The night before her interview with a Rider University admissions counselor, Katelyn Zemlak, a Washington Township High School senior, cheerleader captain, and aspiring teacher, was so nervous that she almost forgot she didn't have an outfit to wear.
"I literally was in bed," said Zemlak, 17, who rushed over to her best friend's house to borrow a dress.
The next morning, she still had the jitters when she met Rider's Ed Stone at her school for a chance to find out on the spot if she would be accepted. But the affable admissions counselor complimented her 200-point SAT score jump from last spring to the fall. He asked her why she thought she and Rider would be a good fit, and told her about the school's education program.
About 15 minutes in, Stone smiled and said: "Katelyn, I would like to say congratulations. You've been admitted to Rider University."
Not only that, but he offered at least $16,000 in annual merit aid.
"I feel ecstatic," Zemlak said. "I feel a weight lifting off my shoulders."
That relief is the essence of instant decision, a college admission option that has been around for years but appears to be growing in popularity with students and certain colleges, particularly those with rolling admissions and smaller liberal arts schools that, while respected, may not have the draw of the Ivy League or elite private schools and may be seeing a decline in enrollment.
Some high schools are showing more interest, too.
Last year, Stone said, he did instant decision days at eight area high schools. "This year, I'm doing 11, and that's requests from the high schools," he said.
"More and more schools are asking," concurred Joe McGeever, Widener University assistant director of admissions, whose New Jersey visits will include Cherry Hill East and West and Haddonfield Memorial.
And last week, students from Puerto Rico, Connecticut, and Massachusetts visited the Chester school to get instant decisions.
Generally, students must meet all of a college's application requirements: SAT or ACT scores, grades, essays, recommendations. They meet with an admissions representative either at their high school or the college and find out then and there whether they're in. Many offer on-the-spot scholarships.
Unlike early decision, which gives applicants an edge but requires them to attend if accepted, instant admissions are not binding. Students can apply to other schools and opt to go there instead.
While their peers may have to wait months for answers, instant-decision students can have the assurance of at least one acceptance, sometimes before Thanksgiving.
That's the case with Madeleine Parkes, 17, a high-achieving senior at Nazareth Academy High School in Philadelphia, who was accepted via instant decision a few weeks ago by La Salle University and was told she probably will qualify for a $19,000 to $21,000 annual scholarship.
Parkes, a pianist who wants to study music cognition, said she plans to apply to other schools, including Boston University, but already having her first acceptance "is such a relief."
Nazareth principal Sister Mary Joan Jacobs said the instant decision process gives students a chance to practice their interview technique and gain confidence.
"I say be calm, relax, be yourself. Your record will speak for itself," she said.
"It's a great ego boost," said Hallie Ciarlone, college counseling director at Delaware Valley Friends, a college prep school for students with language-based learning differences.
For the most part, the high schools try to limit their instant-decision applicants to students who meet or come close to the colleges' requirements. But hearing the words of acceptance still brings a glow.
This month, Mark Seewald, 17, a senior, was one of five students at the Paoli school who were accepted via instant decision by Cabrini College, a small Catholic college in Rosemont.
"I was surprised," said Seewald, a West Chester resident who plans to study psychology.
For colleges, instant decision can be an effective marketing and recruitment tool.
The personal contact can impress a candidate and create a tie that might not occur otherwise. It also can help state schools attract higher-paying out-of-state students. And it allows colleges to develop relationships with high schools.
"We're trying to expand our regional reach," said Lauren Campbell, executive director of admission for Holy Family University, a Philadelphia Catholic college. Primarily a commuter school in the past, Holy Family recently went as far north as Rahway, N.J., to offer instant decisions.
On-the-spot acceptances can benefit students even more, say guidance counselors.
Often the colleges waive application fees, for one thing. Students who might not make the cut on paper may impress in person, or students who would not have applied otherwise might give it a try. Finally, an admission counselor's telling students to bring up grades by the next marking period may accomplish more than all the parental nagging in the world.
It's no wonder that Norristown Area High School has an instant decision day coming soon. And Haddonfield Memorial and Haddon Township High Schools have 18 schools lined up, including Arcadia, Fairleigh Dickinson, La Salle, Temple, and West Chester Universities.
Between October and December, Washington Township High will have had nearly 20 schools visit. And student interest is higher than ever.
"We're in our third year, and our numbers are up well over 200," said Jonathan Strout, township's guidance director.
Alexandria Andrioli, 17, a National Honor Society member who designs costumes for the school plays and wants to teach history, had one excellent week.
On Wednesday, the Sewell teenager got into Rider, one of her top three schools, with a $18,000 scholarship.
"I'm still shaking, I'm so excited," she said, shortly after getting the offer.
The next day, she scored onsite acceptance to Fairleigh Dickinson, another of her top picks, also with a scholarship.
Rachel Murphy, 17, knows the feeling. An aspiring lawyer who plays lacrosse, does mock trial, and is active in Interact, a service club, she was offered a spot at Rider with an $18,000 scholarship. Earlier this month, Widener accepted her and offered $23,000.
She's still waiting to hear from schools that don't do instant decision, she said, but she's very happy with her two acceptances.
"Hard work does pay off," the Sewell teen said. "You don't realize it, but it really does."