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You gotta have the stats. Students have to have the desired objective criteria, i.e., the grades and the test scores to get in.
But there will be lots of applicants with the same, or even better, grades and test scores. So the question is always, "How does a student set themselves apart?"
Here's what colleges are looking at once they determine that a student has the academic chops:
The Essay: Colleges weigh the subjective criteria differently, but the most selective colleges put more emphasis on the college essay. It's the student's best opportunity to share their personality, demonstrate their ability to think critically, that they can write well and convince admissions that they will bring something special to campus.
The Interview: Fewer and fewer colleges offer students the opportunity to have an evaluative interview. Many colleges provide what's referred to as an "informational" interview, but it does not factor into the college admissions decision. Very few schools require an interview. If the student lives within driving distance, it is expected they will come to campus for the interview. Skype interviews are used for students that live far away.
Demonstrated Interest: This is a relatively new concept being embraced by an interesting variety of small- to midsize colleges and universities. College rankings are based in part on a college's yield; this is the percentage of students who say "yes, I'm coming" after mulling over all their acceptances.
Colleges have entire "Enrollment Management" departments that crunch numbers to calculate exactly who will attend if accepted. Harvard, Princeton and Yale rejected between 92 percent and 94 percent of their applicants, but had yield ranges of 65-80 percent. That means that 20 percent to 35 percent of the students accepted at these schools chose to go elsewhere.
Colleges have figured out that if a student visits, sits in on a class, sends a thank-you note, makes a connection with an admissions representative either at their high school or a college fair, requests an interview, etc., it means they're interested. These behaviors demonstrate a greater likelihood that they'll attend than the "stealth" applicant that has never set foot on campus or communicated with the admissions office.
Students need to inquire if the colleges they're interested in value "Demonstrated Interest." If they do, it is important that the students make sure the college tracks their communication, which may mean registering when they attend a campus visit because it will be logged into their application folder. Some colleges ask what contact a student has had with the college on the application itself.

Lee Bierer is an independent college adviser based in Charlotte, N.C. For more information, visit www.collegeadmissionsstrategies.com.