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.

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.