What to do with all that mail you're getting

In the past two weeks I’ve had several people ask me about all the mail they’re receiving from colleges. If you’re a senior who has already sent out all your applications, then be assured that the mail will dry up soon if it hasn't already. Universities know what year you graduate high school, so they know to stop sending you materials.

And for the rest of you, 9th through 11th grade? What are you supposed to do with all that mail?

But first: why do they even send mail? Don’t they know that this is the 21st century? Who looks at mail? Strangely, the fact that nobody gets much physical mail any more makes schools more likely to use physical mail, because it’s a novelty. They can and do use emails, texts, and social media to send their message. They also use the same “big data” and semi-creepy targeted marketing that everyone else uses. But old fashioned mail has a few advantages. It stands out from all the email you get, because it isn’t an email. Plus, they can get more information into a quick glance. In your email inbox, you probably only see who the email is from and what the subject line is. That’s easy to ignore. But with mail, they can get you to see the school name, and a photo, and a logo, and some other message—even if you don’t open the envelope. Plus, you have to physically handle it, which gives it more power over your memory than just looking at it on a screen.

Also, you probably don’t give your family access to your email inbox or texts. So if you ignore an email, nobody sees it. But you can ignore your physical mail…and it might still get seen by your parents. Or your siblings. Or visitors to your house.

How did they find you? Where did they get your address to begin with? The short answer is probably the PSAT. Also the SAT and ACT, but if you’re getting mail in your sophomore year it’s likely from the PSAT. When you take those tests, you fill out a lot of survey information that has nothing to do with the test: geographic and demographic information, your intended major, your religious preference, your parents’ level of education, all kinds of stuff. You are also asked someplace in the paperwork if you will allow them to share that information with colleges so they can reach out to you. If you checked the Yes box, and most people do, then all that information is sold to colleges and universities for marketing. You can get details about what kind of information the College Board shares here, and here is the privacy policy for the ACT. It can be an interesting game to try to figure out what about your profile got you on a list they were willing to pay for, but it’s impossible to know.

So what should you do with all that mail?

Look for what stands out. After you’ve looked at 10 or 20 of these, you’ll notice patterns. You’ll see an arial photo of the school, and the campus will be suspiciously empty. You’ll see students walking down a sidewalk, carrying backpacks. You’ll see a suspiciously diverse and balanced group of smiling students (sometimes really suspicious). There’s a professor standing at the front of a large lecture hall, speaking to attentive students (suspiciously, none of those students are watching Netflix or struggling to stay awake). You’ll quickly learn that none of these photos are interesting or tell you anything about the school. But once you know that, you can scan for things that do actually stand out. If something seems different about a brochure, stop to look more closely.

Look for what they want to emphasize. Colleges know they have to put more on their brochure than “We’re the best!” But they haven’t got room to put everything about the school. So they choose what they think is most important for right now, and you should pay attention to that. What are they pushing? Study abroad? Post-graduation job prospects? A special curriculum? Internship opportunities? Arts? Athletics? There’s something they really want to emphasize. Look for that and see how well it resonates with you.

To decide if you want to keep the mail, do a quick assessment of the school using your College Mission Statement. If you don’t have a College Mission Statement yet, then don’t throw anything away until you do. Here’s an explanation of how to write one. If you do have a College Mission Statement, then see how well the school stacks up against what you want based on what’s in the brochure. That should be the criteria for what mail you keep: how well it seems to fit with what you’re looking for. Ignoring schools just because you’ve never heard of them is a waste, as is keeping mail from schools that don’t fit what you’re looking for but have appealing photos or name recognition.

If a school looks interesting and seems to match your College Mission Statement, then follow up! Go online and get on their mailing list. (Yes, you’re obviously already on their mailing list, but get on the list of people who are truly interested. That’s a different list.) Spend some time looking over the website, and make sure you also check out any emails or other mail they send. A question that seniors often ask is “I’m applying to a school that considers demonstrated interest. How can I show that?” The absolute best way to demonstrate interest is to go back in time to your sophomore year and get on their mailing list and start opening their emails and checking out their website. Unfortunately that’s not possible. The next-best thing is to start following up with schools your sophomore year so you won’t be in that predicament later. Don’t wait until it’s getting too late—start to check out schools that you may be interested in learning more about. You can always change your mind and unsubscribe later. Brochures they send in the mail often have special URLs (that include your name) you can use to automatically let them know you’ve opened their mail and want to learn more.

Get rid of it. Some people will tell you to go ahead and keep all the mail, just in case. I’ve even seen people advise students to file away all the brochures in alphabetical order so they’ll be easier to find later. You don’t have the time or energy for that, and there’s really no reason to do that. If you follow up with a school, they’ll send you more, probably online but possibly through the mail. So you’re done with that physical brochure unless you want to show it to others—you can continue the conversation with the school online. If you’re not interested in following up with a school, there’s no need to keep all that trash. If things change and you want to know more about them later, you’ll be able to find it all online. So don’t dismiss physical mail, but do what you need to move most (or all) of it out of your house as quickly and efficiently as possible. But please recycle all that you can.

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Photo by  Zoe Herring

Photo by Zoe Herring