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And now they get to choose

In a switch, students wooed by colleges.

Swarthmore College students try to sell Becky Emiru, 18, of Chicago, on the merits of their school. She listened with interest, but she's also being pitched by Rice and Amherst.
Swarthmore College students try to sell Becky Emiru, 18, of Chicago, on the merits of their school. She listened with interest, but she's also being pitched by Rice and Amherst.Read more

As soon as Bryn Mawr College decided it wanted Victoria Kopesky in its freshman class, the courtship began.

E-mails from professors, phone-a-thons with Bryn Mawr students, a welcome video, a weekend open house with a slumber party, team-building games and tours of the town - the school bent over backward to woo the brainy Yardley teen.

"It's incredibly validating," the robotics and computer-programming enthusiast - who was accepted at nine of the 13 colleges where she applied - said during a bean bag game at Bryn Mawr's recent Spring Festival.

As the May 1 deadline for students to make their final college decisions nears, the tables have turned. The brutally competitive admissions marathon is over, and teens who practically launched fireworks to get schools to notice them are the ones being pursued.

"I felt like all year I was selling myself, and now they're selling [to] me," said Rachel Meyer of South Portland, Maine, who attended the Bryn Mawr event to help her decide among six colleges.

Colleges and universities nationwide have gone all out this month to let scholars such as Kopesky and Meyer, with multiple acceptances, know that they are wanted . . . they are really, really wanted.

"The whole balance of the effort shifts," said Lee Stetson, dean of admissions at the University of Pennsylvania, which hosted a three-day event for underrepresented minorities and seven open houses to give students one last look.

Most schools flirt with admitted students, but some really lay on the charm.

Swarthmore arranged concerts, dance lessons, star gazing, an ice cream party, and other recreational events during its two-day "Ride the Tide" program. Drexel University offered midnight ice skating, basketball games, and student improv shows. Penn staged a Quizzo game and a swing-dance party.

"They keep saying, 'Hey, we're doing all this fun stuff, you should come,' " said Kopesky, 17, who attends the George School in Newtown and was also accepted at Rochester Institute of Technology, Alfred University and Clarkson University in New York, and Drew University in New Jersey, among other schools. "It's a really, really hard decision."

Open houses make schools look so good that some students say choosing gets even tougher.

"Everyone is so amazing. You instantly bond with the people," said Becky Emiru, 18, of Chicago, who visited Swarthmore and Rice University and was going to Amherst College next.

Competition among schools to craft the best incoming class has increased dramatically in recent years. A high yield rate - the percentage of admitted students who actually enroll - contributes to an institution's prestige. At Penn, for example, Stetson touts the school's 66 percent yield - partly due to its binding early-decision policy - which he says is among the top in the country.

With students filling out more applications than ever, however, admissions directors can't assume their ideal students will return their affections.

"Our accepted students have been accepted at eight or nine colleges," said Jim Bock, head of admissions at Swarthmore. "There's no second place in admissions: You're either first or last."

The luxury of choice turns top students into consumers.

"It's quite a different ball game now," said Vikki Toomer, associate director of admissions at Drexel, which held 20 to 25 open-house events in March and April, up from four in 2002. "Students are very savvy. They want to know what they're getting into."

In addition to attending classes and eating in the dining hall, prospects were paired with current Drexel students who squired them to events. The fun factor "is very important," Toomer said.

Colleges walk the line between touting their academic assets and pitching themselves as cool places to hang out. Their goal, they say, is to lead students to the school that will be the best fit.

"I'm not saddened if someone doesn't come if it's for the right reason," said Bock, echoing the sentiments of other local college officials. "What saddens me is when they say, 'This is my choice, but my parents won't let me go.' "

With Penn and other Ivys vying for many of Swarthmore's applicants, the small, elite liberal arts college has to show how "we're very different in all the right ways," Bock said. Among Swarthmore's advantages, he said, is the ability for students to form a close bond with faculty - which might explain the recent soccer match between administrators and "admits" on the campus green known as Parrish Beach.

Like many schools, Swarthmore pays students' transportation if that's what it takes to get them to visit. The college picked up the tab for 30 to 40 percent of the 306 kids who attended this month.

Its tactics have worked. As Swarthmore has grown more selective - only 17 percent were accepted this year - its yield has inched up to 40 percent. Bock estimates that close to half of the undecided students who attend Ride the Tide matriculate.

Having colleges court her "feels good," said Elisa Lopez, 17, of Queens, N.Y., who went to the event and has also been pursued by Wesleyan University, Franklin and Marshall College, and Carnegie Mellon University.

Lopez, who plans to major in psychology, visited other campuses. But after she sampled classes, attended a rhythm-and-beat dance demonstration, and saw the diversity of students at Swarthmore, her mind was made up.

"I know I want to come here. It feels like home," Lopez said while getting information about Despertar, a student group that tutors children of Mexican immigrants, at an activities fair.

That's how it usually goes. Clubs and high-profile professors help, say admissions officials, but what finally sways a student is less tangible. It's the feeling that this school is where he or she belongs.

That's what drove Miriam Rich of Chicago to choose Swarthmore over Northwestern University, her parents' preference because it's close to home.

"It has an intellectually geeky vibe," Rich said, while lunching with new friends outdoors on a beautiful, sunny day. "I feel like I'd fit in."