Kyle Allwine, a staffer at the University of Mary Washington, gives advice and information at his booth at the Fairfax County Schools college fair at Fair Oaks Mal. (Evy Mages/For The Washington Post)

Before launching into a sales pitch for the University of Mary Washington, newbie recruiter Kyle Allwine asked three Oakton High School seniors what they might want to study in college. Business, said one. Another said psychology. The third admitted: “I have no idea.”

“Yes! That’s the best answer,” Allwine said with a laugh on a Monday morning in mid-October, slapping a table as the girls giggled. “When I went to Mary Washington, I wanted to be an archeologist. See how well that turned out?”

Allwine knew he wouldn’t be the next Indiana Jones when he graduated in May. But he wasn’t sure what else to do. He stuck around the campus in Fredericksburg, got a job in the admissions department and spent his fall visiting high schools, manning college fair booths and wooing students into filling out information cards, a first step toward getting them to apply. His goal: Get as many well-qualified students as possible to apply.

This winter, Allwine and UMW’s other young admission staffers will read hundreds of applications and essays before helping to decide who gets an acceptance letter. Next spring, he will coax the accepted students into formally enrolling. Then, the cycle will start all over again.

Behind the often-mysterious college admissions process are 20-somethings like Allwine: Recent graduates who staff most college admissions offices while they take advanced courses at a discount and try to figure out what they want to do with their lives. After a couple of admissions cycles, some will move on to something else, while others will get sucked into the higher education industry for the rest of their careers.

“A co-worker of mine once described admissions as a two-or-20 job, meaning you’re either in it for two years or 20 years,” said Matthew Kaberline, who used to work in UMW admissions and recently became the associate director of college counseling at the Severn School in Maryland. “There didn’t seem to be an in between.”

The centerpiece of the job is “travel season,” which runs from September to early November. Recruiters hit the suburbs with color-coded calendars and global positioning systems loaded with high school addresses. They rack up loyalty program points at mid-tier hotels, log thousands of miles on rental cars and learn how to hide booze on their expense reports.

Between appointments, they wander through shopping malls, search for a Panera with WiFi or dream about how they will someday blow all of these loyalty points on a major vacation. Many of these road warriors become friends. Some drunkenly hook up. A few fall in love.

But the lifestyle can be exhausting. The pay can be painfully low. And it can be frustrating for some recruiters, who are figuring out their lives, to deal with high school students who are doing the same thing.

That tension is captured in the widely popular Tumblr “Admissions Problems.” A recent post listed off seven reasons why recruiters have more cause to be stressed than high schoolers, including, “Are you entirely responsible for feeding yourself three meals per day?” and “Do you sacrifice all your personal relationships for months on end to stand at events answering questions like ‘How do I major in sports commentating for ESPN?’ ”

The question that Allwine has heard too many times: What is the average SAT score, and do SAT scores matter?

“I like to think of it as a pie,” Allwine explained at Oakton High. “What’s your favorite pie?”

One of the students skeptically responded: “Um, apple, I think.”

“Okay, so you go into Shoppers and you see an apple pie, and it has a slice missing. Do you buy it?” Allwine asked. There was silence. “I’ll answer that one. No. You don’t buy it.”

The analogy sort of flopped, but the girls seemed to get the message that the liberal arts school takes a holistic approach to evaluating students, looking not only at standardized test scores but also grades, course selection, extracurricular activities and the strength of their essays.

“All that I want,” Allwine continued, “is a nice, full, round apple pie from Oakton High School.”

College admissions has dramatically changed in the past decade, as the process becomes more digital and gut-feeling decisions are replaced with data-driven ones. With each passing year, most schools receive record numbers of applications that they process with the same size staff.

It’s a major numbers game: Schools typically want to solicit enough applications to allow them to turn down or wait-list a substantial number, lowering their acceptance rate. They then hope to accept a strong pool of diverse students who are likely to enroll, graduate and become proud, donating alumni. The goal is to have a freshman class that’s racially, socially, economically and geographically diverse while still bringing in as many tuition dollars as possible.

Recruiters such as Allwine provide a personal touch to that system — which is especially important for a small liberal arts school that sells itself as providing a more personal college experience.

A few days after visiting Oakton, Allwine was at an evening college fair at Archbishop Spalding High School in Severn. He arrived early to claim his side of a folding table, setting out piles of brochures, information cards and pens in the school colors.

Many of these fairs have strict rules for recruiters: Stand behind the tables, not in front of them. No beckoning students over like a carnival barker. And no handing out trinkets like posters, koozies or keychains, although it’s okay if a student takes a pen by mistake.

In Virginia, Allwine hardly ever has to tell people that UMW is in Fredericksburg and that it has been co-ed for decades. In Maryland, more education is needed, especially when it comes to the mission of a public, liberal arts university.

“Do you have nursing?” one mom asked. Allwine shook his head: “No. Sorry.”

“And you have engineering?” a dad asked. Allwine shook his head as the dad dropped a brochure and walked away.

“Do you have special education?” asked a high school junior who plays baseball and football. Allwine told him no. The student then asked if UMW is Division I. Allwine shook his head. “We’re DIII, but we’ve had some players go pro.”

Forensics? No. Nutrition? No.

One hour into the fair, Allwine had collected just three information cards. By the end of the night, he would have just eight. The recruiter next to him, from the University of Delaware, had a stack so thick he didn’t have time to count. The guy actually had sweat pouring down his face as he unwrapped another massive stack of brochures to satisfy the swarm of students and parents around his table.

Every now and then, Allwine found someone excited to hear about the liberal arts experience. One student nodded her head as Allwine swooned about the small classes, the intense discussions, the professors who get to know you.

“When you get out, you feel like you can conquer the world,” Allwine said. “Trust me. I still have the feeling.”