THE ADMISSIONS GAME: TWO CAN PLAY

In the college admission season of 2003, Ben Weinberg was one of the hot prospects--1430 SAT, A-minus average at a very competitive private school, jazz pianist, tennis player, Web-site builder and future biomedical researcher. Those you-are-the-kind-of-student-we-want letters, the promotional brochures, the friendly e-mails--they all poured into his white brick house in Bethesda, Md. So the schools that really wanted him had to find new ways to show it.

Washington University in St. Louis took the most traditional tool--the U.S. mail--and turned it into a high-volume operation. A torrent of Wash U. letters and information packets flooded Weinberg's mailbox. There was even a course catalog, something he had rarely seen so early in the application process. Columbia Univer-sity, by contrast, sat back and waited for just the right moment and the right messenger. In late March, a week before acceptance or rejection letters were due, Weinberg got a glowing letter from the undergraduate dean of Columbia's engineering school, almost but not quite saying he was sure to get in. "That made me feel great," Weinberg says. Johns Hopkins went even further. One of its admissions officers called Weinberg's guidance counselor and asked if the school might impress the star senior by accepting him not only to the college but also to its prestigious biomedical program, an intense school-within-a-school. The counselor said yes, and both admission letters came through, making Weinberg feel like a top-ranked quarterback on NFL Draft Day.

All those efforts to snag a talented 18-year-old are no surprise in this college-admissions era. Colleges are frantic to bolster their average SAT scores and national reputations so they'll get more applications from even more of the best students. For their part, young applicants are, of course, ever eager to get into the most selective colleges, so they're coming up with new ways to disguise their flaws and augment their strengths.

The two-way courtship is evolving in new ways. Colleges are sending promotional material to each other, in hopes that the hype influences how the other schools rate them in guidebooks. To deliver a bigger emotional wallop, schools are also playing games with the "likely letters" they used to send in January--letting prize applicants know they're likely to get in. Now the letters--a burgeoning phenomenon--arrive much closer to the April acceptance date. And colleges fed up with beautifully phrased application essays that seem unlikely to have been written by high schoolers have begun scouring the shorter essays for prose more accurately befitting the applicant.

Other favorite devices of college marketers--the flattering letters to juniors, admissions to nontraditional spring or summer terms, the hopeless places on overly large wait lists--continue, with many high-school counselors and consultants still angry about the refusal of selective colleges to reform. Bill Rubin, director of the California-based tour company the College Authority, says all the excesses stem from the same source: "the competitive pressure to get the best students." The beat goes on. What follows is a survey of the newest tricks in admissions gamesmanship, as played by both sides:

*Mutual massage: College presidents now tell each other how good their schools are as a way of influencing the reputation score that represents 25 percent of their rating on the influential U.S. News & World Report "America's Best Colleges" list. Elisabeth Muhlenfield, president of Sweet Briar College, says Hobart and William Smith Colleges sent a letter to her about their great lineup of guest speakers. Cedar Crest boasted to her of its accomplished graduates, and Middlebury sent a book of campus photos.

While U.S. News has changed the name of this category to "peer assessment," it hasn't done much else to stem the lobbying. But the magazine has announced another potentially momentous change. It will no longer count "yield"--the percentage of students who accept offers of admission to a school--as part of its rankings. The lust for high-percentage yield has been blamed for admissions devices like the popularity of Early Decision, which some educators say has forced students to decide too soon where they want to attend. Yield has also led to phenomena like gala on-campus weekends--which include big barbecues and concerts. U.S. News executive editor Brian Kelly says editors heard those complaints, and when they discovered that removing the yield rates had little effect on the overall rankings, they decided to discard them. But many colleges say they're unlikely to stop focusing on yield, and will keep using yield-inflating methods like Early Decision. "I believe that a high yield represents that a college or university has admitted the 'right' kids," says W. Kent Barnds, dean of admissions and enrollment management at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania. John Blackburn, dean of admission at the University of Virginia, agrees that it's a habit hard to break. "Bragging rights will always be important."

*The ACT as trial run: Like most parents, David Pinzur of Northbrook, Ill., worried how his daughter Laura would do on the SAT. A friend of his who had gone through the process with her child passed on the latest testing tactics: Don't take the SAT first. Start with the ACT, the rival college-entrance test that is most popular in the Midwest. (For the full story on standardized testing, see page 44.) The friend told Pinzur to have Laura take the ACT early and often. It was a fail-safe procedure to see how she'd do on such tests under real conditions--without anyone's knowing. That's because the ACT allows applicants to select which scores, if any, a college sees, while the SAT requires all scores to go if you send any single score.

For cautious adolescents--and ones who can afford it--that makes the ACT a good bet. "We have always felt the student should have the right to choose," says ACT spokesman Ed Colby. Wendy Andreen, a college counselor at Memorial High in Houston, says that at her school "all the counselors encourage the students to take the ACT ?K We candidly tell the students and their parents that they can have the scores sent just to their homes and either never reveal their scores, or at a later date pay ACT to send their best score to their college choices." Counselors warn, though, that sample SAT tests are still better than the ACT as practice for the SAT.

Laura Pinzur took the ACT for the first time in September of her junior year and got a 31, the equivalent of a 1380 on the SAT. Knowing she could bury any bad scores "greatly reduced her anxiety level," her father says. She tried two more times, getting another 31 and a 32. That was enough. She never took the SAT, never bothered with a test-prep course and is now a freshman at Pomona College.

*Telltale little essays: As the personal essay has evolved into a piv-otal part of the application--with some high-school English departments having students practice the art form for months--college-admissions officers have grown suspicious. Often the essays seem too well written to be products of a 17-year-old mind, so some colleges are looking more closely at the shorter essays, which often ask why you like that college or what you plan to study. Robert Springall, director of admissions for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Cornell, says "students stress over the personal essay and give less thought, on the whole, to academic statements and short answers."

*Finessing the wait list: In January 2003, a re-port by the National Association for College Admissions Counseling reached an unsurprising conclusion: "The number of students being placed on wait lists appears to be growing at a faster pace than in previous decades." The survey said 70 percent of college-admissions officers say they admitted fewer than 20 percent of those on their lists.

But the expanding wait list--a maneuver to make sure the college fills every available revenue-producing space--differs greatly from school to school (below). Some of the Ivies admit almost nobody on the wait list, but some selective schools, like Georgetown, take quite a few. Local zoning laws prohibit Georgetown from growing larger, so it always admits too few applicants in the first round to avoid accidental overcrowding. There has been room for about 100 wait-listees--a third of those who accept invitations to stay on the list--nearly every year.

Being a nudge helps to get admitted from the list, if you don't go too far. Successful wait-listees are persistent but polite--like Vivek Chopra of Wootton High School in Rockville, Md., who wrote to Cornell of his continued interest and had teachers write as well. Fresh grades are good. So is information on new grades. Telephoning is bad. "It's important to show genuine interest, but without overdoing it," says Martin Wilder, vice president of enrollment at Mary Washington College in Fredericksburg, Va.

*Personal touch: In the spring of 2003, the University of Pennsylvania rejected Sarah Torpey's application with a terse form letter. Drew University in Madison, N.J., treated her very differently. She got into several other colleges, but Drew's method of welcoming her, she discovered, was impossible to resist. She received calls from Drew students asking if she had any questions. When she was accepted in February 2003, there was a personal note on the bottom of the letter from the admissions officer who had read her file, and she received a separate note when she sent in her deposit a few weeks later. The Drew open houses and campus visits were warm and welcoming. A biology professor even remembered her name two weeks after meeting her. "I felt happy, comfortable, at home at Drew before I even got there," says Torpey, now a freshman.

Ben Weinberg, who had seen so many different attempts by colleges to win him over, found that the personal touch also influenced him. One of the colleges that accepted him, the University of Pennsylvania, provided an unusually well-planned welcome when he visited in April. Both a senior professor and a sophomore in the engineering department sat down with him at lunch to answer all his questions. After that, it was easier, even with so many options, to decide that he'd go to Penn. Hearing all these schools beg him to say yes seemed to him fair compensation for the hurtful part of the process, including, in his case, being turned down by Yale and Harvard. "I kept telling my parents that I had been rejected by some great schools and now I get to reject some great schools," he says. "That is the way the game works."

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