WITH the cost of college rising, and the number of applicants dropping, many colleges are devoting more attention to the way they woo new students. Most students today have plenty of schools to choose from. And colleges know that how they ``come across'' in their catalogs and admissions packets will make a difference to the college-bound 17-year-old deciding where to spend the next four years. Some schools, such as Hollins College in Roanoke, Va., have begun to make available stylish videotapes of their campus and faculty. The ``Knox Box,'' from Knox College in Galesburg, Ill., is literally a small, attention-grabbing box containing an audio cassette with testimonials by current students, as well as brochures and other literature.
Very high-profile, ivy-league schools -- like the stereotypically shabby-but-brilliant professors who teach there -- don't, of course, fuss overly much about ``selling points'' or creative admissions packaging. Nor do the rising stars, such as Brown University, which according to the June 9 New Republic, is actively cultivating an image as a hot party school.
But for the most part, colleges in 1986 are working hard to be seen as traditional, conservative institutions offering saleable skills and a pleasant environment. Gone are the Day-Glo admissions catalogs of a few years ago, that sported funky pictorial collages and carefree notions of academics.
The trend instead, says Fred Volkman, vice chancellor at Washington University in St. Louis, is toward ``the Main Look'' -- presenting a college through megalithic images of central or ``main'' campus structures: the neoclassic chapel; the stern, gothic administration building; the venerable, ivy-laden clock tower.
A second trend Mr. Volkman calls ``The Joyce Kilmer Look,'' after the poet who celebrated trees. ``We're seeing a lot of catalogs with stunning photos of students under oaks and maples, and of rural, tree-filled campuses,'' he says.
Such defining images offer stability and a sense of solid academics, according to Volkman, who has been studying the college marketing scene since 1968. They also appeal to parents, he says, noting that parents now are becoming more involved in the college selection process -- largely because of cost. A family spending $40,000 on an education wants to feel the money is going to a reputable organization, he says.
Each academic year, Volkman borrows the services of a Washington University freshman to help take a special look at college marketing. The freshman writes 150 colleges and universities as though he or she were a high-school senior desiring information about the school. The student then follows up throughout the year, making ``gut-level'' comments along the way about the incoming admissions material -- what appeals, what is silly.
The survey has become so popular in college admissions circles that since 1981 it has been a standard fixture at the annual meeting of Volkman's professional society, which carries the hefty title of ``American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers.''
What Volkman finds year after year -- and this year's study was no exception -- is that despite a competitive market, many schools don't appear to be testing their image on younger people.
He points to a photo in a catalog from a school in the Northwest, in which a coed is draped vampishly over a piano, looking longingly into the eyes of a young, piano-playing male undergraduate.
``Technically, it's a good photo -- but it will turn a heck of a lot of people off,'' says Volkman. It's an example of a catalog of which young people may say, `` `The writing is great, but the colors and pictures are really weird.' ''
One college introductory letter bordered on the insincere, addressing itself to a generic ``Dear Student,'' and then breaking into a warm and familiar, ``I'd like to meet you . . . !'' Another school in Pennsylvania claimed ominously that ``Our college will change you.'' It shortly went on to say, ``You will never be quite the same again.''
The freshman survey also shows that colleges need to be ``photo-sensitive.'' One catalog displayed a full-page twilight silhouette of a young woman walking down an enclosed plaza with a baseball bat. She's probably going to a softball game, Volkman says, but it almost looks as though the school has a problem with security.
Volkman suggests that while humor always adds to the overall effect of an admissions packet, it has to be done carefully. Gimmicks should be kept to a minimum. ``You've got to be clever, but not flip,'' in his opinion.
The freshman who conducted this year's study, for example, received a letter from Transylvania University in Kentucky addressed, ``Dear Prospective Transylvanian.'' That might be tongue-in-cheek, Volkman says, but it also might not be understood by 18-year-olds.
Each year, Volkman's intern inevitably notes that not more than 20 percent of the students pictured in college catalogs are women. Furthermore, men are usually portrayed as doers, while women are more passive. In recent years, there has been an increase in the number of ``cheesecake'' photos of coeds, which grates on the sensibilities of some women, says Volkman. Also, too many photos of glamorous undergraduates makes some high schoolers feel: ``Gee, I have to be a homecoming queen to go to this school.''
Some colleges have gone to the marketing world for advice. But the demands of an academic institution are so subtle, the language and tactics ``so different'' from commercial business, says Volkman, that ``very few outside firms have worked well for a college in the long run.'' They are often clumsy and misrepresent the mission of the school, ``and the faculty doesn't like that.''
The most successful admissions material contains simple, elegant photographs, or interesting graphics, and writing that is ``intelligent without being difficult.'' Both the character, and a thoughtful philosophy of the school, are imparted in such a way as to ``involve'' the prospective student. There's a good blend of the extra-curricular and the academic.
Two colleges that perenially do well in the Volkman ``test'' are Hollins College, and Agnes Scott College in Atlanta. Both are women's schools, and so have more experience in the relatively new game of college competition. Their approach is both sober and creative. ``They aren't straining to be so different or unique,'' says Volkman. ``They understand their environment and their audience, and know how far to push themselves.''