College Guy: How your name is sold to colleges for marketing

  • Brennan Barnard

For the Monitor
Published: 3/15/2021 5:05:26 PM

Question: I have been getting emails and snail mail from NYU, The University of Chicago and other selective colleges. Is this a good sign?

Answer: It is definitely a sign. However, in truth, it is neither good nor bad. You might then wonder what it is a sign of? It means you are likely a junior in high school and have either taken standardized testing or filled out some kind of national survey. It is also a sign that the “admission industrial complex” and college marketing machines are alive and well.

Here is how it works: You register and pay a testing agency, like the College Board, to take the PSAT, SAT, ACT, TOEFL, AP/IB exams, or another standardized test. Now they have your name and contact information. They then turn around and sell your data to colleges and universities for nearly $0.50 per name. Schools order student names – as though they were choosing off a menu – to market to. Perhaps a college in New York City or Chicago is hoping to build their applicant pool with more female students from rural areas in New Hampshire who are interested in the STEM fields. They might buy information about junior girls, of all ethnicities, from specific zip codes in the North Country who scored above 1200 on their SAT and who have expressed interest in chemistry, physics, biology, math, and/or engineering.

The admission office then inundates these young women with communication of every type. The students might receive invitations to general admission events, focused STEM programs, offerings for women in education, and maybe even application fee waivers or other enticements. While schools have the ability to dial in like this on targeted populations based on specific criteria, the reality is that they usually cast the net very wide. They buy names and data for large swaths of students, many of whom are unlikely to be competitive for admission. In a given year, it could be that 1,000 colleges buy your name. If you are paying attention, that’s almost $500 that companies are making from selling your information; it seems like you should get a cut, no?

If you are following all of this, you will also now realize that those emails and brochures that you are receiving are not necessarily a sign that you are likely to be admitted, but rather an effort by colleges to build a large applicant pool. They do this so that they have a diverse group of students to choose from, but also because the more applicants they have, the smaller percentage they can accept. This allows them to appear more selective.

This is just one way that colleges identify and market to prospective applicants. In typical years, among other strategies, they also rely on visits to high schools, college fairs, regional presentations, and students visiting their campus for tours and information sessions. If you had not noticed, this is anything but a typical year – we are in the midst of a global pandemic and many of these in-person events have been impossible. Meanwhile, many students have been unable – or understandably unwilling – to take standardized tests. Therefore, colleges and universities cannot buy your name. This means that the onus is on you to be found by schools.

College-bound students need to be proactive about searching for schools and get on their radar! This is a time for you to be a self-advocate and put yourself out there. College admission is not a spectator sport, so engage thoughtfully and keep an open mind but direct approach. Visit campus (virtually or in-person), “raise your hand” by completing inquiry forms on colleges’ websites, or even reach out directly to the admission office and the regional representative for your area. You will then begin to receive the hard marketing sell and it will be a sign – a sign that you are interested in their college and are taking initiative. Happy searching!

Do you have a question about college admission, the impact of the pandemic, and applications? Submit them to news@cmonitor.com. 

Brennan Barnard is the Director of College Counseling and Outreach at The Derryfield School and the College Admission Program Advisor at The Making Caring Common project of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is co-author of the book, “The Truth about College Admission: A Family Guide to Getting In and Staying Together.”




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