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The Secret Data That Admissions Offices Hope You Won't Find

What if you could find out all the secret data you wanted to know about the admissions process at your dream college? Do they consider demonstrated interest in the admissions process? How many students actually get a merit scholarship each year? Has anyone with a C average ever gotten admitted? What about someone with lower test scores? And how many thousands of students do they actually place on the waitlist?

One could look at the college's incoming student profile for this information. This document is usually found on the college's admissions site. It has some general data points about the most recent applicant pool, like how many students applied and the average test scores of those who got admitted. But it doesn't go into as much depth as families often want.

But there is a place to find out more.

Every not-so-flattering statistic about a college's admissions process can be found on what's called the Common Data Set. When I was a dean of admissions, I had to provide all of this data to the Institutional Research Department on campus who compiled the data and posted it for public consumption. Most families with college bound students don't know about this publicly shared document. If they did, they might be surprised by what they saw.

During one of our first discussions of my newly launched Facebook Group, Application Nation, someone asked me which colleges consider demonstrated interest. I was using my best judgment for most of the colleges we were discussing. But then one brilliant mom mentioned the Common Data Set. I had forgotten that demonstrated interest is one of the thousands of pieces of data requested on this obscure document. And just like that, our whole group got access to a secret stash of admissions data that anyone can see but few know about. An easy Google search for "Common Data Set [fill in college name here]" and voila.

As my curiosity got the best of me, I started scouring the Common Data Set for every college imaginable. I was reminded of two things. First, not all colleges fill out every question. A competitive small liberal arts college which practices holistic admissions does not report how each component of the application, including demonstrated interest, factors into the admissions decision. I know this college too well to know that they don't make admissions decisions out of thin air. One Ivy League university didn't answer how many students were waitlisted last year even though they shared that some were admitted from the waitlist. Are the colleges trying to hide this information or is it truly not applicable? 

Some colleges don't provide all of the information requested for the Common Data Set. This begs the question, "Is there something they're trying to hide?" TWEET THIS

Second, while the total number of applications and admitted students and test score averages seem cut and dry, some of the data is more subjective. When I looked up to what extent a popular private university factors in demonstrated interest and other things like race and geographic preference into their admissions decisions, I was surprised. On a scale of very important, important, considered, and not considered, the university indicated that demonstrated interest is merely "considered" in the evaluation process. I could easily find a number of high achieving students who never visited campus but had GPAs and test scores far higher than their averages who would beg to differ. And I was even more surprised to learn that race and geographic preference are simply "not considered" in the admissions process. Was it a typo? Did the person filling out the form just not know?

It brings me to the one thing that makes me get out of bed every morning besides my three kids and husband. Families are continually left in the dark about what it really takes to get admitted to college. Admissions offices do not mention the Common Data Set during their presentations. And even if they did, much of the data isn’t getting reported by colleges or worse yet, it may not be reported accurately.

In an environment where a single grade in a single marking period can determine a student’s fate or the use of “a” instead of “an” in a college essay can keep a student out of the running, we need to make colleges more accountable and transparent. If they expect teenagers to report every single test score or explain why they had to take a brief leave of absence for personal reasons in high school, why can’t colleges be required to be honest too? As some admissions officers are often heard saying to starry-eyed prospective students, sometimes our perfect imperfections make us more real and relatable in the end.