FRANKLIN, MASS. >> The visitors walking up her family's driveway mystified Maya Wolf. Four wore blue jackets. One was in a lion mascot costume. Then, as it clicked, she reached to her mouth in surprise.
"Congratulations on your acceptance," said one of the men, who introduced himself as Grant Gosselin, the admissions dean for Wheaton College. He handed Wolf an oversize white envelope. "We've heard great things about you."
Instead of mailing an acceptance letter, Wheaton College had sent its president, admissions chief, the school mascot and others to surprise the 17-year-old Wolf on Tuesday. At the same time, nine other teams of employees from the Massachusetts school were scattered across New England delivering letters to a total of 75 students. After wiping away tears and catching her breath, Wolf thanked her visitors and beamed for a group photo.
Wheaton's blitz was remarkable in scope, but it joins a wave of colleges that have started to deliver small batches of acceptance letters in the style of a surprise television sweepstakes.
For the first time last year, the University of Maryland sent a bus of employees to surprise six students. A month later, the University at Albany in New York brought members of the marching band to one student's home, while the president of Rowan University in New Jersey visited five students. The California Institute of Technology made its first personal delivery this year.
In most cases, the unexpected visits ended up in flashy online videos produced by the schools.
"The message we're trying to send is that Wheaton is a place that's intensely personal," Gosselin said. "We certainly won't shy away from any exposure it brings, but the No. 1 goal is to help those students."
Experts say the idea is spreading as schools face tougher competition for students. By adding a personal touch, colleges hope to boost the share of students who pick them, known as the yield.
Some schools choose a random sample of students to visit, or limit it by geographic area. Others try to curry favor with top students who are also likely to get attention from competing institutions.
"If a hand-delivered acceptance letter gets a college a leg up on the chance of being able to enroll that student and capture the yield, they're going to do it," said Phillip Trout, president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling.
The vast majority of letters are still dispatched by mail or email, but in the era of social media, even visits to one or two students can be shared with many more. Online videos capturing scenes of shocked and overjoyed students have attracted thousands of views.
"They're the most popular thing that we do in our social media effort," said Kirk Brennan, director of admission at the University of Southern California, which has made personal deliveries since 2012. "We've now made it a regular part of our social media strategy."
Amid the scramble to attract more students, other aspects of the admission process are changing, too. Even the standardized letter, once a simple finale to an anxious wait, has gotten a glitzy update at many colleges.
Iowa State University sends customized videos to accepted students, starring a news anchor who congratulates them in a mock TV broadcast. Others send boxes of merchandise, or mail out letters weeks earlier than in the past, hoping to reach the best students first.
Alongside the hard currency of scholarship money, some experts say, personal attention has become a soft currency that colleges wield to show they have big character, if not big coffers.
"Some schools are trying to lure students with extra money, which resonates, but I think sometimes students and families pick a school for the wrong reason," said Tim Lee, director of admissions for the University at Albany.
But not all schools are interested in making the admission process a grand production. Tulane University in Louisiana prides itself on a no-frills acceptance message.
"We're not all about the crazy bells and whistles," said Jeff Schiffman, interim director of admission at Tulane. "It becomes an arms race over which school can do the most over-the-top stuff."
"At the end of the day, just getting admitted to the institution is special," he said.
Schiffman also questions whether a hand-delivered letter can sway an applicant's decision, but some students insist it matters.
Before he got a surprise acceptance from USC last year, Nicolaus Jakowec was seriously considering several schools. But after getting the personal delivery at his Los Angeles high school, he quickly decided to enroll at USC.
"It definitely blew all the other schools out of the water," said Jakowec, 18, a freshman. "I almost felt compelled to go there once I got invited personally."
For Wolf, who applied to five other schools besides Wheaton, the surprise was a lighthearted moment to end a stressful wait. But she isn't ready to commit quite yet.
"I'm definitely very excited, but they're the first school I've gotten a letter back from," she said. "I still have a lot of decisions to make."