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What's Up With All This Mail From Colleges?

At first, it trickles in. A postcard or two here. A glossy brochure there. Maybe even a formal letter of introduction from the Dean of Admissions. Then you learn the trickle was just a crack in the dam and now the whole thing’s collapsed. Elaborate publications picturing super happy students are piling up on the dining room table. You’ve asked your kid, once again, please, please sort through this mail because company’s coming and it’s just everywhere.

 Some are from schools they like. Some are from schools they wouldn’t be caught dead attending. And then there are some schools you’ve never heard of. 

Why is this happening? Because schools have purchased your child’s information. 

The Name Buy

There are many places a school can buy high schools students’ information, most notably The College Board (administrator of the SAT and AP tests), and the ACT*. Known as the name buy, colleges typically make this purchase in January when scores are available for tests students took in October and November. 

Schools buy a ton of names. For example, a small school hoping for a freshman class of 500 students may buy 100,000 names. As noted in this recent article from The Atlantic, one mid-sized school purchased 250,000 names when hoping for an incoming class of 3,300.

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Why does this matter?

Schools buy names based on any number of criteria, so they tailor their purchase to the demographics they are interested in having in their student population. If your student is receiving marketing from a school then there is something about your child the school is actively seeking. Maybe your daughter is interested in engineering and the school wants more women in their program. Maybe your son goes to a really good high school from where the college would like to get more applicants. Maybe the university is mostly known for their business school and they need more students applying in the humanities so they’re recruiting your daughter who loves history.

 You’ll probably never know the reason, but it means the school is interested in your kid. It’s nice to be wanted!

You are now entering The Funnel.

When a school has your student’s information, that means they are in the school’s recruitment funnel. From that name buy of hundreds of thousands of names, the school will narrow the group to those who express interest. Then the field narrows to just those students who apply for admission, then to only those who are accepted. Finally the pool narrows to the relatively small number of students the school yields, meaning they accept the offer of admission and agree to enroll.

So now what?    

    If a school reaches out to your family, here's what you should do: 

  • Does your student want to stay in a school's funnel? Then it's easy; just respond to them in some way. Visit that link the brochure directs you to. Attend the open house their postcard invites you to. Click on the links in that email. Schools track all forms of interaction and they’re interested in students who demonstrate interest.

  • Is your student not interested in a school? Then let the school know. E-mail or call them and ask to be taken off their mailing list. You’ll stop being bothered by them, and they’ll stop wasting money on recruiting someone with no intention of ever applying.

  • Not hearing from a school you like? No worries! It doesn’t mean they don’t want you, it just means you weren’t caught in the net of their name buy. Visit their admissions website and you’ll easily find something like "Join Our Mailing List," that allows your student to put themselves in the funnel.

Get Your Own Funnel

Your family can think of the college search as your own funnel. Theoretically, every college in the world could be in it at the start! Every time your student makes a decision about what they do or do not want in a school, they are narrowing the number of potential colleges and moving down on through that funnel. When you look at the college search this way, even the little decisions seem productive! 

Happy searching,

-Jen Partica


*There’s also the National Research Center for College and University Admissions (NRCCUA). All those places that make money off of “rankings,” like the Princeton Review. Schools with a religious affiliation may get information from church rolls. Some public schools may go directly to their state’s Board of Education for student information.       


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