimes confusing and daunting process. As we like to say, "We've got you!"