Applicants try all kinds of tricks to get colleges to sit up and take notice

February 11, 1993|By Knight-Ridder News Service

She had completed the forms and the essay and all the little things that have to be done to apply to college.

That left just one more thing, a little something extra she hoped would elevate her application to Swarthmore College above the thousands of others.

So, one day last winter, the folks at the Swarthmore admissions office were startled to see a clown walk in, passing out helium balloons with the inscription "Please take me" and wearing the woman's name on a placard across his back.

"The clown was the final pitch," said Bob Barr, the school's director of admissions.

The stunt, of course, made everyone take notice. But in the end it worked about as well as a lead balloon. The woman was put on the waiting list and never got off.

This is the time of year for the imaginations of would-be college students to work overtime, and for the fruits of their fancy to tumble into admissions offices. Scholastic Aptitude Test scores, course work, high school transcripts and essays, some figure, go only so far.

At an Ivy League school such as the University of Pennsylvania, for instance, admissions officials receive about 12,500 applications for a freshman class of 2,250. Swarthmore takes 800 out of nearly 4,000 applicants. Even a state-related university such as Penn State accepts less than half its 25,000 applicants.

Students, therefore, rely on other tactics; a common one is the videotape.

"I just got one today," Deborah Boles, admissions director of Rutgers-Camden, said last week. "It's a one-minute segment of a television show [a student] has hosted. I'll take it home and watch it."

For a while, said Penn director of admissions Lee Stetson, tapes -- video and audio -- were the rage.

"We saw a lot of them in the late 1980s," he said. "But that's lessened over the last two or three years. Most students realize that's no longer in."

So creativity takes different forms -- like the woman who sent an old shoe to the College of William and Mary in Virginia with this message: "Now that I have one foot in the door . . ."

Or the guy at Penn who sent along a large die with the names of all the Ivy League schools on it; when the die was tossed, it always came up "Penn."

Or the man who composed and sang an original song explaining why he wanted to be accepted at Cabrini College.

L The Cabrini applicant was admitted. So was the Penn hopeful.

But the young woman who delivered the shoe never did get all the way inside the door. She just didn't have the qualifications.

"We also found out she had sent the other shoe to the University of Virginia," said Gary Ripple, director of admissions at Lafayette College in Easton, Pa., who was at William and Mary when the shoe arrived.

However, Mr. Ripple said, while at William and Mary he did accept a woman whose application included a picture of her in what he called "the skimpiest bathing suit."

Mr. Ripple swears, despite the heat he took from the women in his office, that his judgment was not clouded by the photogenic addendum. And he felt vindicated when he met the woman at graduation years later. "She was going on to graduate school for her Ph.D.," he said.

Sarah Jahries, assistant director of undergraduate admissions at Johns Hopkins University, has seen her share of oddities sent in with applications through the years, from video tapes to inventions to original music.

One student who was applying to the architecture school went to the expense of publishing a book of his drawings just for the admissions department. However, while this student was admitted, creative applications go only so far, said Ms. Jahries.

"We certainly don't forget the student's name," she said. "Sometimes it works for your advantage, sometimes to your disadvantage."

This year, a student who wants to play on the women's varsity basketball team sent in her essay taped to a basketball. However, said Ms. Jahries, her application is sitting along with everyone else's at the free throw line, waiting for that winning shot at a degree.

Most admissions personnel say that although the extras can make an applicant stand out, they rarely swing a decision.

"Something extra indicates a special interest in the college, and it will tuck [the student] away in our memory," Swarthmore's Mr. Barr said. "But it won't compensate for problems in the folder."

Nancy Gardner, director of admissions at Cabrini, agreed: "For the most part they don't do more than entertain us. Which isn't bad, especially after reading a million essays."

Often it's not only the student who tries gimmicks, but the parents -- sometimes in a heavy-handed way. Ms. Gardner, who worked in admissions at Penn for 12 years, says she was once offered a free vacation. She declined, and also rejected the student, whose record, she said, was terrible.

"One of my favorite stories at Penn State was a mother who contacted us to say we shouldn't consider her son's SAT scores because on the day of the test she told him to eat a good breakfast and all he had was cereal," said Ms. Gardner.

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