In this era of COVID-19, visiting a campus isn’t always possible, but universities have other ways of finding out if a student is serious about attending — like whether a student opens an email from them, and how much time is spent reading it.

Yes, how closely a student follows the college online may mean as much as test scores.

As journalist Jeffrey Selingo found while researching his new book, “Who Gets In and Why: A Year Inside College Admission” (Scribner), out Tuesday, more than 50 public and private colleges, including the University of Toledo and Colby College, use software designed to track prospective students.

This includes everything from what they search for on a university’s website — which helps schools send them “personalized communications based on their interests” — to whether they actually open and read any of the emails sent from a college.

It’s not just a digital-age approach to targeting young people, who often ignore traditional marketing. It’s also a way of measuring “demonstrated interest.”

According to the latest annual survey by the National Association for College Admission Counseling, about one in six schools said that demonstrated interest is of “considerable importance” in their admissions decisions. That’s more weight than they give to teacher and counselor recommendations, class rank, extracurricular activities and some SAT and AP Exam test scores.

Many colleges don’t want to admit students who have their eyes on a more selective school, because it could damage their “yield rate” — the number of admitted students who accept their offer — which affects universities’ national rankings.

High-school students put so much effort into attaining high grades, but colleges are often looking at other metrics — like whether a child has overcome a difficult upbringing, or if they work with elephants.
High-school students put so much effort into attaining high grades, but colleges are often looking at other metrics — like whether a child has overcome a difficult upbringing, or if they work with elephants.NY Post photo composite

Selingo spent the 2018-19 academic year behind the scenes at three very different institutions: Davidson College (with a 19.5 percent acceptance rate), Emory University (18.5 percent acceptance rate) and the University of Washington (48.7 percent acceptance rate), watching how new applicants were selected and, more often than not, denied.

The process he witnessed is often shrouded in secrecy and an endless source of frustration and confusion for college-bound kids and their families.

“They want a formula,” Selingo writes. “Why can’t colleges just tell us the grades and test scores that will get my child admitted?”

To a high-school senior, it’s easy to believe that the secret to getting into the college of their dreams is another 10 points on the SAT or one extra AP course.

More than one thousand campuses have dropped the SAT/ACT as an admission requirement.

 – author Jeffrey Selingo

But the reality, Selingo found, is much more ambiguous.

The road map to getting into college used to be a straight line.

During World War II, students typically applied to just one school, usually within a few hundred miles of their home, and colleges accepted anyone who graduated from high school. There were no campus tours or admission offices until at least the 1950s.

It became competitive in the ’60s partly because the baby boom generation more than doubled the number of undergraduates, ballooning to 8 million incoming students in 1969. It’s also when the College Board began publishing details on application numbers and acceptance rate, and “the term ‘selectivity’ entered the lexicon of college admissions,” writes Selingo.

To appear more selective, colleges needed more students to apply. To get those numbers, they began aggressively marketing to a wider talent pool, sending brochures that looked like L.L.Bean catalogs.

When colleges broadened their scope, so did students. In 1975, 60 percent of students applied to just one or two colleges. Today, one in three students apply to seven or more universities, and 80 percent apply to at least three colleges.

As a result, many universities are getting far more applicants than they could ever accept. Perversely this trend is making grades increasingly unimportant. For example, among the 26,000 people in the United States who applied for Harvard in 2019, 8,200 of them had perfect GPAs, 3,500 had perfect SAT math scores and 2,700 had perfect verbal scores. But a mere 1,700 spots were available at Harvard.

Emory University does not factor in “nonessential” classes in a student’s GPA.
Emory University does not factor in “nonessential” classes in a student’s GPA.Alamy

To compensate, many colleges today have adapted “holistic” admissions, looking at students as something more than grades and test scores, and attempting to measure qualities that aren’t always quantifiable. That could include anything from race to economic background to a candidate’s “quirky” extracurricular interests.

Grades are still important, just not in ways that most applicants expect. Some colleges, like Emory, recalculate grade-point averages for applicants. Their new GPA ignores freshman-year grades — ninth grade is considered a “transition year and a long time ago,” according to Emory officials — and drops grades for classes considered nonessential, like physical education. Some colleges use the Latting Index, a formula that recalculates the revised GPA with an applicant’s best test score to create a number on an 8-point scale.

“It’s not a cutoff for admission,” writes Selingo. “Rather, the number is a rough average used to quickly eyeball academic credentials and sort applicants within high schools or regions.”

Standardized test scores have become increasingly insignificant. “More than one thousand campuses have dropped the SAT/ACT as an admission requirement,” writes Selingo. The University of Chicago became the highest-ranked university to go test-optional in 2018. James Nondorf, Chicago’s dean of admissions, says that with enough supplemental material, “I didn’t need to see the testing to know that this kid was going to come here and be a rockstar.”

What those “supplemental” materials might be is open to interpretation. In one review that Selingo observed, an Emory applicant on the cusp of being rejected was ultimately accepted because his after-school activities included both the football team and the botany club. The admission committee agreed that it was a “quirky combination” and accepted him despite less-than-impressive test scores.

Selingo also witnessed another applicant come close to rejection — her 1.5 out of 2 “rigor” score and 32 score on the ACT (out of 36) meant she “didn’t check off all the boxes” — but she caught the admissions directors’ attention when they learned she was a certified mahout, a trained caretaker for elephants in Thailand.

Colby College is among schools that use software to track prospective students.
Colby College is among schools that use software to track prospective students.Getty Images

It made Selingo realize that “decisions aren’t arbitrary or random … but they’re also not formulaic. How can they be when a story about an elephant might make the difference?”

Many admissions officers have mixed emotions about the candidates they end up cutting. Will Segura, an associate dean of admissions at Emory University, says he wishes some students realized how close they came to being accepted. He wants to tell kids “they were an admit until like March 5th, which is huge … They don’t even know how we loved them.”

Almost every college employs a system “analogous to the one used in judging Olympic figure skaters,” writes Selingo. “It gives an aura of precision to what is largely abstract.”

The only real difference between colleges, he says, is how many categories they assess and the intricacies of their numbering scale.

Emory University uses four categories — high school curriculum, extracurricular activities, recommendations and intellectual curiosity — and a scale of 1 to 5 (five being highest). At the University of Washington, applications receive three scores — for academics, personal and an overall number — on a scale between 1 and 9 (with nine being highest). Although each rating system “has the veneer of numerical precision,” writes Selingo, the reality is mostly vague and subjective.

Where, for instance, does “demonstrated interest” get included in the rating scale? Admissions directors don’t offer clear answers, but the mother of a Massachusetts teenager told Selingo that she believes opening every single one of her son’s email messages from Tulane University, a school with a 17.3 percent acceptance rate, while he was away at camp during the summer before his senior year, played at least some part in his acceptance to Tulane.

The University of Washington has an acceptance rate of 48.7%.
At the University of Washington, applications receive three scores — for academics, personal and an overall number — on a scale between 1 and 9 (with nine being highest).Alamy

Then there’s the “personal” rating, which has “morphed into a catch-all category,” says Selingo. UW’s official admissions handbook, which offers guidelines for those evaluating new applicants, defines the “personal” category this way: “Overcoming a significant educational disadvantage, tenacity, insight, originality, concern for others, or coming from a high school that has sent few students to UW.”

The ambiguities of holistic admissions can benefit wealthier students, especially those who’ve been prepped to bring up things like cultural awareness. As Selingo witnessed in an evaluation of two Emory applications, a well-off student from a top high school received a personal score of 5 after writing an essay about living in Indonesia and how she learned to understand cultural differences. But another applicant, an immigrant who worked at her family’s restaurant, never mentioned diversity or the sacrifices she made to help her family. She clearly hadn’t been coached on the “right” things to say, and her personal score was just a 3.

Even so, sometimes coming from a privileged background can be a disadvantage. Applicants who attend the best public or private schools, for example, are held to a higher standard. “They’re expected to take an array of advanced classes,” says Selingo. “It’s assumed they have earned good grades and received high test scores.”

The starting line is different for students who attend schools “that offer few advanced courses and send only a small number of graduates to college.”

When it comes to standing out among the thousands of students applying to elite universities, Selingo says it’s probably better to be a big fish in a small pond.

The University of Chicago eschews test scores in lieu of “supplemental material.”
The University of Chicago eschews test scores in lieu of “supplemental material.”Alamy

“According to the research, applicants from the best high schools with legions of smart students clustered near the top of the class and a vast menu of rigorous courses available to them face tougher odds,” he writes.

The most important thing for college hopefuls to remember, says Selingo, is that it’s almost never about individual merit. “A rejection is not about you,” he says. “It’s about what a college needs the year you apply.”

The final round of sorting, in which teams of admissions officers whittle down their chosen class, is a process called “shaping.” Here, it’s no longer about evaluating individual students, but how they fit into the larger vision for an incoming class.

Admissions officers ask questions like, “Do we have enough African-American students or Latino students? Enough students who can pay the bulk of the tuition bill? Too many women in the class? Too many students from the Southwest or Northeast? Enough humanities majors?”

It’s a dangerous tightrope for colleges, especially in 2020. Yale University was recently accused by the Department of Justice of violating federal civil-rights law by discriminating against Asian Americans and white applicants, giving them one-fourth of the likelihood of admission as African-American applicants with similar academic backgrounds.

It’s another reason that colleges like to avoid being too specific about the rules of “shaping.” Selingo compares it to finalizing the invite list for a wedding. “Guests are moved on and off the list based on whether you think they’ll show up or the groom’s family has too many invites compared to the bride’s.”

Selingo suggests that trying to play a system as vague and enigmatic as college admissions is a fruitless endeavor. Instead, students should be changing the way they think about higher education.

The best way for students to gain leverage, Selingo says, is to broaden their search beyond the super-selective schools that reject more than 80 percent of applicants. Instead of focusing on where they want to go to college, he suggests considering what they want to do at college. It’s only then that you look at colleges for what they actually offer rather than their supposed prestige.

After all, going to a college with a brand name is no guarantee of success. A study from Princeton University found that students from both selective and nonselective schools made essentially the same income decades later. And last year, recruitment firm Kittleman looked at the educational backgrounds of Fortune 500 company leaders and found that colleges like the University of Wisconsin — with an acceptance rate of 51.7 percent — were responsible for more CEOs than Ivy Leagues.

The false perception that prestige matters won’t change until families start to look beyond the hype, Selingo argues.

“There are plenty of good schools that take a majority of students who apply,” he says. “Parents and counselors need to do better to show seniors that there are more colleges out there than just those listed on the first page of the US News rankings.”