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The Hidden Players of Demonstrated Interest: FAFSA and ACT

DI-HiddenIn a recent post, guest author and independent college consultant, Steven Mercer, described ways in which students can ‘demonstrate interest’ during the application process to improve their odds of acceptance. Admission officers are human beings with a limited amount of time, so it stands to reason that they would prefer to shrink their application pools to those candidates most interested, and therefore, most likely to matriculate. By tracking activities that correlate with matriculation (e.g. scheduling a formal tour, attending college-hosted informational sessions, participating in university-led social media campaigns, etc.) admission officers are able to more accurately build an incoming class.

The jury is still out regarding the fairness of demonstrated interest (DI). Many colleges dodge DI entirely for fear that it will add a layer of gamesmanship to the application process. Students not privy to the nuances of DI, especially those who do not have access to adequate counseling, may be at a disadvantage. However, a strong counter-argument can be made from the vantage point of highly selective schools, where admit rates are dwarfed by the annual deluge of applications. DI offers an efficient way to sift through paperwork and push eager and committed applicants to the top of the fray.

The conundrum of the ‘burdened admission officer’ at a selective college is outlined in this Forbes article. For both practical and marketing purposes, schools want to have low acceptance rates (i.e. high selectivity) and strong yields (i.e. a large percentage of accepted students who wind up going). To be cheeky, the Forbes article analogizes admission officers to anxious teens on a hot date:

…like nervous teens asking a would-be paramour out…they want to know how much you like them, whether your application is just an idle flirtation, or whether there’s a real chance for a long-term relationship.

But even with DI policies lending a helping hand, folks in admission would love to have better powers of discernment. The natural question arises, why don’t colleges just ask applicants about their preferences? The simple answer: they are not allowed. In fact, the National Association of College Admissions Counselors (NACAC) authored a document entitled the Statement of Principles of Good Practices, which defines permitted means of communication between universities and applicants. Of primary importance is article II.B.2, which states that members of NACAC , including 1,400 universities, will not require students to report or rank their college preferences beyond the parameters of Early Decision.

FAFSA and Demonstrated Interest

Still, enrollment professionals continue to hunt for the golden metric that will allow them to boost selectivity and yield. One such metric, an open secret within admission circles, derives from the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). When students complete the FAFSA, they are asked to list all of the schools to which they will be applying; this list is then transferred to colleges’ enrollment and financial aid offices. Coincidentally, analysts have found a moderate correlation between the order of schools listed on the FAFSA and students’ preferences for attendance. Of course, this correlation is completely nullified for students who deliberately alphabetize their lists.

Using the FAFSA rankings is a necessary risk that some universities are willing to take, particularly in an age where it is de rigeur for students to submit dozens of applications – many of which are perfunctorily sent to ‘safety schools.’

ACT and Demonstrated Interest

A more obscure but similarly controversial admission metric comes from the ACT (ironically, it has nothing to do with test scores). At the SuperACAC conference in Reno, a high-ranking ACT rep revealed that the order in which a student lists schools on her score report – a free service availed during the registration process – is used as an index of student interest. The higher a school’s position on the report, the greater a student’s desire to attend…or so the fable goes. This came as a great shock to conference-goers, a group comprised of well-informed, school-based counselors and private consultants. They were understandably miffed: Why hadn’t they been informed of this cryptic trick used by admission offices? Had their student advisees missed (or ruined) an opportunity by using ACT’s free reports?

Much like the FAFSA issue, dissenters argue that utilizing the ACT rankings enforces a tacit gaming of the application that further disadvantages the uninitiated, especially underprivileged students.

How to Safeguard Your Students Against Undesirable Data Usage

Compass is an advocate of transparency in all aspects of the admission process – not just testing. Consequently, we want our colleagues and clients to decide for themselves whether or not to engage in the FAFSA/ACT game. Here is our suggested playbook:

When completing the FAFSA:

  1. List colleges in alphabetical order to hide any whiff of preference. If you are concerned that schools will wrongly assign value to the top of your alphabetized list, do the following…
  2. Submit the FAFSA for a single school (let’s call it ‘School A’) and then re-submit the FAFSA for additional schools. After the first application is processed for School A (which will take a day or two), go back into the FAFSA, delete School A, and add School B. School B will then have access to your information but won’t see that you previously listed School A. Repeat this process as many times as you need to. (This procedure is outlined on the FAFSA website.)

When submitting ACT scores:

Do not use the complimentary score notification service during the registration process. Wait to send scores individually ($12-$16.50 per school) after you receive your results. In addition to concerns of ‘interest,’ Compass advises families not to use the complimentary notification service in case test results are unexpectedly poor. Well-prepared students typically have an opportunity to re-test and post an official score that redeems testing blemishes. You can always speak with a Compass director to determine your specific plan for testing and how and when to submit test scores.

Matt Steiner

About Matt Steiner

Prior to joining the Compass team, Matt obtained an M.A. from the University of Chicago and a B.A. from the University of California, Santa Cruz. They have a decade of experience in the field of test preparation, working for multiple well-regarded private tutoring firms. Matt currently teaches graduate-level lectures on college admission testing through UC San Diego, UCLA, and UC Irvine. In their instruction and public speaking, Matt endeavors to build transparency around college admission tests.

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