What is Demonstrated Interest and Why is it Important for MBA Admissions?

Who would have thought that in 2019, winning the business school applications game might actually be about dating, matchmaking—and love? More specifically, who would have thought that stodgy business schools needed applicants to show them not the money, but the love?

Dating might just amount to the ultimate metaphor for the business school admissions process. It’s such a compelling analogy that we kicked off our two-part “Yield in MBA Admissions” piece with a story about a marriage proposal—complete with a prospective groom on bended knee holding a diamond ring.

Readers might recall how our prospective groom felt terrible after his rejection. Who wouldn’t? Rejection hurts everyone—even business school admissions officers. According to Harvard MBA Maria Wich-Vila, founder of the affordable, interactive admissions support platform ApplicantLab, “this is the equivalent of what it’s like when a school makes an offer to a candidate. . .[who] will say ‘I’m really not that into you,’ or ‘I got this other, bigger scholarship somewhere else.’”

This rejection broke our would-be groom’s heart. But rejection like this hurts a university for a different reason: it damages their admissions yield—the percentage of admitted students that actually enroll. And as we pointed out in our series about yield, that all-important measure determines paramount aspects of a university’s destiny, from crucial academic rankings to interest rates charged on bond payments. Falling yields damage the university’s reputation and can negatively impact enrollment overall.

Demonstrated Interest: Proclaiming the Love

To protect or improve their yield ratios, universities want to grant entry to applicants who will enroll, not those who are likely to decline and accept a competing school’s offer. Due to pressure from stakeholders to admit the most qualified students who are also the most likely to enroll, admissions officers always—and continually—want assurance that their school is a candidate’s first choice. Applicants eager to be selected for admission tend to regard the school more favorably and are more likely to finish the program. And they tend to give more money later on as alumni.

This entertaining ApplicantLab video cited in our yield series explains that until a candidate receives an acceptance letter, they need to treat every business school to which they’re applying as their first choice.

How? By clearly and unequivocally demonstrating they’re eager to attend each school through as many tactics as they can—in other words, by proclaiming their “love” to each of the schools in a variety of ways.

Such actions embody the admissions concept known as demonstrated interest, or DI, which is taking on increasing significance to universities battling to maximize yields. According to admissions expert and Alfred University English Professor Allen Grove, demonstrated interest “refers to the degree to which an applicant has made clear that he or she truly is eager to attend a college.”

Grove points out that because the expense and effort invested in a campus visit reveals a degree of meaningful interest in the school, universities know from experience that applicants who visit their campuses are more likely to enroll than those who don’t. So are candidates who apply under an early decision program, observe classes as a guest, or—as we’ll see below—read and respond to email messages from the school. He adds:

Put another way, a college is more likely to accept you if you’ve put in a clear effort to get to know the school and if your application shows that you are eager to attend. When a college receives what is called a “stealth application”—one that just appears with no prior contact with the school—the admissions office knows that the stealth applicant is less likely to accept an offer of admission than the student who has requested information, attended a college visit day, and conducted an optional interview.

In other words, according to Wich-Vila, candidates will boost their probability of winning entry by convincingly demonstrating their interest in enrolling through as many tactics as possible—by proclaiming their love, so to speak. But before we talk about some of those tactics, it’s useful to understand how schools pay attention to and remember the love they receive from candidates during all those precious moments they share together.

Tracking the Love: How Schools Remember All Those Precious Moments

A January 2019 Wall Street Journal article, “Colleges Mine Data on Their Applicants,” reports that some undergraduate colleges operate sophisticated software that tracks “down to the second when prospective students opened an email from the school, how long they spent reading it and whether they clicked through to any links.”

In this way, Boston University tracks prospective students who failed to show up at an event after they RSVP’d online. At Connecticut’ s Quinnipiac University, Admissions Vice President Gregory Eichhorn told the Journal, “If we ask someone for an interview, we look at how they respond, how quickly they respond, or if they don’t respond at all. It helps us make a decision.”

From metrics like these, the software then calculates a demonstrated interest score for each applicant. That value helps the school predict a candidate’s probability that they’ll accept an entry offer. Seton Hall University in New Jersey told the WSJ that they rank each potential student on a 100-point scale. They base that score on 80 variables that include how long ago they first visited the school’s website and the length of time they spent there, as well as whether they opened email messages.

“Many students have no idea they are being tracked, or to what extent,” says the Journal.

“For business schools, knowing the level of interest of their prospective audience is crucial, and knowing a candidate has demonstrated interest might just tip the balance toward admission,” says Esmeralda Cardenal. Now with the Los Angeles-based admissions consulting firm Accepted, Cardenal served as a former associate director of admissions at the Yale School of Management and the director of admissions at Michigan State’s Broad College of Business. She adds, “I would not be surprised if graduate programs, particularly business schools, are starting to follow similar stats.”

Some have for years. In 2014 Bloomberg ran a story titled “Business Schools Get Smarter About Weeding Out Uninterested Applicants.” The article lists three schools using enrollment management systems, a type of customer relationship management (CRM) software for universities: Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business and Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.

According to the article, Fuqua uses Talisma, developed by the Florida-based Campus Management Corp., to log students’ emails to admissions staff and the number of admissions events they attended. Booth and Kellogg use Slate (from the New Haven, Connecticut vendor Technolutions) who pitches the product to “maximize your yield and build the desired class.” The article asserts “the increased use of tracking programs suggests that a track record of eagerness could help a strong applicant beat out a peer with an otherwise similar profile.”

Exploding CRM Popularity and Capabilities

Since the Bloomberg article appeared, Slate’s popularity has exploded, with Technolutions claiming installations at over 850 universities. Besides Kellogg and Booth, social media reveals that customers also include business schools like Rice University’s Jones Graduate School of Business, the University of North Carolina Kenan-Flagler Business School and the University of Illinois Gies College of Business.

So too have the application’s capabilities exploded beyond merely tracking applicants who request program information and interview with alumni. Technolutions CEO Alexander Clark told the WSJ that Slate’s dashboard summarizes thousands of data points on every potential applicant. In 2018, the Chronicle of Higher Education reported from the Slate Innovation Summit (the Technolutions conference held each summer at Chicago’s McCormick Place Convention Center) on how the CRM software enrolls a class: “It helps us understand what information a student is asking for, and to get that to them in time and sequence,” says Bill Mortimer, the director of enrollment at Beloit College. The Chronicle continues,

Slate allows an admissions office to see which emails students open, which web pages they visit, and how much time they spend there. (“I’m not a stalker,” one enrollment official here says, “but my CRM is!”) Ping, the platform’s analytics service, matches up everything a user does on a college’s website to other information in that user’s Slate record.

. . .Call up any student’s file in Slate, and you’ll see a series of colored dots, each representing some form of engagement with the college. The student attended this college fair on this day, clicked on this email link at 1:13 a.m., five days later—it’s all right there. Many colleges fold measures of a student’s “demonstrated interest” into the statistical models they use to predict who will enroll. Those data points can inform decisions about who gets a viewbook or, on some campuses, who gets an admission offer.

Which Schools Care About Demonstrated Interest?

Two circumstances exist where demonstrated interest probably doesn’t matter. First, it’s doubtful that compelling demonstrated interest can outweigh low GPAs, low GMAT scores, or poor recommendations. Strong DI probably can’t help an otherwise weak candidate, suggests Wich-Vila.

Second, Harvard Business School and the Stanford Graduate School of Business probably don’t care about demonstrated interest because these two schools have the highest yield values in graduate management education, and two of the most stable.

Aside from Harvard and Stanford, controversy rages on business school discussion forums about which schools care about demonstrated interest, and which don’t. It’s a topic almost as controversial as hiring admissions consultants.

That said, here at BSchools we’ve reviewed a broad range of expert opinions on this topic. And we believe that when competitive candidates apply to schools besides Harvard and Stanford, demonstrated interest might exert more influence on entry offers than many MBA applicants realize.

For instance, check out this screenshot of a previous year’s MIT Sloane School online application provided by ApplicantLab. It’s difficult to envision why MIT would ask so directly on their application form (and in such exhaustive detail) about all these touchpoint interactions if the school wasn’t paying close attention to demonstrated interest.

Here are some choice opinions that suggest how much schools care about demonstrated interest, starting with Grove’s take on this subject:

Many colleges will tell you that demonstrated interest is not a factor in the admissions equation. . .However, even when a school says it does not consider demonstrated interest, the admissions folks are usually just referring to specific types of demonstrated interest such as phone calls to the admissions office or visits to campus. Applying early to a selective university and writing supplemental essays that show you know the university well will certainly improve your chances of being admitted. So in this sense, demonstrated interest is important at nearly all selective colleges and universities.

Admissions consultant Chioma Isiadinso, a former assistant admissions director at the Harvard Business School, points out how a lack of compelling demonstrated interest can turn contenders into borderline applicants:

Passing up an opportunity to visit a school you’re interested in can come back to bite you later on. I know of one waitlisted applicant who received feedback that not visiting factored into his admission decision.

In his case, he’d thought a visit wasn’t necessary since he already knew the school well—he’d gone there for undergrad! But going to a school like UC Berkeley as an undergrad is much different than going to Haas Business School.

Living in the area and not taking the time to visit can get adcoms questioning your commitment. If you live even in the same country, you should take advantage of this to see the school in person.

But visiting the school isn’t always required—especially if it means booking a flight. From our current List of MBA Conferences, consider this anecdote from Emma Bond, a former senior admissions manager at the London Business School and currently a director with the admissions consulting firm Fortuna Admissions:

I was at an MBA fair in Seoul. I met a Japanese-Brazilian working in South Korea with a background in automotive manufacturing. He was professional, engaging and friendly, and had an interesting international profile that was a good LBS fit, but he didn’t have great stats. So when he later applied I actually remembered him and the impression he’d made and was able to say, ‘Yes, this guy is great, he’d contribute,’ and he was eventually offered a place.

Then there’s useful advice from recent MBA graduates. Although Poets & Quants has devoted scant coverage to demonstrated interest, recent MBA class members interviewed by the publication have weighed in. For example, Nomblé Coleman of Georgetown’s MBA Class of 2018 shared this advice:

Throughout the application process, demonstrated interest is key. Let your target schools know that you want to join them. Attend in-person and online recruiting events, and follow up via email with each school representative that you meet. To differentiate yourself, after an in-person interview, find a quiet spot to write a hand-written thank you note to your interviewer and drop it off that same day.

Moreover, Benjamin Rome from the Columbia Business School’s MBA Class of 2017 offered similar views:

While some schools say they don’t take into account “demonstrated interest,” the sense I got is that if you haven’t visited the school—or at least gone to local events and had multiple interactions with the school—your chances of admission may take a hit. I don’t have evidence to back this up, but anecdotally that is the feeling I got.

What Do Schools Want? The Best Ways to Express and Prove the Love

Business schools attach greater weight to some ways of expressing demonstrated interest. Here are some of the more influential ones.

Early Decision Applications

Grove believes that no method of demonstrating interest compares with filing an application with an early decision program like the one offered by Columbia Business School.

Early decision candidates receive some significant benefits. Columbia reviews their applications before other candidates, at the time when the class has the most unfilled spaces. And although it’s not clear that early decision candidates have a higher probability of acceptance to Columbia than regular applicants, Grove points out that early decision acceptance rates are often more than double regular acceptance rates.

However, Columbia’s Early Decision applicants need to invest in binding ways. First they need to sign a contract which reads in part,

I am committed to attending Columbia Business School and will withdraw all applications and decline all offers from other schools upon admission to Columbia Business School.

Second, candidates need to pay a $6,000 deposit within 14 days of receiving Columbia’s offer. That deposit is also nonrefundable.

All this might sound like a substantial investment. But most of the highly-competitive candidates who’ve applied to Columbia have also applied to Harvard. And many would break that contract and forego that $6,000 as a relatively small price to pay to instead associate themselves with the Harvard Business School brand for the rest of their lives.

Campus Visits

Consider our guide titled “How Do I Get into Business School?” There we explain that a campus visit provides an invaluable way for a candidate to see if an MBA program might be a good fit. Aside from an early decision application—which most schools don’t offer—a campus visit affords probably the next most effective way to demonstrate an interest in enrolling.

Nearby Events

Candidates should visit any events close to their homes if a target school participates. See our List of MBA Conferences for an upcoming schedule of the major MBA fairs and tours. Discovering other “on the road” events requires engagement with the school’s online presence, which we discuss next.

Demonstrating Interest Online

As Grove and Wich-Vila both recommend, it’s unwise to be a “stealth applicant,” whom business schools consider unlikely to accept their offers of admission. Instead, to create records in their CRM system, immediately register on the school’s websites for email lists and other content. Bear in mind that, as the Wall Street Journal piece points out, the date of the first registration is highly significant to schools.

Accepted’s Cardenal recommends following the school on social media and liking and commenting on their posts, at least within reason. She also recommends that candidates “open every single email you receive from them, click through their links, and whenever possible, attend their online” as well as in-person events. It should be apparent from the discussion above that potential applicants need to take vigorous steps to ensure the school’s CRM software tracks their online engagement.

Career Protocol’s Charli Taylor also recommends reaching out to the alumni of target schools, either through the school’s local alumni club or through LinkedIn. Although information interviews have long earned praise as a job search technique, this approach can also lead to contacts among alumni who might advocate on behalf of deserving MBA program applicants. Along with in-person visits, such interviewing can now take place over video using applications like FaceTime, Skype and Google Hangouts, as well as VoIP audio and phone calls.

Douglas Mark
Douglas Mark

While a partner in a San Francisco marketing and design firm, for over 20 years Douglas Mark wrote online and print content for the world’s biggest brands, including United Airlines, Union Bank, Ziff Davis, Sebastiani, and AT&T. Since his first magazine article appeared in MacUser in 1995, he’s also written on finance and graduate business education in addition to mobile online devices, apps, and technology. Doug graduated in the top 1 percent of his class with a business administration degree from the University of Illinois and studied computer science at Stanford University.

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