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.

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.

That’s what gets lost in the rankings. “The admit rates at Ivy League schools have created a frenzy,” says Jenny Rickard, chief enrollment and communications officer at Bryn Mawr College. “A lot of parents who went to those schools can’t get their kids in today.” It’s particularly frustrating for Rickard because Bryn Mawr is one of the few remaining all–women’s colleges in the nation. “People make judgments based on the admit rate,” she says. “But students aren’t applying to Bryn Mawr on a whim. The ones who apply here are making a different, conscious choice.” Such self-selection skews Bryn Mawr’s admit rate, which this year is a middling 49 percent.

The situation is even more complicated at Temple, long considered a “safety school” locally. Temple’s current admit rate is 60 percent, says Bill Black, senior vice provost for enrollment, yet the school has hoisted selectivity by 50 percent in the past decade. At the same time, Temple famously has educated generations of the city’s immigrants and lowest-income students. So the school strikes a tentative balance between its need to seem more selective—so it can rise in the rankings—and its mission of accessibility.

All schools are struggling with this delicate dance. With the advent of the U.S. News rankings, says DiFeliciantonio, “The discourse of higher education really began to get affected by the discourse of business and marketing.” When he first came to Ursinus from the admissions department at Swarthmore, in 1990, “We’d started calling kids ‘markets.’ The faculty was not happy with that. But a market was created. And there were lots of comparisons—what’s value, what isn’t—just like in a discussion about buying an automobile.”

One result: The glossy brochures your high-school junior should start being bombarded with right … about … now. Colleges today shell out an average $2,000 per student to solicit the thousands of applicants they need to keep their admit rates low, paying for school fairs, hotel-ballroom information sessions with buffet spreads, and increasingly sophisticated marketing materials (including, most recently, social media like Facebook). It’s all part of what Rickard has called “an arms race” to attract America’s high-school grads, who in 2009 numbered some 3.33 million—the most ever in history.

Now the baby boomlet has peaked, though, and the numbers should ease off. Unfortunately, the admissions madness won’t. That’s because a college education isn’t an automobile, at least not the way most parents see it. When it comes to cars, lots of us are satisfied with Priuses, or PT Cruisers, or even a nice used Honda. For college, though, nothing less than a Rolls will do. College admissions is “a high-stakes proposition for good reason,” says Villanova dean of enrollment management Stephen R. Merritt. “There’s a lot more attention to how vital it is to get into a good college, how essential it is to a good life. And with the cost of higher education, most families are going to have to sacrifice. You’re bound to be anxious when you’re investing that kind of money.” So we obsess over the Princeton Review’s Best Colleges books, and haul Junior to college open houses and soccer camps, and pay for SAT tutors, and send him to Africa to help the needy, all in a desperate attempt to keep up with the game. The only problem is …

The rules keep changing.

If you talk to parents about the new, cutthroat world of college admissions, you hear a sort of stunned stupefaction: It wasn’t like this when I was applying to schools. Most of our parents never even glanced at the applications we filled out, much less paid a retired college English professor $300 to tidy up our essays.

But we don’t feel we have any choice. So many people now attend college—70 percent of 2009 high-school grads—that a diploma is only worth what a high-school diploma used to be. “When the value of a common credential is at issue, how do you improve your chances in society?” asks William C. Cutler III, a professor of history and of educational leadership at Temple. America has answered by declaring some colleges superior to others—in particular, the Ivies, the tiny subset of colleges that has been setting the standards for higher education for centuries.

For many years, the Ivies filled almost half their freshman classes with early-decision candidates. In early decision, a student applies in the fall of senior year and finds out in December or January whether he or she is admitted, instead of on the “regular decision” date in the spring. The catch? Early decision is “binding,” meaning if you’re admitted, you have to attend; if you don’t, you’ll be blackballed by other schools. The other catch? You won’t know what your financial aid award includes until regular-decision applicants do, usually in May.

Early decision can be a wonderful thing. “That’s the way we did it with both my daughters,” DiFeliciantonio says. “I made sure they knew it would up their chances of getting in.” The reason it does is that it lets a school zero in on its yield rate, which is completely different from its admit rate. The yield rate is the percentage of admitted kids who actually enroll at a school. And the more applications a school has, even a school like Penn, the less certain it can be that the kids it admits are going to sign on. Early-decision applicants, though, are guaranteed enrollees.

Earlier this decade, second-tier colleges came up with a clever way to manipulate their yield rates. They began to put their most qualified applicants on the wait-list, figuring those kids were only using them as safety schools and weren’t likely to attend. The same reasoning lies behind the practice of schools admitting children of previous graduates, a.k.a. “legacies.” Schools don’t prefer legacies because they like the idea of one big happy family. They prefer them because they’re more likely to enroll.

Some schools can make any rules they want.

In the New York Times in April, Duke University’s dean of undergrad admissions, Christoph Guttentag, justified his school’s lengthy wait-list—3,382 out of 27,000 total applicants—by saying that choosing whom to admit is essentially an artistic process that can’t be hurried: “I have no idea what I’m going to need to finish sculpting the class.” “He took so much heat for that,” Penn’s Furda says ruefully. The way the Times explained it, Guttentag couldn’t determine by the decision deadline whether he might need more engineers, or English majors, or perhaps oboe players, to complete his sculpting. The truth is, schools like Duke and Penn and Yale, the ones whose admit rates are as low as seven and eight percent, don’t have to explain themselves to anybody. “Basically, they hold all the cards,” says DiFeliciantonio. “They can do whatever they want. It’s kind of mean.”

>And these schools love the U.S. News rankings, for a simple reason. “You do know we’ve been number one in our category for more than a decade?” asks Villanova’s Merritt. “My feeling is, the rankings offer good general information in a concise format.” Still, enough leading liberal arts colleges disagree that hundreds of them have agreed not to participate in aspects of the U.S. News survey and not to use the rankings in their advertising.

The way Furda sees it, it isn’t Penn’s fault that so many kids want to go there: “We do have a platform from which to influence a great deal in this country, from the macro-policy level, but we can only move the needle so much.” The Ivies and their ilk, he points out, aren’t the institutions enrolling the vast majority of American students. “I can get up and say: ‘There are thousands of colleges and universities; don’t concentrate on 20 of them.’ But still, people do.”

The Ivies’ disproportionate force impacts the financial-aid picture, too. In the past decade, as costs at four-year colleges swept toward the $50,000-per-year mark, a number of Ivies, including Harvard, Yale and Princeton, announced “need-blind” policies, in which applicants would be admitted based solely on merit, without consideration of whether, or how much, they could pay. Lesser institutions followed suit—just in time to get smacked in the face by an economic downturn that sliced even Harvard’s renowned endowment almost 30 percent.

That’s why schools are fiddling with those need-blind policies. Some colleges are only need-blind now for as long as aid money holds out; others have turned “need-aware,” granting free rides to top prospects but considering means for students at the low end of the admissions scale. They may be admitting more students from their wait-lists, or international students, or transfers, all of whom are expected to pay the full rate. They may even be looking at parents’ occupations and zip codes for clues to their economic standing.“Colleges have their own goals, and increasingly, those are financial goals,” says DiFeliciantonio. “Very few schools are really need-blind.”

And some families are willing to help the schools’ bottom lines. In June’s Chronicle of Higher Education, Kevin Carey, of the Washington, D.C.-based think tank Education Sector, wrote, “From an educational standpoint, institutional brands are largely an illusion for which students routinely overpay.” We can’t help it; we’re a name-brand nation. Merritt relates a tale he heard from a high-school guidance counselor: “There was a family that every time their student was accepted to a school, they put that sticker on the car window. It’s an absurd emphasis on prestige.”

They need you as much as you need them.

The piece that frequently gets lost in the admissions puzzle is this: Colleges need you. Despite all the admissions hype, the fact is that 70 percent of all American students wind up enrolling at their first choice of school. Go read that sentence again: 70 percent. Schools are big businesses, but businesses need consumers. And now that the peak population for enrollment has passed, colleges are going to need you even more.

So even in the current college frenzy, schools have been taking steps to make themselves more attractive to parents and students. More and more very good schools, for example, now make SAT and other standardized test scores optional, rather than required for admission.

When Temple prof Cutler’s daughter applied to Bates College, in Maine, in 1991, it was one of the first not to require the SAT or the similar ACT; now, some 840 four-year schools in the nation don’t, including Bryn Mawr, Ursinus, Muhlenberg, Dickinson, Franklin & Marshall and Gettysburg.

Almost all such schools are small -liberal-arts colleges; big schools like Temple and Penn State still use test scores as a quick way to sort applicants. So are these small institutions warmer, fuzzier, more welcoming places, able to expend personal time and energy to get to know every applicant beyond bald numbers on a page? Maybe. Or it could be that these schools saw a market opportunity, a niche they could cater to: good students who test badly. Either way, those kids—and maybe yours—win.

Another aspect of the application process that’s in flux is the personal interview. Some Ivies, including Brown, Princeton and Columbia, no longer offer on-campus interviews; others no longer require them, or substitute alumni “meetings” close to an applicant’s home. Why? The deluge of applicants, and a general consensus that interviews are rarely the deciding factor in a yea or nay. Smaller schools, though, with their long history of aping the most selective colleges, continue to emphasize on-campus one-on-ones. Kids stress out over these interviews, sure that a single stupid comment can nix their chances to get in. But “Most colleges have never been in a position to be all that evaluative,” DiFeliciantonio says. “Much of the process is designed to sell the student on the school.” In other words: You’re not being judged. You’re being courted, kid.

The same wooing lies behind the new phenomenon of academic “likely letters.” Thanks to the Common Application, a single online form accepted by more than 400 top U.S. colleges and universities, high-school seniors today are applying to more and more schools, says Maureen Mathis, executive director of undergrad admissions and marketing at St. Joe’s: “They’re trying to get the odds up, or they haven’t narrowed their choices down.” This makes colleges crazy. “We had a girl last year who’d applied to 21 different schools,” says Merritt. “That’s 21 different essays, 21 sets of recommendations.” And if she was smart, she was telling every school it was the one she wanted most to attend.

The Ivies have for years sent out “likely letters” prior to the official spring acceptance date to let prized athletic recruits know they’re (wink, wink) likely to be admitted. But now they’re sent to top academic recruits as well, in a preemptive tug on those students’ heartstrings: We like you! We really like you! We like you more than those other guys do! Penn sent 200 likely letters this past spring, up from 120 the spring before. It’s all part of schools’ continued revamping of the rules.

The fever pitch of competition, though, remains concentrated on those 20 institutions that all admissions officers, from Ivy League to community college, say they wish students and their parents would see past, if only to let some steam out of the pressure cooker. The push to get your kid into the most prestigious school possible, says Black, “puts a negative spin on what should be an exciting time in a child’s life, when he or she is thinking about what to learn, where to live, what to do.” And the narrow focus blinds applicants to their options. “There are 3,000 institutions out there,” says Karin Mormando, Temple’s director of undergrad admissions. “We wish kids would see the whole universe.” DiFeliciantonio likens colleges to churches: Both have higher callings, but both need bodies in the pews to remain solvent. “Churches don’t tend to reject you,” he says, “and neither do we. We’re happy to have most kids.”

You have more control than you think.

Temple’s Bill Black began his admissions career at his alma mater, Northwestern University, in Illinois. “We’d regularly speak in hotel ballrooms to 500 families of prospective students at a time,” he recalls. “To get them to understand the admissions process, I’d tell them that when they send their applications in, they go into a dark room with no lights on, where people wearing visors sort through them randomly. We played to their worst fears that college admissions is an arbitrary and subjective process. Then we’d explain what really happens, and you could see the anxiety in their faces fading as they realized: The process is a reasonable one.”

Well. Sort of reasonable. Temple PR rep Hillel Hoffman has a young relative, a senior in college, who compared the role of her parents in her college search to the way they behave when they get behind the wheel of a car: “They became totally different people!” Mathis blames media for the parental stress: “You always see stories about ‘How do you help your child cope with being rejected?’ timed to when the highly competitive schools are rejecting applicants,” she notes. Well, no wonder. These are kids whose self-esteem we’ve spent 18 years dutifully propping up. For many of them, those thin letters from Brown or Yale (actually, almost all colleges now post admissions decisions online) will be the first time in their lives they’ve ever been rejected by anybody. And rejection is a painful thing.

“Young people and their parents are closer today than they ever were before,” says Merritt. “It was different for me and my dad. Parents now take kids and their goals personally. That can lead to a win/lose attitude based on perceived prestige.”

Our competitiveness isn’t lost on our kids. “It was very stressful,” says Miranda Shepherd, a Cheltenham High grad who last year applied to Yale, Stanford, American, Boston University, Macalester, Tulane and the University of the Pacific. Her classmate, Maxwell Presser, who applied to Penn, Pitt, Emory, Indiana and UNC Chapel Hill, agrees: “I was very, very stressed.” Miranda’s now at Stanford; Max is at Penn. Cheltenham’s director of communications and development, Anne Spector, is proud of their accomplishments, but also worries: “We don’t realize the internal pressure these children put on themselves in a community like this.”

Bryn Mawr’s Rickard tries to deflect stress by asking the parents: “Think back to when you were applying. Did not getting in somewhere ruin your life?” What’s more likely to cause anguish than actual rejection is a child’s sense that he or she has disappointed a parent’s hopes and expectations. So Merritt suggests that’s precisely where the college search should start.

“A family meeting should precede all else, an honest conversation about why you believe college should be in your child’s future,” he says. “Why go? What are you looking for? What is your child looking for? Get all those hidden agendas out right at the beginning, before you talk about particular schools.”

To help you take control of the process, Mathis suggests prospective students remember the three “decision points” of applying to college. “The first is where you apply. You have complete control over that,” she says. “The second is the college’s decision of whom to admit.” If you’re smart about where you apply, making sure you fall within the range of accepted students in factors like SAT scores and average GPA, you have influence over that, too. Finally, there’s the matter of which college you choose to attend, and that’s entirely up to you. So who says the colleges hold all the cards?

And for God’s sake, don’t apply to 21 different places. “If you come to the application process with a set of more than seven or eight schools,” says Merritt, “you should go back to scratch, to that family meeting.” Furda suggests you narrow your list by identifying five attributes that make your top choice so appealing, then seeking out alternatives that share all or most of them.

And before you take that grand cross-country tour, Black suggests you do a homegrown version: “This area is so rich in college options—community colleges, big state schools, medium-size universities, small, selective liberal-arts schools. Walk around the different kinds, and see what the atmosphere is like.”

Speaking of community colleges, they’re an increasingly attractive option for kids who aren’t sure what—or if—they want to study. “With the current cost of higher education,” says Stephen M. Curtis, president of the Community College of Philadelphia, “we’re seeing a trickle-down: People who might have gone to private college are looking at public options, and those who might have started at public colleges are now looking at us.” The community–college option can be perfect for kids who still need time to mature and explore. CCP costs about $3,900 for a full year—as opposed to more than $52,000 at Penn. What’s more, CCP has dual–admission agreements with nine local colleges and universities, including Temple, Drexel and La Salle: Those who graduate with an associate’s degree in any number of majors are guaranteed admittance at these colleges as juniors—and if they have a GPA ranging from 3.2 to 3.5 or better (it depends on the school), they get an automatic scholarship. The diploma on your office wall will say Drexel, and you’ll have saved a hundred thousand bucks.

And if you’re the parent of a child who doesn’t want to go to college right out of high school? “That’s not the end of the road,” says Cutler. “There are many ways to skin a cat. Lots of people make great successes of their lives without going to college. And down the road, your kid might decide to go.” What’s true for everyone, says Merritt, is this: “Wherever you end up, your happiness is driven less by where you go than by what you do once you’re there.”

Professor Cutler has straddled the Ivy/non-Ivy divide for decades: “I applied to one college, Harvard, and I got in. I was a legacy. Some people wondered if I’d fit in at Temple, coming from that background.” He did; he’s taught there for 42 years. “Don’t focus on getting your kid into Harvard above all else,” he says. “The world doesn’t end if your child is rejected. If you believe in your child, you’ll find a way to help that child build a happy life.” Then he laughs. “That’s easy advice from someone whose kids went to elite private colleges.”

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