It was late April, but Molly Gibbs still wasn’t quite sure.
“I think I’ll be OK, either way, with whatever school I go with,” Gibbs said. “And I think I’ll find the school that’s right for me. But it’s just, I’d like to find the best school for me. And it’s such a stressful decision.”
Gibbs, 19, from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, was trying to decide between Syracuse University in upstate New York and George Washington University in D.C., where she was visiting that day. They are very different schools, offering two very different experiences. And Gibbs, who intends to study photojournalism, was torn.
“I have no clue,” said Gibbs, when asked which way she was leaning. “I thought I was going to go to Syracuse, and now I could toss a coin. Which I might do.”
For college-bound teenagers across the country, this might sound familiar. Students spend months - years, even - working to present the best version of themselves to colleges. And in the spring of their senior year of high school, things change. They know where they are accepted. They know the options available to them. Now, they just have to pick one by Monday, May 1, the deadline for sending a deposit to secure a seat in most selective schools.
“We’ve made our choice,” said Costas Solomou, GWU’s dean of admissions. “Now it’s their turn to make their choice.”
For some, that is harder than it sounds.
This is the closing stretch for colleges and universities, too, a time when some try to showcase what they offer. GWU holds events for admitted students like Gibbs, welcoming them and their families to campus.
The private university, with about 11,100 undergraduates, allows admitted students a chance to scope out its urban campus, meet with members of student organisations and sit through lectures. School officials say their goal isn’t really to convince kids to attend GWU. It’s to give an authentic representation, so students can make a good choice.
“I wouldn’t call it a pitch, right? Because I think, this isn’t a sales experience,” said Laurie Koehler, the university’s vice provost for enrollment management and retention. “This is students making decisions that are really important in their lives. And so what we try to do is present a lot of different aspects of life at GW to help them assess whether it feels right to them.”
The stakes are high for colleges as they wait to see whether offers of admission lead to enrollment deposits. At GWU, federal data show that 28 per cent of students offered admission in 2015 accepted a slot. That is known as the yield rate. In 2011, GWU’s yield was higher: 35 percent.
Asked why the university’s yield declined, Koehler said the university is recruiting stronger and more diverse group of students these days. She also said that college-bound students across the country are applying to many schools. When students have more offers, the yield will drop.
“They are key drivers of what appears to be a decline in the percentage of students accepting our offers,” Koehler said. “Now would I love it if we had all those things going on and our yield was going up? Absolutely. I think our focus has been on making sure we’re presenting an authentic representation of GW to prospective students and their families and the world.”
She said the yield dip was “absolutely something that I pay attention to, and I’m aware of.”
The federal data show that the yield rate has declined at other schools too: Reed College’s yield fell from 31 percent in 2011 to 22 percent in 2015, and the yield at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill fell from 52 percent to 43 percent yield in that time.
In recent years, GWU has surveyed admitted students and found that a growing share are applying to 10 or more schools.
“That’s a trend nationally also: students applying to more schools,” Koehler said. “So we’re seeing it in the real world, and what impact does that have on predicting yield, predicting behaviour? Because you don’t know if you’re no. 1 on their list or no. 10 on their list. So that’s always a challenge.”
More than 27,000 students applied to GWU to join its freshman class in the fall, the university said. As of March 31, 11,000 had been admitted. The target size for the class of 2021 was between 2,500 to 2,600 students. In April, about 2,000 students attended programs for those offered admission.
When high school juniors visit a campus, colleges are trying to introduce themselves and hope that the students will apply. But when admitted students visit, the calculations change. Colleges know that they are in the running. They want students to find the best fit - and maybe that will happen on their campus.
“And so there is a level of pressure,” Koehler said. “You pray for good weather, all the things you can’t control. So I think that does exacerbate the level of pressure we feel. But also, it’s really fun.”
At these events, admissions officers get to meet students whose names and stories they recognise from files they had pored over. When students say they are ready to make a deposit, “that’s really exciting,” Koehler said.
During these events, GWU tries to encourage the admitted students to meet with current students and with faculty. Parents peel off so that their children can feel comfortable asking questions without mum or dad hovering. That helps the parents, too. They can raise any concerns without embarrassing their kids.
“We want them engaged in ways they can see themselves doing research, being in the classroom, engaging their peers,” Solomou said. “We want them to have that experience.”
One April morning, that experience included a lecture on Senate filibusters from Sarah Binder, a political science professor.
Binder played a clip from “Mr Smith Goes to Washington,” and footage of the late Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn. She asked questions, and the teens, who were paying attention to the presentation, answered.
“I have a pretty good idea that I do want to go to this school,” said Robert Carter, an 18-year-old in the audience who was wearing a tie. “So I’m just looking to have that confirmed and be confident that yes, this is where I want to go.”
Carter, from Manchester-by-the-Sea, Massachusetts, said he had also been accepted at the University of Florida. He plans to major in criminal justice - not politics, an obvious selling point for GWU - but said he “loved” the lecture. He thought the school had “great programmes” and could help him find employment after he graduated.
Reached by phone a few days later, Carter said that he had submitted a deposit and was “definitely” going to GWU.
In fact, he said he had submitted the deposit before going to the event. The day on campus clinched it for him. “I was just trying to make sure, you know? I had a good idea I was going there, so I put in the deposit. I just wanted to make sure.”