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.

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.