As the sun went down behind the tall brick dormitories at the University of Maryland last week, Katie Spoleti and Catherine Saenz stood on a walkway clutching sleeping bags to their stomachs, asking their freshmen hosts questions and feeling nervous.
"This visit will probably decide where I go," Saenz said, dropping her pillow. "It's a big, big deal."
Flower Saenz and daughter Catherine Saenz of Easton, Pa., look over aid papers during a visit to the University of Maryland at College Park. "It's a big, big deal," Catherine Saenz said of her visit, which included a stay in a dorm.
(Mark Gail -- The Washington Post)
Freshman Amanda Fish told them she chose U-Md. after an overnight stay. "It was raining. It was horrible. It was gross out. I thought the campus was ugly. And I was like, 'Dad, I love it.'
"It just -- felt right. Everyone said when you find the right college, you just know."
Ah, spring. Every year after admissions letters get torn open, many students have a choice that could change the rest of their lives; most have to decide by May 1 where they will go to college. And after years of researching, analyzing, testing and worrying, it can all come down to this: One night in a dorm, or an afternoon on campus, and whether they get that feeling.
At first, families are making rational calculations about which schools would provide the best education, where the student can reasonably hope to get in and how much they can afford, said George Dehne, president of GDA Integrated Services, a higher education market research and strategy company. But once admitted, he said, "it becomes very emotional."
A rainy day, a cute tour guide or a few too many Birkenstocks can decide students' futures.
So for a few short weeks in the spring, the balance of power shifts. Although the top colleges have waiting lists, "a lot of schools are still scrambling to get their [enrollment] numbers," Dehne said. Losing students means losing tuition money. "It can make a huge difference to struggling schools."
It's the goal of just about any admissions office to get students to visit, said Kevin Kruger, associate executive director of NASPA Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education. Rarely do more than 2 percent of admitted students who don't visit end up attending, Dehne said. Forty percent of those who do will enroll. "The visit is everything," Dehne said.
Not that it doesn't have risks. At one university, a high school student showed up blond and left -- after drinking too much and falling prey to mischievous undergrads -- with blue hair. U-Md. sets strict rules for overnight stays; students who apply to be hosts promise to stay on campus and avoid alcohol.
Most come just for the day. Last week more than 3,000 people came to the College Park campus for the final 2005 Spring Open House, to talk with professors, learn about clubs, tour the university, maybe slap hands with the furry turtle mascot strolling around.
Spoleti and Saenz came the night before with about 150 other students. Almost the first question after they met Fish and her friend Mary Catherine Curran: Do you watch "The OC"? They all do, every week. A relief.
Then more basics: Curran is a huge Terrapins fan, an obsession she traces back to the womb, when her mother was pregnant and bumped into legendary U-Md. basketball player Len Bias with her belly. Fish, a swimmer and lifeguard, told them about the sorority she just joined.
Spoleti, tan from a spring break cruise, wearing jeans and a crisp white sweater, is a senior at a small, private all-girls school near Baltimore. She wants to be sure she can play field hockey, volunteer and try all sorts of different classes; she was choosing among Boston University, Syracuse University and Maryland.