The Truth About Special Interest Candidates

The Truth About Special Interest Candidates

What the admissions committee REALLY thinks about special interest candidates.

You may have heard the rumors – even at the most elite schools, some students were allegedly admitted because of their affiliation, not on merit. Is this true? And should you use “connections” if you have them? If so, how?

Here is what the admissions committee REALLY thinks about special interest candidates.

  • Connections can absolutely help.

First of all, it is absolutely true that candidates benefit from affiliation with influential alums, donors, famous people, etc. Virtually all schools have special interest categories, and if you are in the highest special interest category you stand a greatly enhanced chance of being admitted, even if your profile isn’t competitive for that school. No question, at most schools there are at least a few weak special interest students who are admitted just because of their connections.

  • Leverage your influence correctly.

Even if you have these connections, there are more and less strategic ways to leverage them. The most influential donors and alums already have relationships with the school’s top administrators, who know how to get your application in the special interest pool. For the most part, this involves the person with influence calling up the President, Dean, Director of Admissions – whoever they know best– and saying that their child, nephew, or colleague’s friend is applying, can you please keep an eye out for their application? That’s really all it takes – if the person calling has enough clout, the candidate’s file is then marked as special interest and they are reviewed differently.

  • Even admissions officers feel weird about this.

The best admissions officers are invested in their jobs and their favorite candidates, and have likely seen less qualified candidates get seats in the class while some of their favorites are denied. Nevertheless, the special interest category is real, and is a fact of life for admissions committee members as well as applicants.

  • Should you try to get special interest status?

This is a really personal decision, with strong opinions on both sides of the discussion. Many people feel that they should take every opportunity to move the needle in their favor, and to stand out in such a competitive process. Others want to feel that they have been admitted on their own merit. One note of caution: if you do decide to try for special interest status, please make sure that the person you are asking for help understands how to endorse you, and that they either know you well enough and/or have enough influence to justify the intervention. Otherwise, you may actually hurt your chances of admission.


Karen Marks has more than 12 years of experience evaluating candidates for admission to Dartmouth College and the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth.

Since founding North Star Admissions Consulting in 2012, she has helped applicants gain admission to the nation’s top schools, including Stanford, Harvard, Wharton, Yale, Cornell, Dartmouth, Columbia, MIT, Duke, Georgetown, Northwestern, Booth, NYU, Ross, UVA, Haas and more. Clients have been awarded more than $10.2 million in scholarships, and more than 95% have gotten into at least one of their top-choice schools.