How Admissions Algorithms Could Affect Your College Acceptance

Data is everywhere in a connected society. Data may determine what programs a streaming service queues up, the tailored ads that appear on websites, or personalized health and fitness plans. Data may also play a factor in whether an applicant is accepted into his or her top college choice. In short, data is everywhere, including in algorithms for college admissions.

"Data drives everything," Angel B. Pérez, CEO of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, wrote in an email. "Enrollment officers must report average GPA, average test scores, revenue, discount rates, financial aid dollars awarded, ethnic breakdown...the list is endless. Enrollment officers are steeped in data."

[Read: What Colleges Look for: 6 Ways to Stand Out.]

Much like companies mining data on a consumer's behavior when binge-watching a show or shopping online, colleges are also tracking applicants. Enrollment management systems contain various data points such as names purchased from testing companies, financial aid information and ability to pay tuition, and student interactions with college websites and social media accounts.

Here's what prospective students should know about college admissions algorithms and how they can affect their chances of acceptance.

How Colleges Use Econometric Modeling in Admissions

Econometric modeling is a commonly used tool in college admissions, but one that is likely little known by applicants and their families.

"The point of it is trying to create predictability for the institution," says Nathan Mueller, a principal and managing director for advanced analytics at EAB, a higher education consulting firm that offers econometric modeling as one of its services.

Colleges use econometric modeling to determine the likelihood a student will enroll if offered admission, as well as to determine financial aid packages. In the end, colleges must balance what they can afford to offer versus what it will take to enroll a student.

"Colleges and universities use econometric modeling to predict how many students will enroll, how much revenue they will raise, and how much of a discount they need to give certain students to ensure they enroll," Perez explains.

[Read: How to Apply to College for Free.]

Ultimately, econometric modeling isn't something a student or family has any control over. But Mueller says the data is used in more of an aggregate than individualized way, meaning econometric modeling is unlikely to harm strong candidates.

"We are trying to understand the response of a whole pool of students, all of the students that are applying for admission to the institution. So it's not commonly used in a way that either increases an individual's chances or works against them in some way," Mueller says.

Colleges use econometric modeling to predict likely enrollment outcomes balanced against financial obligations. But how this data is used may vary by institutional type, says Mueller, with small, selective colleges more likely to use such metrics. He adds that private colleges are more likely to use econometric modeling due to larger portions of their budget allocated for financial aid.

Perez adds that "the more tuition dependent an institution is," the more likely it is to use predictive modeling in admissions. It's a way to meet enrollment goals, he says, and to determine the incoming class that a college can afford to admit.

"Sometimes these data points are used at the point of evaluation (when reading the application) and other times they are used at the point of shaping a class," Perez explains. "In other words, some schools will have admitted too many students with high financial need and at the end of the process have to pull those students out because they can't afford them, and replace them with students with ability to pay. Every institution has a financial bottom line."

How and Why Colleges Track Demonstrated Interest

According to a 2019 NACAC report, academic achievements -- such as grades, rigor of high school curriculum and standardized test scores -- are "the most important factors in the admission decision." But demonstrated interest also plays a role. After academic achievements and the essay or writing sample, colleges considered demonstrated interest as the next most important factor in making an admissions decision, even over teacher and counselor recommendations, extracurricular activities and class rank.

But how can a student show demonstrated interest in a college?

Some ways are fairly obvious. Take the campus tour -- or the virtual tour -- contact an admissions officer, apply early, attend college events or webinars, and have information reported on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, sent to target schools.

[Read: A Student Guide to Virtual College Admissions Tools.]

Other ways to demonstrate interest may be unknown to students, says Alan Katzman, founder of Social Assurity, which works with students on ways to use social media in the college application process, including how to demonstrate interest in a college.

He encourages students to show demonstrated interest online by spending time on college websites and to always request more information, a common feature on a college's homepage or admissions page. Doing so will help demonstrate interest and open up more opportunities to do so by entering the college's enrollment management system.

Colleges will follow up with emails. Katzman urges students to open those emails and click the links within. That engagement is tracked and shows a prospective student is reading admissions materials, which can demonstrate interest.

Potential applicants should also follow and interact with college social media accounts, Katzman says.

Students should use one email account for admissions. That way, enrollment management systems can log that the student following social media accounts or receiving emails is the same student about whom the college may have already purchased information.

"Make sure your social media accounts are anchored using the email used to register with the college or take your SAT," Katzman says.

Like econometric modeling, the use of demonstrated interest may vary by college, with smaller, more selective colleges more likely to use predictive analytics to determine if a student will enroll if offered admission, Katzman explains. "Some colleges place more weight on demonstrated interest than others, but it's being measured."

In an admissions process awash with data -- much of which applicants will never see -- experts encourage prospective students to focus on the aspects they can control, such as choosing challenging classes in high school and succeeding in those.

"The stronger the academic portfolio presented," Mueller says, "the less likely that other factors will come into consideration as the college is making its decisions."

"Students have more control than they feel like they do," says Madeline Rhyneer, vice president of consulting services and dean of enrollment management at EAB. "And we try to remind them that there's more power in their hands than they often feel is the case, as they're putting their whole life in front of anonymous admission committees."

Searching for a college? Get our complete rankings of Best Colleges.