What students and parents need to know about search letters

Colleges do a lot more marketing today than they used to.

When juniors take the PSAT, most of them check the optional box that asks if you would like the College Board to share their contact information with colleges that might be interested in you.  And for most students, that guarantees that as you get closer to applying to college,your mailbox will fill with information from colleges, many if not all of which you will never heard of.  And yes, a lot of those schools sending will probably admit you if you apply.

Colleges call these “search letters.”  They’re a marketing tool, as most of the over 2,000 colleges in this country actually do need to work to ensure they receive enough applications from qualified students.  It’s proof that it’s not as hard to get into college as a lot of people think it might be.

But I think some of them are misleading.

For students who get particularly high PSAT scores, many of the nation’s most selective colleges, the same schools who reject most of their applicants, will send out their own search letters.  And they’re just as positive and inviting, often saying things like:

“We congratulate you on your impressive academic record and encourage you to consider us,”


“We are looking for exceptional students who will flourish in our classrooms and make positive contributions to our campus community.  Based on your PSAT scores, I think our university might be the place for you.”

Some of these search letters come with invitations to attend local events the college will be hosting.  Some include college paraphernalia like decals (although I can’t imagine the flack a high school kid would catch if he put a decal from Yale or Princeton or Duke on his car before he was actually admitted?)

How could a student not take a letter like that as a good sign?  The college is encouraging you to apply, and telling you you’re the type of student they’re looking for.

But as Jay Mathews wrote in Harvard Schmarvard (a book every high school student and parent should read, by the way),

“The marketing executives for some of our nation’s finest institutions of higher learning seem to be making promises that their admissions offices can’t keep.”

Highly selective schools admit only 10-20 of every 100 students who apply, and you can imagine how impressive their applicant pools are.  They’re not sending out search letters because they have a shortage of applicants.  They’re sending them out because they want to have an even bigger pool of highly qualified students from which to compose a freshman class.  It’s not dirty pool to have that goal, but it can be misleading for kids who receive those letters, and many are left to believe they now have a much stronger chance of admission than they really do.

For those kids who apply and are later rejected, it’s hard not to feel a little misled.  It’s like a person at school saying to you,

“I know we don’t know each other that well, but based on the little time we’ve spent together, I really like you.  You’re smart and easy on the eyes.  And I’d love to go to the prom with you.”

So you ask this person to the prom feeling pretty good about your chances of acceptance.  Then you get rejected.  Ouch, right?

If you get a search letter from a highly-selective college, it means that based on limited information, the college thinks you might be the kind of person they’d like to see apply.  Most of the people who will apply are accomplished students, and you’ve shown early signs you might be like them.  That’s the good news.

But it doesn’t mean your chances of admission are better than those of other qualified students, or that you’re somehow on an admissions fast track.  And it doesn’t change the fact that most of the students who apply to those schools get rejected.  It’s nice when you’re Harvard and get 30,000 applications for 1600 spots in the freshman class.

Here’s what I tell Collegewise students who get search letters from ridiculously competitive colleges.

“The bad news is that (insert school here) is still a big reach, just like it is for everybody.  It’s not that you’re not good enough–they just get way too many applications from qualified students.  If you decide to apply, we’ll help you take your best shot because you’ve worked hard enough to earn your right to try.  But this search letter is documented proof that if you keep doing what you are doing, there will be hundreds of other colleges who will trip over themselves to admit you.  Let’s make sure to find some of those for you, too.”

I’m all for more positivity and encouragement in the college admissions process.  And I think it’s great to remind kids with strong academic records just how proud they should be of their accomplishments.  But
it’s important for students and parents to know what search letters really mean.