How to “Show Interest” When You Can’t Get to Campus


The college where I plan to apply in the fall lists expressed interest as being important but I won't be able to visit. Someone told me to contact the admissions office frequently and give my name each time to show interest, and then my sister said sending an application early rather than on the deadline date shows interest. Are these true? What are some other unusual ways I can show interest?

Admission officials understand that many students can't visit campus, and there are certainly other good ways to show your interest. Here are two important ones:

1. Email your “regional admissions rep." This is the staff member who oversees applicants from your high school, and you can usually find the name of your rep by looking on the admission website or by phoning the admission office. Send your rep a brief email saying that you're very eager to attend but won't be able to visit campus, explaining why. In most cases, distance and expense are the big reasons that keep prospective students away. But if you live within 150 or so miles of the college, the admission folks may expect you to put in the effort to get there, unless you come from a very disadvantaged background or there are other extenuating circumstances that make the trip impossible.

You can use this same email to mention one or two aspects of the college that especially excite you, but only select those that are atypical. Don't say, “You have a study abroad program" or “an environmental science major." You can also use this email to ask a question or two, but stick with questions that aren't answered on the website and that are clearly genuine ones that you can't research on your own and that aren't concocted to make you look like a cross between Albert Einstein and Mother Teresa (“If I double major in computer science and neuroscience, will I still have time to do 30 hours of community service every week, which is my goal for freshman year?")

You should also ask the regional rep if he or she will be visiting your high school or a college fair nearby.

2. Attend these events when offered. Since you won't be seeing the campus, go out of your way to attend the rep's visit to your school or fairs close to home. If there's a conflict you can't surmount (e.g., a soccer game or debate tournament), be sure to write to the rep and explain why you were absent. Here's a recent Ask the Dean column about what to do at college fairs. It was specifically written for students, like you, who can't get to campus.

Here's what you should NOT do:

1. Telephone your regional rep (or any other admission official) with questions unless they're urgent. Otherwise, send an email, but ...

2. Don't email often. The introductory message, as described above, is fine, and you can send one more later in the process ... perhaps to ask a question that just came up or to thank the rep for chatting with you at a fair. But admission folks are busy and don't need new pen pals. Too many attempts to seem enthusiastic will merely make you seem annoying.

Submitting an application early may or may not show your love as you hope it will. If the school follows a “Rolling Admission" plan, then sooner is almost always better. But when a college has specific deadlines, an early-bird's application might just get reviewed with the rest of the flock's, and the admission committees won't even notice the date it arrived. So take enough time to do a great job on the application rather than worrying about sending it quickly. Of course, if your college offers a binding “Early Decision" option, that's the best way of all to demonstrate interest. And if you need financial aid and don't receive an adequate aid award, you can bail out from the ED commitment with no penalty.

It's not necessary to come up with “unusual ways to show interest," but if you want to try something cute and gimmicky, perhaps you can do a little sleuthing and identify a specialty item that's sold near campus, which students at your college love. Then order it for yourself from afar. For instance, many students at Smith College — around the corner from me —love ice cream from Herrell's. That probably won't do well in the mail, but Herrell's famous hot fudge sauce would. So if Smith were your top-choice school and you can't visit, you could order a jar of Herrell's hot fudge and then send the admission office a photo of yourself, with the fudge jar prominently displayed, and a caption that proclaims, “Even though I can't visit Smith, I can still eat like a Smithie!" Again, you don't need to find a unique way to prove your love, but— if you come up with an idea of your own, there's really no downside to trying it.

Finally, prospective students from underrepresented backgrounds can sometimes take advantage of “fly in" programs that cover all costs for a campus visit. If this is you, ask your regional rep what's available, and then maybe you will get to campus after all.