Games Admissions Officers Play: How Top Schools Manage College Yield Rates


Games Admissions Officers Play: How Top Schools Manage College Yield Rates

This may come as a shock to many of you, but highly selective colleges and universities do worry about getting you to say yes and actually attend their schools. In fact, schools admit far more students than they actually have space for, because they know not all students will accept their offers. The word that we use in the industry to refer to the percentage of students who accept an offer of admission is called “yield.” College yield rates matter primarily because they reflect reputation. Harvard’s yield of 82.8% was the highest of any university in the country, and this result is intertwined with the university’s premier reputation.

When I worked at Penn, I was in charge of our office’s yield events, which began as Penn Preview Days and ultimately transformed into what exists now as Quaker Days. Quaker Days provide the chance for admitted students to come stay at Penn overnight and experience what life will be like if they choose the school. We worked hard, carefully crafting a thoughtful experience for our admitted students, in hopes that they ultimately selected us as their school. Every student mattered and our hope was that everyone who came ultimately wanted to attend our school -  helping us meet our yield goal.

Using my experience monitoring yield events at Penn, I have outlined why college yield rates matter, alongside the ways admissions officers play “games” to gain an idea of exactly which students are likely to enroll so that they maintain a high yield rate.

Why Do Colleges Care about Yield?

The college admissions process is a two-way street. As the applicant, you spend your time giving thought to your application and what exactly you are going to say to convince the admissions readers that you are the right applicant. Then you send your app off, and the waiting begins. Once decisions are made and the class has been admitted, the school enters the fierce competition to yield you! The goal of schools is to have a high college yield rates, and here’s why:

  • Success of Admissions Process – Admissions officers care about college yield rates because they literally define whether their admissions process is successful. Did they choose the right students? Will the students that they so painstakingly selected actually say yes? Just the same way that you spend so much time agonizing over your applications, admissions offices spend the same amount of time wondering whether or not you will attend.
  • Gain an Idea of Enrollment - Colleges obviously have a set idea of how many students they can enroll, because after all, resources are limited. Every college estimates the yield of a class in order to make sure they’re not too far above or below their average class size at the end of the process.
  • Help Future Decisions - This is why so much of the conversation revolves around “school fit.” Not only does the school need to be right for you, but you need to be right for the school. An accurate yield projection will help colleges make future decisions about who should be admitted. They analyze their admissions data across a variety of factors including student location, high school types, intended academic majors, and expressed special interest groups.

Demonstrated Interest to Measure College Yield Rates

As you strategize your school list and campus visits, you must be aware of whether or not a school needs you to show them that you care in the first place. This is what we refer to as “demonstrated interest.” Demonstrated interest is the idea that a school wants to see that you are actually committed to them in advance. Here are some things to keep in mind about conveying enough excitement for a school:

  • Know Which Schools Consider Demonstrated Interest - Throughout my work, I came in contact with colleagues at many schools who very much cared if a prospective student had made the effort to visit. Some schools that consider demonstrated interest include Boston University, Carnegie Mellon University, George Washington University, New York University, and Rice University. The important thing is to show them some love. It is worth it to keep track of which schools care about demonstrated interest and which schools don’t.
  • Show Them You Care - The colleges who consider interest want to know you have visited campus, opened their correspondence, looked through the links on their emails, followed them on social media, and responded to the variety of things they have sent you. Definitely pay attention and be responsive. Don’t let these emails fall into your spam folder!
  • Demonstrated Interest Isn’t Enough - Your actions can set you apart from other applicants who have shown no interest in the school aside from the submission of their application, but interest alone will never get you accepted. At Penn, our Dean felt very strongly about the fact that every student should have a fair shot in the process, regardless of their resources, because they knew that some students couldn’t afford to visit while others could stop by multiple times. Whether a student visited was not a point of differentiation in the admissions process. Even at schools that prioritize demonstrated interest, all of the other qualifications matter more. A student who engaged with Penn in every way still wouldn’t receive an acceptance letter if they had mediocre grades or an empty activities list. Focus on building your application profile in a way which reflects your hard work, passion, and leadership skills. Through your supplemental essays, demonstrate that you’ve done the research and convince the school that you will be a strong new member of their community.

Early Application

The most significant way to show your sincere interest in a school is to apply during their early decision rounds. Remember that early decision is a binding commitment, so if you are accepted, the school has automatically yielded you! Early action programs do not have the same effect, since you don’t have to commit to a school - you simply receive an earlier decision. Many schools commit to taking a large portion of their class during early decision because of the guaranteed yield. The admissions team won’t have to fill that spot during regular decision, or focus their efforts on yielding you in the spring. ED pools are significantly smaller than the regular pools, and the acceptance rate is often nearly double that of regular decision. Wouldn’t you rather compete with a few thousand other applicants as opposed to the tens of thousands of applicants in the regular round?

The Waitlist

Remember that demonstrated interest can continue through the application process, and if you are waitlisted, you should re-emphasize how much you care.

  • Why the Waitlist - As the admissions landscape becomes more competitive, students are applying to a higher number of schools. Since colleges receive more applications, they are starting to utilize the waitlist more. A school has to enroll a certain number of students to hit their targets and fill their seats. To assume that all of the students a college admits will attend the institution would just be problematic - even for the most desirable colleges. Despite the fact that colleges already send acceptance letters to more students than they have room for, almost all schools also create a backup plan to fill the spaces if too many of the students they have admitted do not end up committing.
  • How to Get Off the Waitlist - If a school remains your top choice, make sure that you accept your place on the waitlist and follow with an update. Updates can include a letter of continued interest about any new awards or extracurricular achievements, or an additional letter of recommendation. Remember, the waitlist gives you one more possibility to get in! There is no other strategy for getting off of the waitlist except for patience, sharing new information, and appropriate persistence. Do what the college asks and put your best foot forward in terms of sharing your recent accomplishments.
  • What NOT to Do - Let’s be clear though, obsessively emailing your admissions officer will not guarantee that you are promoted from a school’s waitlist. So don’t do that. Nor do I recommend calling the admissions office just to check in. If you know the names of the people who work in the call center, that’s probably not a good thing.

Ultimately, it’s important to show your interest genuinely and in moderation. Making grandiose statements like sending a life-size cutout of yourself to the office (true story) will likely not help your case. When it comes to the management of college yield rates, admissions officers use multiple techniques, from monitoring demonstrated interest to accepting early decision applicants. Don’t panic just at the idea of these “games.” If you are thoughtful and give the office what they are looking for, you will put yourself in the best place to stand out. Remember that communication is the key to a successful relationship - within reason of course!

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