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.

For students and parents, the world of college admissions seems like—well, like an ivy-walled fortress they’re assaulting with No. 2 pencils. We’ve heard the stories of perfect-2400-SAT-scoring applicants who speak fluent Armenian, pole-vaulted in the Olympics, spent the past four summers rescuing sea turtles in Madagascar—and were TURNED DOWN BY PENN! If that isn’t good enough, how do our little Emmas and Noahs and all the other kids from around the Philadelphia area stand a chance? Meanwhile, the media feeds our fears. In one particularly disconcerting article on the Daily Beast website last year, an Ivy League admissions officer confessed to rejecting applicants because he’d gotten food poisoning in the city they were from; another nixed applications if he happened to read them the day after his beloved Steelers lost a game.

Stuff like that scares us, makes us feel that college admissions itself is a game, a high-stakes playoff where we don’t know the rules and have no real way of influencing the outcome. Local college admissions officers say they understand this. They sympathize, even. But they insist you’re not as helpless as you feel. We asked them to help us navigate the new rules of the game, and they were happy to oblige.

IT REALLY IS A GAME.

Some deans of admission don’t come right out and say so, but we found one who does: Rick DiFeliciantonio, of Ursinus College. And he does so repeatedly. Like many we spoke to, DiFeliciantonio dates the rise of gamesmanship in the admissions process to 1983, and the publication of U.S. News & World Report’s first ranking of “America’s Best Colleges.”

The immediate effect of those rankings was that colleges began to work to raise their standing in them. And that turned out to be not particularly difficult to do. Penn, for example, didn’t even make the first U.S. News list of best national universities. But in the years since, via smart marketing and recruitment, it’s earned itself a firm seat among the top 10.

The statistic most critical to colleges is exclusivity—how hard they are to get into. This is measured via a simple formula: number of applicants admitted divided by number of total applicants. (To see how local colleges rank in admit rate and other vital categories, see the chart on page 66.) For the class of 2014, Penn received 27,000 applications and admitted 3,800, for an admit rate of 14 percent. Ursinus, in contrast, received 5,903 applications and admitted 3,274, for an admit rate of 55 percent. So—is Penn four times better as a school, since its admit rate is a fourth of Ursinus’s? Or is it four and a half times better, because 4.5 times as many kids want to go there? The answers: No, and no. There are dozens of reasons why more kids apply to Penn than Ursinus, including prestige, name recognition, the urban setting (very hot right now), and cost (we’ll get to that). But for your kid, Ursinus could be a much better college than Penn.

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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.