What is demonstrated interest, and why do I need to know about it?
In the US there’s a phenomenon known as a ‘stealth applicant’. In the same way as a stealth fighter, it means that the first time the university knows about you is when your application arrives: before that, you are hidden from them.
At some colleges, being a stealth applicant is not the ideal scenario as, for many US colleges, ‘demonstrated interest’ is a factor that they might use when deciding who to make offers to. Put most clearly, when US colleges have to choose who gets a hypothetical last spot and have two equally well-qualified candidates to choose between, who should get it: someone who has shown a lot of interest in the college (and, so the logic goes, might take the spot if offered) or someone who only sent in an application?
The ‘taking the spot if offered’ bit here is crucial. US universities - unlike in UCAS, for example - don’t know how many other places applicants have applied to, and thus need to also compete to fill their spots from students who might have 10, 15 or even more other offers to choose between. In the main US university rankings, this metric is one used to judge universities: how many offers do they have to make to fill their places? This is what’s called ‘yield’.
So, to have as high a yield rate as possible, some US universities try to make offers to students who they think will take those offers, something they work out by tracking an applicant’s 'demonstrated interest’.
So, how do you demonstrate interest?
Well, applying Early Decision is a key way of doing this - you couldn’t state more clearly that you want to attend - but if that’s not an option, there are many more ways. Connecting with people on campus either in person or virtually is important, and something that I think is a key part of the ‘pre-application’ phase that I put my students through. Emails, Skype discussions and phone calls are great, and if you can visit the university then that’s really important too.
In the age of big data, there’s also an electronic component to this. Universities will email you (a lot), from when you first take the SAT / ACT and then as soon as they have your email address. They will track those emails; did you open them? Did you click on the links? How long did you spend on the website after you clicked those links? Again, it seems logical to assume that if you opened their email and then spent 30 minutes or so on their website, then you probably are really interested in going to that university.
All of this is sometimes completely hidden to an international applicant, as it’s not something they will be used to from their own system, which is another reason why it’s important to make sure you apply to a US university knowing the rules of the game. And don’t worry, not every US university tracks demonstrated interest: if all of this seems like too much, then make sure you choose to apply to those where this is not a factor.