Now It's Colleges' Turn to Say 'Pick Me!'

By Valerie Strauss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 21, 2008

The University of Maryland at College Park is making sure that nearly every single student admitted this fall -- more than 10,000 of them -- gets a personal telephone call from a current student extolling the virtues of becoming a Terrapin.

The student government president at Marymount University in Arlington County is sending a T-shirt to every admitted student.

At Binghamton University in New York, current international students are writing letters to every admitted international student -- in their native language -- to make sure they know where to get food that suits their diets or how to solve other problems they may encounter.

Tens of thousands of students in the greater Washington region admitted to colleges and universities this fall are being bombarded with invitations to big parties and small get-togethers to meet officials and alumni, all wanting to talk about the greatness of their schools. It is all part of frenetic April, when college-bound students must choose which school to attend and when school officials do everything they can think of to entice them to choose -- quickly.

"It boils down to this: We're more aggressively recruiting our admitted students," said Robert McCullough, dean of admissions at Ursinus College in Collegeville, Pa., which has an active alumni group in this region. "In the old days, you recruited students to apply, you got their applications, accepted who you wanted by April 1 and got your class by May 1.

"But a number of trends have made such a model obsolete: namely, increased competition for top scholars and the proliferation of applications submitted -- both in terms of total volume and the number of applications submitted per student."

So prospective students are getting e-mail blasts from current students and alumni, and their parents are being invited onto Web sites for chats about college life. Schools are welcoming families to carefully scheduled events -- Freshman Day, Get Acquainted Day and more -- to show off their high points (never the low ones). Marching bands and school mascots greet visitors even as they register. Some, such as Kenyon College in Ohio, are paying for students to travel to campus to check them out.

For students, there is one big question: Where to go? For colleges, the answer is: Pick me, and do it now.

Jessica Thomas, 18, who attends Winston Churchill High School in Montgomery County, has spent the past few weeks attending parties given by alumni from Tulane University -- "I went to see if there would be New Orleans food" she quipped -- and Emory University.

At a gathering for students admitted to Emory, held at a ritzy building in Northwest Washington, school officials talked up the university, letting students know that famous faculty not only do research but also teach undergraduates (unlike at some big-name schools). Students were told that the Dalai Lama and author Salman Rushdie are faculty members who come to campus periodically.

"It wasn't a total waste of time like others I've been to," Thomas said as alumni hovered nearby, ready to answer her every question about the school.

"I just want her to know what a great college experience I had," said Emory graduate Rob Kimmer, a trademark copyright lawyer who studied journalism at the university.

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