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Paloma Santana is deciding between Penn, Cornell and McGill universities. She said her decision will be based on where she is “most comfortable.”

When Paloma Santana arrived home from school last Friday, she was surprised to find a handwritten postcard from a Penn undergraduate waiting for her in the mail.

Santana, who was admitted regular decision to the Class of 2015, is one of a few hundred students who recently received a letter from the Quaker Opportunity and Access Team — a student group created last semester to reach out to minority, low-income and first-generation applicants.

Santana, a senior at the South Carolina Governor’s School for Science and Mathematics, said she was excited to hear from a current Penn student.

“I don’t really have connections to anybody at Penn, so the fact that somebody reached out to me was nice,” said Santana, who is currently deciding among Penn’s College of Arts and Sciences and Cornell and McGill universities. “It seems like a nice way to make a big university feel a bit smaller and more personal.”

Santana’s postcard was written earlier this month at Quaker OATs’ first-ever “signing party” for students accepted through regular decision. During the signing party, more than 80 undergraduates wrote their congratulations to prospective members of next year’s freshman class.

This year, the University has tried to get Penn students involved in the admissions process “in more ways than ever before,” Dean of Admissions Eric Furda said.

“The most credible voice of impact in the decision-making process comes from your peers,” he said. “The perspective that undergraduates can provide is invaluable.”

Furda, however, admitted that the ultimate goal behind any one-on-one admissions outreach is to increase final matriculation numbers.

April “is our time to make an impact on a student’s final decision,” he said, adding that the Admissions Office will evaluate this year’s yield efforts after the Class of 2015 has been finalized.

While Santana — who received a postcard because she self-identified as Latina on her application — appreciated the recent gesture from Penn, she said no amount of outreach will make or break her college choice.

“I’m not making my decision based on how much a school is trying to reel me in … but [rather] on where I’m most comfortable,” she said.

For Santana, the college process began at the start of her junior year of high school, when she decided to leave her home of Greenville, S.C. to attend a more rigorous boarding school.

Originally born in Peru, Santana spent part of her childhood living on the campus of Texas A&M; University while her parents worked to obtain graduate degrees.

Since that time, Santana said she has looked forward to her own college experience. By May 1, she will have to decide where to spend the next four years.

“It’s really up in the air right now,” she said, adding that Penn and Cornell are on “an equal playing field” with McGill as a close third.

Though Santana said her college selection will not be influenced by factors beyond academics and campus atmosphere, others feel that outreach efforts like those of Quaker OATs can help set Penn apart from another in a tight race.

Whether students are aware of it or not, “the little things in college admissions can make a big difference,” said Maria Morales-Kent, director of college counseling at The Thacher School in Ojai, Calif.

“Something like the handwritten postcard can leave a great impression, even if it’s subtle,” Morales-Kent, who worked as an admissions officer at Penn in the 1980s, said.

Jeffrey Durso-Finley, director of college counseling at The Lawrenceville School in Lawrenceville, N.J., agreed, adding that personal outreach tends to resonate particularly with underrepresented students.

For Santana, however, the focus now is to pick the school that will be the best fit for her.

“I’m expecting the decision to come down to the final few days, but I’m looking forward to it,” she said. “I know that I’ll end up where I’m supposed to be.”

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