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.

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?