As a teenager, there is something undeniably exciting about being the recipient of an unsolicited brochure from a prestigious university, or even better yet, a seemingly personalized letter from the dean of admissions practically begging you to apply. Every year, millions of high school students experience the rush of holding what they believe represents tangible proof that they are desired by the world of higher education. Unfortunately, what they are actually holding is the post-secondary equivalent of junk mail, as personalized as a Pottery Barn catalog and as meaningful as a grocery store circular informing you of a great deal on London broil.
The truth is that from the moment you first take the PSAT or Pre-ACT, you’ll be inundated with institutional correspondence. Unfortunately, this is not actually a testament to your test scores, grades, and other wonderful attributes. Instead, the mountains of glossy literature accumulating on your kitchen table can be attributed to a controversial marketing decision made nearly fifty years ago and subsequent trends in higher education recruitment that drive the modern admissions process. In this article, we will discuss:
- The origin story of college mail
- A contemporary look at why colleges send mail
- Does receiving maul from a college mean that they are recruiting you?
- Big-name colleges that are notorious for sending mail to drum up applications
Let’s delve in by turning back the clock to discover why this mail craze began:
It began in the early 1970s when the College Board and the nation’s universities realized they were primed for synergistic marketing marriage (though they probably used more decade-appropriate business buzzwords). Names and contact info of test-takers was sold to the schools so they could engage in direct marketing to their prime audience—U.S. teenagers. In the early days, victims of this practice were generally limited to the countless forest’s worth of trees slain and the worn down spines of a nation’s mail carriers. In general, the schools’ motivation was fairly innocent and straightforward—“You need a college. We’re a college. Whaddya think?”
Fast-forward 45+ years and the college marketplace is a high-stakes battlefield. The institutional aims and expectations placed on admissions office in 2019-20 would be wholly unrecognizable to an admissions professional of a bygone era. The mail that you receive today has a multipronged and layered purpose behind it and it’s important that applicants understand precisely what that purpose is.
Why schools do it in 2019-2020
In part, a simple equation drives this mass marketing phenomenon—more marketing leads to more applications which leads to a lower acceptance rate which leads to an increased “selectivity” ranking. The rankings systems such as U.S. News did include the ratio of students admitted to applicants as part of their algorithm, however, it only counted for a minuscule 1.25% of the total rating (selectivity, in total, represents 12.5% of the total). In 2019, U.S News actually eliminated any inclusion of acceptance rate into their formula and dropped selectivity to a mere 10% of the total score. Perhaps this will lead to slightly less post-secondary junk mail, however, the push to increase applicants is about more than just a selectivity rating in a periodical—it is also about enhancing the university’s brand in an effort to increase alumni donations, recruit top-caliber professors, and keep an institution’s bond rating and perception of financial health strong.
Now, let’s get to what this mail means to you. Spoiler alert: the answers are surprisingly terse.
Does receiving mail mean I have a better chance of getting in?
Okay, but should I at least feel a bit flattered that they chose me?
Just a tiny bit?
The reasons you have received the mail range from 100% impersonal to “You met a certain criteria to trigger a mailing.”
Some schools purchase hundreds of thousands of names indiscriminately believing that casting a wide net will ultimately pay off; others limit themselves to acquiring tens of thousands of names of students who have offered some indication that a particular institution may actually be a good match. If, for example, you filled out that your intended major is marine biology and you receive mailings from Eckerd College and The College of Atlantic, then you can deduce that at least these schools are reaching out to you in response to a stated interest. If, on the other hand, you are a B student with average SATs and an intended major of musical theory and you are being flooded with brochures for highly-selective business schools, you can chalk that up to indiscriminate marketing on the part of those universities.
Other, seemingly innocuous demographic information that your students fill out prior to taking a standardized test can also trigger a flood of mailings. For example, those who list their religion as Christian can expect an armful of marketing material from the likes of Liberty University.
It is also important to note that your SAT/ACT scores and stated academic performance can influence the mail that you receive. An elite liberal arts college may only purchase student names who score a 1250 or above on the SAT but their average SAT for accepted students might be 1450, rendering your being selected to receive a brochure ultimately worthless.
Beware of aggressive techniques
There are certain schools that have developed a reputation for forceful recruitment techniques that are directed to the homes of students who couldn’t even dream of sniffing an acceptance letter. Such institutions are attempting to drum up the greatest number of applications possible—a practice that is seen as unsavory by many critics.
The University of Chicago is one of the more notoriously aggressive marketers, a surprise to some given 1) the exceptional quality of the school; 2) its reputation for attracting young, serious-minded intellectuals; and 3) its previous reliance on what became known as “The Uncommon Application” which essentially served to discourage non-good fit applicants from even applying through a series of quirky questions.
It would be one thing to assertively recruit qualified students; it is another to intentionally solicit applications from students with no real shot for acceptance into a school. Unfortunately, in our experience working with teens, UChicago falls into the latter category. In the past, officials from the school have been pretty open about the fact that they are engaged in an arms race with Columbia University, seeking to overtake them in sheer annual applications. In part due to these marketing tactics, the University of Chicago’s acceptance rate was 5.9% for the class of 2023; as recently as 2005, the school’s acceptance rate was over 40%.
To be fair, the University of Chicago is far from the only school to employ assertive recruiting tactics, just one of the more glaring examples. Other highly-reputable, otherwise terrific schools such as Washington University in St. Louis and Tulane University are also known for sending out massive numbers of mailings each year to just about anyone with a physical address.
College Transitions key takeaways
- Don’t be flattered by mailings, emails, or social media contacts from colleges and universities—it’s not a personal recruitment.
- This practice has been going on for nearly 50 years and has evolved as colleges have ramped up their efforts to generate as many applications as possible.
- Sometimes a mailing may actually be “personalized” in the sense that a particular factor or stated interest caused a college to add you to their list; other times it is just a pure mass mailing.
- Receiving mail from a college does not mean that you have a better chance to gain acceptance.
- Beware of highly-selective institutions that send mail to students that aren’t even close to the academic profile of their average accepted applicant.
Dave has over a decade of professional experience that includes work as a teacher, high school administrator, college professor, and independent education consultant. He is a co-author of the book The Enlightened College Applicant: A New Approach to the Search and Admissions Process (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016).