There are two reasons why telling a college, "You're my first choice" doesn't mean much to most schools.
1. It's too easy to say it without really committing to anything.
2. It's often not true.
Sometimes that statement is true. Many other times, a student is just feeling the college admissions pressure, reacting to the message that expression of interest in a college can improve your chances of admission.
Expression of interest can be important at some schools. Colleges all feel pressure to make sure their freshman dorms are filled. So when they get the sense that an appealing student might actually enroll if admitted, they know they won't be wasting the admission on someone who passes it up to go someplace else. But some expressions of interest are much more effective than others.
Here are five ways to demonstrate interest in a school, and all five are a lot more effective than just saying, "It's my first choice."
1. Thoughtfully answer the questions about why you want to attend. By "thoughtfully," I don't mean generalities like, "It's a great school" or a recitation of facts and statistics you pulled from the website. I mean showing that you've done some college soul searching, describing what you've looked for in colleges and why you looked for them, and why you think you've found those things at this particular school.
2. Don't give your application an "Insert name of college here" feeling. Giving an application a lot of time and attention is the best way to show love to a college. I'm all for recycling essays when the prompts are similar. But when they're not all that similar and you try to wedge in an essay you wrote for another school, the readers can tell. Really take the time to read and answer each portion of a college's application. Show them that you took it seriously by writing essays that clearly address their prompts. And follow the application's directions very carefully (ignoring them usually doesn't go over well).
3. Visit the campus if it's reasonably close. If you choose not to get on a plane to go see a college before you apply, most schools won't take that as a sign of a lack of real interest. But if a campus is one that you could easily drive to on a weekend and you haven't visited, it's hard for that college not to wonder just how interested you really are.
4. Apply to the right schools in the first place. If you picked schools based on their name brand reputation alone, it's hard to give a detailed answer about why you're applying. But if you took the attitude that this is going to be your college experience, that you want to end up at a place where you'll be engaged both in and out of the classroom, a place where you can be happy and successful, then you won't have a hard time showing that you're interested. You are interested. It will show.
5. Just be authentic. Colleges understand that it's hard to pick schools. You're seventeen, you've never been to college, and this is a huge decision you're trying to make with limited information. So they don't expect you to necessarily have a ranked list of choices with carefully planned expressions of interest in each. Just be yourself. Pick schools that really are interesting to you. And if you can't articulate why you're interested, sometimes that's OK as long as you're not faking it. I worked with a student once who wrote in an essay, "I really can't explain my attraction to Lewis and Clark. All I know is that there's chemistry between us." She was admitted.
As is the case with most parts of college admissions, the more you try to strategize, the worse off you'll be. You should care enough about where you'll be spending the next four years to apply to schools that really are interesting to you. If you're doing that, all you have to do is relax and be yourself. The expressions of interest will happen on their own as you learn and become more drawn to colleges that fit you.