What college you (or your student) attend is the result of three individual steps; 1) Deciding where to apply/applying, 2) Schools deciding who to accept/determining aid, and 3) Deciding which school’s offer to accept. This higher level view of the process might help us understand what is going on.
Let’s start by noting who the actors are in the three steps of this dance; only in the 2nd step are the colleges in control. The students have control in the 1st and 3rd steps. We spend most of our time in the first step, and I spent some time discussing pieces of this step; creating a list, refining your list, etc. with the goal of determining the 7 schools to which we apply. But now let’s think about the colleges’ side of step one; they are marketing their hearts out to get the best and brightest students to apply to their school. If no one applies to their school this year, the school will have new admissions people very soon. If they fail to convince enough good students to come to campus for a couple years in a row, the school will be in trouble. Those schools and their admissions people need you. They are sales people and they have a product to sell.
How can they get you to consider their brand? Tours, colorful brochures, college fairs, postcards, pens, t-shirts, websites, emails, visits to your school. They are marketing 24/7. More schools make contact with the student than you can reasonably consider. If you have your list of 20-30 schools, or at least know what types of schools you are pursuing, feel free to recycle materials from the schools that are not of interest. If they have a way to remove yourself from their mailing list, do it. They will save money and the planet will thank you.
Enjoy being the belle of the ball in the first step of the dance, because the second step – the one where you are powerless – is coming. But what they use to make their decision in step two, is information they will gladly give you in step one. Listen to what they say. Not all schools are alike. Some schools are test optional. They may differ on who they want (or don’t want) your letters of recommendation from; guidance counselor, core subject teacher, coach, other. What I heard repeatedly during campus visits (we’ve logged 10 now), is that 1) they want to feel like they know the student through their essay (possibly other contact) and 2) they take demonstrated interest into account. Showing up on campus for a tour, communication with their admissions officer (admissions officers have regions, so one is assigned to each student), contacting the professors or tour guides you meet with follow up questions or even a simple thank you - are all ways you can demonstrate interest in their school.
They want to feel that you know - and want - what they are all about. They want students who will 1) accept their offer if they make one and 2) not transfer out after their freshman year. One of the reasons for these preferences is that it makes their school look better. The "best" schools have low acceptance rates. The more likely that the students they make offers to agree to come to the school, the fewer students they need to admit to reach their desired number of students, so the lower their acceptance rates will be. The "best" schools also have high rates of graduation - that is the percentage of students who start at a school, graduate from there (usually measured after 6 years). Students who transfer out lower their graduation numbers. And lets face it, our students want to go to a school they feel comfortable with, and they want to graduate from that school too.
When we get to step three (April of the student's senior year) we will want to schedule one last visit to the schools we are considering.