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 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.”