What Unsolicited Letters From Colleges Mean

Question: I recently received a letter from a university asking me to consider applying there. I was wondering how they got my name. Was I specially selected or did the college just send the same letter to everyone in the state?

The university probably got your name from "Student Search." If you checked the appropriate box when you registered for the SAT, you gave the College Board permission to release your name and address to subscribing colleges. Colleges and universities pay for the Student Search service to help them locate students with the characteristics they're seeking. These include racial or ethnic preferences, geographical preferences, choice of majors, test scores, and so on. The College Board doesn't release actual scores, but let's say that a college is looking for males with a total SAT I over 1200, and you fit the bill, then that school will get your name and contact info. The same is true if the school is seeking prospective scientists, band members, lacrosse players, etc. Some colleges have very specific criteria while others are after almost anyone who isn't on life support.

There are other ways that colleges may get your name, too. Registering for a scholarship might do it, and--if it's an in-state public university--they may have access to high school rosters.

The important thing to realize, however, is that most high school juniors and seniors get flooded with mail from a range of institutions. Consider these to be invitations to look further but not promises of admission or indications that you're a priority candidate. Colleges are eager to boost their number of applicants, and some schools send their "propaganda" to students whose likelihood of acceptance is actually slim.

It can be very flattering to get this kind of attention, especially if you find out that your friends didn't receive the same letters that you did, but it's still important to be wary. Be a careful consumer when you receive alluring brochures. That is, look beyond the pretty pictures and smiling students on the glossy pages and see what statistics back up each college's claims. Compare your own numbers (test scores, GPA, rank) to those of admitted freshmen and see where you stand. This unsolicited mail can be a good way to add unfamiliar options to your list, but it can also be overwhelming and/or misleading, so do be discriminating as you sort through it.