Have you ever heard the phrase, “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know”? While I’d like to tell you that college admissions is a meritocracy, it’s a false belief. Many factors go into the selection process, and there is no such thing as a “perfect candidate.” Just like in the professional world, the right relationships can offer applicants an extra edge.

When I mention relationships to my clients, it’s often received with a bit of confusion. In admissions circles, you’ll often hear the phrase “demonstrated interest” thrown around, and it’s often confused with building relationships. Demonstrated interest is usually associated with things like college tours, applying early decision, attending informational sessions, or meeting with a college’s admissions representative at their high school. Cultivating relationships goes deeper. It’s about your student forming authentic connections with key personnel and stakeholders of the colleges they might like to attend.

Building a connection takes effort, so students should first narrow down their top colleges. Once they feel confident in their choices, the work begins. Here are a few ways to leverage those all-important relationships.

Be open to opportunities to new relationships

Finding the right people to connect with can feel a little awkward at first, but it doesn’t have to. Making the initial connection can be as simple as remaining open to meeting people and taking advantage when the opportunity arises. I’ve listed a few ways to begin connecting:

  • Your student should talk with their high school counselor about what colleges are coming to their high school to recruit this year. This knowledge will help them to understand what colleges already have a relationship with their high school, and their counselor may even be able to give them advice on how to approach their regional admissions officer.
  • Your student may find they can connect with college representatives fairly easily on college tours or informational sessions. Typically this will be somebody who works at the college in a non-teaching function, whether it’s to help with cultural programs, religious programs, residential programs and so on.
  • If your student is seeking more information about their potential major and want to connect with a professor, many colleges have extracurricular programs for high school students. There are often outside opportunities, like those at Ivy Insight that will pair you with professor mentors, which can be a very valuable relationship.
  • A valuable connection doesn’t always mean an administrator or a professor. Some of the best resources for relationship building are current or former students. LinkedIn can be a great resource for alumni outreach, and colleges sometimes list their local alumni networks and their contact information. Meeting two to three current students for virtual coffee to learn about their experience can be a great way to learn about whether the college suits your student (or doesn’t).

Reach out and build your own relationship

If their school doesn’t have a relationship with the colleges they are interested in, your student can reach out to college representatives on their own. They may make an in-person connection through a campus or virtual tour, but a good, old-fashioned email can work just as well. Their email may say something like “Hello, I’m really interested in the music department at your school. I have experience in flute and clarinet performance, and I think I want to pursue conducting as a career. I would love to know what classes might prepare me for that track. Would you have 10 minutes for a phone call to discuss?”

The “Why” behind the connection

By making a small ask of 10 minutes of a stranger’s time, and actually following through to have a conversation, your student will be in a position to get invaluable information they can use for their application. This kind of personalized information won’t be available without the connection. Remember, admissions info sessions are tailored to a large group. This conversation will be tailored to your student. If the college representative is really impressed with them, they may even be willing to write a letter of recommendation

Whether or not they ultimately get someone to formally endorse your application for admission, these relationships and connections will be invaluable to helping you figure out how they fit in at their dream colleges. They’re going to have to talk about why they’d be a great fit in their essays and interviews, and your student can use this knowledge to refine their application.

Work your relationships

When your student makes a good connection, work it for all it’s worth. After the first meeting, they should send a quick follow up email thanking the person for their time, and opening the door for ty to reach out in the future. If you’re planning on touring the college and want to connect with a particular professor, send an email ahead of time to let them know you’ll be visiting their class. They can say that you want to major in their subject and that you want to say a quick “hello” after class. And hopefully they’ll say yes, and even if they don’t respond still, go up to them after the class if you can. These small steps cost you nothing but a few extra minutes yet if you use them, you will stand out miles ahead of your competition.

The more you connect with people from your chosen college, the more three dimensional your application becomes. Don’t settle for being another faceless applicant in the sea of thousands. Go for personal touches where you can. Be creative, be bold, be polite. You’ll be surprised at what doors open for you.

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