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Read This Before You Embark on That Expensive College Visit

I just returned from a quick trip to Florida with my three kids. Now I realize why my parents NEVER took us on a real vacation. It's expensive. Really expensive. As I reviewed the itemized receipt from the hotel on our last day, I felt a pit in my stomach.

Just a week earlier, the parents of a high school junior asked me if they truly needed to visit every college their child ended up applying to as they worried about paying for this unexpected expense. I wanted to tell them not to lose sleep about this, but I know the truth. Many private and even some public universities expect all students, except the ones coming from low income backgrounds, to visit before they apply. If they don't, the student is significantly disadvantaged in the admissions process. These colleges that expect you to visit, use a dirty little secret called "demonstrated interest" in their admissions process. And it's got to stop. 

While most kids applying to college these days are considered "middle class" or "upper middle class" by most standards, spending weeks on end traveling to a dozen or so colleges is not that easy or financially possible for most families.  
A dozen or so colleges? Yes, that's about right, maybe even more given that there will be some colleges that don't end up making the final list. 
So here's what you need to know about making an official college visit:
  1. Before beginning your visits, find out which colleges on your initial list consider "demonstrated interest" in the admissions process. If they do, make these visits a priority.

  2. When you arrive in the admissions office, you must check in, sign in, or do whatever you need to do to make sure they know you visited. Drive-by visits, touring on your own, or even getting a friend to show you around who is not an official tour guide don't count in the eyes of colleges who use demonstrated interest.

  3. You can ask the admissions office if they use demonstrated interest, but they don't like to publicly acknowledge this. They are somewhat embarrassed by the ridiculous hoops they make students jump through and they are generally very coy about this unsavory practice.

  4. If colleges are not going to be transparent about demonstrated interest, look up the college's most recent "Common Data Set" which includes key information about the data they typically like to hide. Go to the chart titled "Basis for Selection" under "First-Time, First-Year (Freshman) Admission." Scroll down to the bottom of the chart to "Level of applicant's interest." This is code for "demonstrated interest." If the college indicates that this is "considered," "important," or "very important," make sure to visit.

  5. If you are not able to visit a college that tracks demonstrated interest before you apply, make sure to do all of the other ridiculously absurd things they want you to do to show them you are interested in them:
    • Open each email they send, follow up or respond to all of them;
    • Visit their table at the local college fair and fill out an informational card to let them know you were there (even if you already filled one out before);
    • Attend the presentation at your high school when the admissions officer visits;
    • Go to any local programs the college hosts;
    • Watch their Facebook Live sessions;
    • And write a love poem to them (just kidding on the last one!). 
The big dilemma that families face when planning their college visits is that they tend to only want to visit the elite colleges which generally don't track demonstrated interest. I understand. If the student is considering applying to an Ivy League college under their Early Decision or Early Action program, they need to visit to know for sure whether or not to apply. But if a family only has the time and budget for a few visits, that leaves out those other colleges with slightly higher or significantly higher admit rates which use demonstrated interest.
That is why you hear about high-achieving students not getting admitted to certain colleges that they should be getting into. It usually has to do with the fact that they didn't visit and the college is making them pay for that.

"When you hear about high-achieving students not getting admitted to certain colleges it usually comes down to "demonstrated interest."" TWEET THIS  

What are Our Options in Dealing With This?
We can all just boycott these colleges which put more emphasis on college visits than four years of hard work. We can talk about this issue openly because the more we do, the more pressure colleges will be under to reconsider this policy. Or, we can be smarter about which colleges to visit and when.
Many things need to change in college admissions. In my opinion, demonstrated interest is one of them. 
High schools frown upon students taking days off for college visits. Even if they didn't, students feel so stressed if they miss one day of school, let alone several. Weekend and summer visits are not as representative of what it's like to be a student there. And frankly, families with high school children are trying to save money for college tuition rather than spend it. 
Tulane University costs $74,860 a year. But that doesn't count the trip a family needs to make before their child applies to Tulane because demonstrated interest is considered and matters. I don't care how much income a family makes, that's a lot of money. If you are interested in Tulane or other colleges that factor in demonstrated interest, start saving. It's going to be an expensive trip of a lifetime.