A couple years ago, every first-year student at WashU read Weapons of Math Destruction, by Cathy O’Neil. Through a range of examples—including college admissions marketing—O’Neil argues that the proliferation of big data and algorithms has paved the way for too many decisions that affect our everyday lives to be made by computers and models, instead of by humans. “These models are constructed not just from data but from the choices we make about which data to pay attention to—and which to leave out,” she writes in her conclusion.
It’s true. We keep track of a lot of things on our admissions team—from demographic information to attendance at recruitment programs, to even the weather on the days students visit. As O’Neil suggests, the data is there. The question becomes: Should this information be a component of the admission decision process?
Last month, my team in Admissions & Aid at WashU announced an important change to our admission practices that we had been considering for some time. In our commitment to make our application reviews more equitable, we decided to eliminate a component of the application review process known as “demonstrated interest”.
Let’s start with a quick definition of what “demonstrated interest” is. Demonstrated interest (sometimes referred to as DI) refers to a variety of ways in which a student might indicate to a college or university that they are interested in enrolling at that institution. DI could take the form of attending a regional information session, logging into a webinar, visiting a college’s campus, or even emailing a college representative.
Colleges use information about how students engage in a variety of ways, and I want to acknowledge that this practice is unique to each institution. There is no wrong or right way. Instead, I want to focus the conversation on demonstrated interest as it has been utilized at WashU—how it’s always been more human than one might think, and how our decision to eliminate it in our application reviews reflects our priorities to make the selection of future classes as equitable as possible. Let’s bust some myths:
Myth 1: Demonstrated interest is something that WashU expected of every student.
Reality: At WashU, demonstrated interest was a component of the application that was always contextualized, and never expected. We always considered how a variety of factors—from geographic location to schedules and commitments to financial and counseling resources—impacted how students were able to demonstrate interest in WashU. DI was never expected. For instance, a student who lives in California is certainly less likely to be able to visit campus than a student who lives in St. Louis; even more, a student who lives in St. Louis and who has the responsibility of caring for younger siblings around school hours is similarly less likely to be able to visit campus than a St. Louis student who doesn’t have the same commitments.
Contextualizing demonstrated interest is one way we’ve promoted equity in the admission review. It means understanding that every student has different circumstances, and that not all are going to be able to demonstrate interest in the same way.
Myth 2: DI data serve the sole purpose of offering colleges insight into whether an applicant will enroll.
Reality: The attendance information colleges collect about their programming can serve multiple purposes. A primary one for WashU is to understand the effectiveness of our programming. It helps us to understand which topics/programs may have been of most interest and whether or not we chose the best time of day/week/year to offer the programming.
And trust me when I tell you that even the student who demonstrated tons of interest might ultimately choose to enroll elsewhere when presented all of their options. So while DI data can certainly support predictions about a student’s likelihood enroll, there are other ways such as binding Early Decision programs and regular activity on admission waitlists that colleges like WashU can employ to manage enrollment.
Myth 3: I’m a current senior who has attended a variety of webinars and programs in preparation for the application cycle. Now, all of the time I spent on demonstrating interest was a waste!
Reality: It’s certainly natural to want to gain an edge in a competitive environment, but I encourage you to see this situation from a new perspective. We offer programming to help students learn more about WashU—to help students decide whether they want to include WashU on their college list. Our goal is to provide a variety of opportunities for you to see yourself as a part of the WashU community, not to gain an edge in the admission process by checking off a box.
The edge you should be getting from attending our programming is a stronger understanding of how you might ultimately engage as a student at WashU, which hopefully enables you to strengthen your application. Perhaps you learned about something on a webinar that you want to incorporate into the Academic Interest Short Answer required in our application, or your campus visit clarified your decision to apply to a particular program. The application review at an institution like WashU—your transcript, essays, activities, letters of recommendation, etc—is much more about what you create and submit, than what you attend.
Our decision to eliminate demonstrated interest doesn’t change our commitment to understanding your unique circumstances, and shouldn’t change how you approach sharing your story with us in your application. Instead, it supports our commitment to create an equitable and accessible process for all applicants. And it puts you in the driver’s seat, navigating our programming based on your true interests in an effort to get to know us better. As a result, you’re able to craft the strongest application you can in a highly selective environment.