The New College Game

In the college-admission season just past, Ben Weinberg was one of the hot prospects--1430 SAT, A-minus average at a very competitive private school, jazz pianist, tennis player and future biomedical researcher. Those "you are the kind of student we want" e-mails and promotional brochures 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 its own high-volume operation. A torrent of Wash U letters and information packets flooded Weinberg's mailbox. There was even a course catalog, something he'd rarely seen so early in the application process. Columbia University, in contrast, sat back and waited for just the right moment and messenger. In late March, a week before acceptance and 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 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 admissions era. Colleges are frantic to bolster their SAT averages and national reputations so they'll get more applications from even more of the best students. For their part, young applicants are 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 going as far as sending promotional material to each other, in hopes 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 continue--admissions to nontraditional spring or summer terms, hopelessly long wait lists, the flattering letters to juniors--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:

* The ACT as trial run: David Pinzur of Northbrook, Ill., worried how his daughter Laura would do on the SAT. Another parent who'd gone through the process passed on the latest testing tactic: start with the ACT--the rival college-entrance test most popular in the Midwest--and take the exam early and often. It was a fail-safe way 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, whereas the SAT requires all scores to go if you send one. For cautious adolescents--and ones who can afford it--that makes the ACT a good bet. 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 just started as a freshman at Pomona College.

* Telltale little essays: As the personal essay has evolved into a pivotal part of the application--with some high schools having students practice the art form for months--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. Robert Springall, admissions director for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Cornell, says "students stress over the personal essay" and may "give less thought" to academic statements and short answers.

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

But the expanding wait list--a maneuver to make sure colleges fill every available revenue-producing space--differs greatly from school to school. Some Ivies admit almost nobody on the wait list, but some selective schools, like Georgetown, take many. Local zoning laws prohibit Georgetown from growing larger, so it always admits relatively few applicants in the first round to avoid overcrowding. There has been room for about 100 wait-listees 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. Sending along fresh grades can help, too. 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.

* Mutual massage: College presidents now tell rivals how good their schools are as a way of influencing the reputation score that's 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 of its accomplished graduates. Middlebury enclosed a book of campus photos.

U.S. News hasn't figured out how to stem the lobbying, but the magazine did recently announce another potentially momentous change. It will no longer factor "yield"--the percentage of students who accept offers of admission--into its rankings. The lust for high-percentage yield has been blamed for admissions devices like the popularity of Early Decision, which some educators say forces students to decide too soon where to attend. U.S. News executive editor Brian Kelly says the magazine heard those complaints; when it discovered that removing the yield rates had little effect on overall rankings, it 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. "Bragging rights about yield will always be important," says John Blackburn, dean of admissions at the University of Virginia.

* Personal touch: Last spring, Sarah Torpey got into several colleges, but Drew University's way of wooing her was impossible to resist. She received calls from Drew students asking if she had any questions. Her acceptance letter came with a personal note from the admissions officer who had read her file. Drew's open houses 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 got there," says Torpey.

Ben Weinberg, who had seen so many different attempts to win him over, found the personal touch also influenced him. The University of Pennsylvania rolled out the red carpet when he visited in April. A professor and a sophomore in the engineering department even took him to lunch. Though he had other choices, he picked Penn. Hearing 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 got to reject some great schools," he says. "That is the way the game works."