Feature: College Admissions: The New Rules of Getting In

Stressed about whether your kid can claw her way into Penn? Or Swarthmore? Or ’Nova? Relax. With the college-application landscape changing fast, local admissions pros share the latest secrets about how to play the game.

Eric J. Furda, dean of admissions at the University of Pennsylvania—a.k.a. the gatekeeper at Philly’s most prestigious college—is talking about the wait-list. The wait-list, for those who are only dipping their toes into the churning maelstrom of the college admissions process, is a sort of leftover limbo, the place you get sent when something about your application—your SAT scores, your essay, your teacher recommendations, that C you got in algebra freshman year—doesn’t quite qualify you for the thick envelope right away. Instead, you’re invited to cool your heels while Penn waits to see who accepts its tenders of admittance for the incoming class. At Penn, this spring’s wait-list was 3,003 students long.

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Some of those wait-listed applicants just moved on to other suitors. But 1,800 of the young men and women who’d painstakingly completed the Common Application and Penn’s institutional supplement were excited enough, or yearning enough, or stubborn enough, to accept places on the wait-list. Dean Furda, 45 and appropriately Waspy, admits that a wait-list of 3,000-plus applicants is “unconscionable.” He says a wait-list of 1,500 is too long. In fact, “Any number on the wait-list is too many.” So why, when Penn knows that maybe 50, maybe at the most 100 of the applicants it wait-lists will eventually be offered admission, does it hold out false hope to thousands more kids?

“It makes conversations with guidance counselors so much easier,” Dean Furda explains. “What about all those valedictorians and salutatorians? The counselors say: ‘The number two in our class wasn’t admitted?’ If those students are straight-out denied, those conversations become even harder. The reason for the wait-list is to let the counselors and the schools know that the top of their class is good enough.” The same day I spoke with Furda, I logged onto Collegeconfidential.com, a website whose forums chart the college-admissions process via the postings of incredibly tense, anxious parents and students, and found this just-posted exchange, under the heading “Extended Waitlist 2014 UPenn”:

DANNY1234: Has anyone been accepted off the extended waitlist?
AHAYAT: Not yet. I CANT WAIT! My whole life depends on it

DEAN FURDA ISN’T A BAD GUY. Far from it. And poor Ahayat isn’t (probably) a Penn-obsessed loony who needs to get a life. The trouble is that they’re viewing the college-app process from such completely different places that there doesn’t seem to be any common ground.

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  • C

    What about grad schools? You should write an article about getting into grad schools and what kinds of doors it opens.