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Yes, Actually, Colleges Know Whether You Open Their Emails

Updated: Feb 22, 2023

Last week, I told you all about demonstrated interest, which is an admissions factor (next to essays, recommendations, and GPA) at many colleges and universities. The common next questions are, why do they care, and how could they possibly keep track of this for every applicant?

Why do they care?

In short, it’s about planning for next year’s enrollment.

Imagine you’re throwing an enormous birthday party, and you’re on a budget. You’ve booked the venue (and the food and the entertainment) well ahead of time, and you need to fill 50 seats. You’ve got a dilemma: Not only do you want to fill the seats, but you also don’t want to over-promise seats when you really only have 50.

So you might make an educated guess and send out invitations to 100 people, hoping 50 will come. In reality, though, you would really love to know who these 50 people are ahead of time, because it would be so easy if you could just focus your efforts on people you know want to come.

Most colleges and universities have this kind of dilemma every year. If they send out too many acceptances, they’ll over-enroll and have to deal with a housing crunch. (Trying not to look too obviously at UC Santa Barbara.) If they don’t send out enough acceptances, they have to go to the waitlist, which is a lot more work and energy for everyone than the term would suggest.

So, what is a university to do? They hire a team of expensive consultants to help them determine who is most likely to attend if accepted – and who, if accepted, will politely decline and choose another school.

They’re tracking demonstrated interest. Every college treats it uniquely, assessing your engagement with the school during the admissions process. They could track your college visits, social media, communications, essay content, and more.

Besides helping them predict who will enroll, colleges – especially more close-knit liberal arts colleges – really want to know about your college fit. Students who want to go to the school, show up for opportunities to interact and learn, and can articulate their interest in the school are more likely to be strong fits for the community.

They’re tracking me? How?

Well, they’re fancy consultants, so they’ve got it down to a system.

When you’re on the email list, their email marketing platform shows them your interactions with more detail than you realize. Not just that you signed up, but which emails you open, which links you click and how many times you click them, and how long you spend on the website.

Of course, your face-time is easy to track, when you attend info sessions, webinars, and other events. Expect them to keep a record of your calls and emails.

They can handle variables. For example, they know your zip code, so they know how many miles away you live from the college if you chose not to visit. Occidental College in Los Angeles has communicated clearly to me, my students who live in Los Angeles have pretty much no excuse to not see the campus in person.

They can even track your “invisible” interactions, unless you’re the one person in America who disengages with websites when the “cookies okay” pop-up appears. Yes, this is a bit creepy, and it’s also okay, because they’re giving you an application bump for the interaction.

How can I make this work for me?

Take every opportunity to engage. Don’t just receive emails, but open them. Click on links and get curious about what you see. Learn, explore, and take notes. Then, call or email your regional admissions officer (whom you can find on the college’s website) with your reactions and questions.

To make everything easy on the admissions offices, make sure to use one email address for all your communications with a college, including registering for online info sessions. If you have a nickname or have changed names, use just one first and last name for the whole college admissions process. And, when sending an email to an admissions officer, include your Common App ID in the subject line.

How should I feel about colleges tracking me?

If you love the college and want to attend, I think it’s great news. It’s a chance for you to get credit for your affection. To be honest, they’re easy points: You should be researching your colleges anyway, taking every opportunity to learn everything about the places you want to call home for four years after you graduate high school.

In a perfect world, wouldn’t we all end up at colleges that care enough about us to watch our internet behavior and make sure we really want to attend? (Maybe we don’t have to answer that today.)

Learning about colleges is really hard work! Download my completely free College Research Guide to see a list of the best resources for your college search so you know exactly where to start.

Robert Powers (M.A. Johns Hopkins) is the college consultant at College Torch. He is an expert in colleges and the college admissions process. Parents, join his private Facebook group for Parents of College-Bound Students.

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