For 18-year-old McDonogh senior Tyler Meagher, the hardest part about last year’s prom wasn’t deciding who he was going to take—that would be his girlfriend, Payton Sanchez—but how he was going to ask her.

“My girlfriend hates being the center of attention,” explains Meagher, “so I decided to make her the center of attention.”

His idea: to post a series of cardboard signs, beginning at the end of her Towson driveway and ending many miles away at the McDonogh School in Owings Mills.

“The first one said, ‘How Many People Do You Think Will See This?’” recounts Meagher. Another sign was posted at the Reisterstown Road Beltway exit.

“Finally, at the entrance to McDonogh, I had a 30-foot sign that read ‘Payton, Prom?’ with me standing under it,” Meagher says triumphantly.

Sanchez was sufficiently mortified. “All the school buses drove past the signs, so everyone saw them,” she says. “It was definitely embarrassing.”

Still, Meagher’s efforts were rewarded.

“Her first reaction was, ‘I’m going to kill you,’” he laughs. “But she did say yes.”

Gone are the days when going to the prom meant streamers strung up in the gym and brownie bites baked by the PTA, where dates were arranged spontaneously while standing in line in the school cafeteria. This teen rite of passage has experienced seismic shifts in the past few decades, from wedding-worthy proposals to limos, and ripped-from-the-runway dresses.

“Prom is their red-carpet moment,” explains Marissa Grumer, senior market editor at Seventeen. “They understand that this is their moment to feel in the spotlight in a way we didn’t growing up.”

These days, the prom is a multi-billion dollar industry that has spawned a slew of magazines, prom-related websites, and blogs with important tricks, tips, and trends. (At promblogger.net, there’s even advice on how to earn the coveted prom queen crown: “Be fun and happy.”)

But the biggest trend of the past few years is the all-important “ask.”

“The newest thing is how they ask each other to prom,” explains makeup artist Lauren Rutkovitz, owner of A-Style Studio, a Pikesville boutique that also specializes in event makeup. “And kids will go to any lengths.”

Adds Grumer, “There’s this showmanship that goes on that mimics weddings, and the guys get really into it. People come up with songs and tap into the social media by putting them on YouTube.”

The ask is a throwback to old-fashioned romance and courting rituals, says Josh Coonin, a Pikesville High School graduate, now a sophomore at New York University. “At Pikesville High School it is imperative to ask in a clever way. The pressure is on to make the girl feel really special.”

There are two ways you can ask, Coonin says. “There is the public way, such as spelling out the question in tennis balls on a fence as someone I know did,” he notes. “And there’s the more private way. You have to think about which way the girl might like.”

Coonin himself choose the public approach, sending hand-delivered notes during every school period via a messenger to his would-be date. “Each note rhymed, and the last one said, ‘Will you go to prom with me?’” he says. “And then, when she came out of her last class, I was waiting outside the door to get the ‘Yes.’”

Whether public or private, the sky’s the limit—quite literally—when it comes to inventiveness. When Owings Mills High School student Matthew Rosenfeld and his girlfriend, Carly Feldman, went skiing in Vermont with Feldman’s family, Rosenfeld decided to stage his ask while on board a Southwest Airlines flight.

“Since everyone did creative things, I knew I had to think of something,” says Rosenfeld. He distracted Carly while her mother huddled with the flight attendant. And right after giving the seat-belt instructions, the flight attendant proceeded to announce: “Carly, Matthew wants to take you to prom.”

“I think I was more embarrassed than she was,” Rosenfeld says. (Ironically, Rosenfeld tore his ACL just before prom. “I couldn’t even dance because I was on crutches,” he says laughing. “The build-up to prom was definitely the best part.”)

Another common practice? Enlisting teachers as collaborators.

“One year, I had a student who knew I was doing a PowerPoint presentation in honors pre-calculus say, ‘I really need help in asking my girlfriend to prom,’” recounts McDonogh Upper School math teacher Jan Kunkel. “And I said, ‘How about we sneak in a slide amongst exponential powers?

A slide came up that said: “‘Taylor, prom? Love, Matt.’”

“Taylor was truly confused,” chuckles Kunkel. (But she said yes.)

This wasn’t the only time Kunkel was recruited to help with an ask (once her Australian shepherd pup, Tiamo, even got in on the act), and she’s all for it. “It’s never an inconvenience,” she says. “It’s always so important to them. It’s a no-brainer. I don’t have any reservations about helping—I think it’s fun.”

Yet another McDonogh student, Joshua Johns, staged his ask around a mandatory Upper School assembly, combining then-girlfriend Madelyn Rubenstein’s love of rubber duckies, photography, and electronic dance music (dubstep).

“She sat in the front row at the assembly,” recalls Johns, now a freshman at College of Charleston, “and I had made a YouTube video set to dubstep music. The video played, and a spotlight shined on her. She came up on stage and sat next to a 12-foot papier-mâché rubber ducky I had made with the help of a theater teacher.”

As if that weren’t enough, Johns sealed the deal with a move that was wedding worthy. “I got down on one knee when I asked her,” he recalls. “And that was it.”

Baltimore businesses are catering to prom’s growing popularity, as the end-all event—“a Cinderella moment,” Karen Mazer owner of Synchronicity Boutique calls it—in a high-schooler’s life. Synchronicity, where dresses are registered to ensure no two girls wear the same frock, recently transformed itself from a trendy tweens and teens boutique to a year-round special-occasion shop where celebrity prom designers such as Tony Bowls stop by to press some sequined flesh and show off their latest lines of dresses. The store was forced to expand from three to 11 dressing rooms to accommodate all of the prom traffic.

“How crazy is this?” asks Mazer, who sold more than 1,000 dresses (ranging in price from $150-800) last prom season. “This is the worst recession in anyone’s lifetime, and I’m expanding and improving.”

Indeed, some experts say that treating the prom like it’s the Oscars is just another example of excess in today’s youth culture.

“This generation of young people thrives on immediate gratification and less boundaries,” says Park Upper-School counselor Krista Druhv. “There is little happening in moderation.”

Even so, Druhv believes that proms serve a purpose in getting kids ready for the next chapter of their lives—as long as it’s all kept in perspective.

“There is something really healthy about mulling over whom to go to prom with, dressing up, having a nice dinner, and dancing all night,” she says, “But I know it’s possible to do that without going broke or worrying about the superficial short-term gain of a $3,000 gown and teeth whitening.”

And then there’s the fear that the actual event won’t live up to all the hype. But, with the exception of poor injured Rosenfeld, most of the students we interviewed said that simply wasn’t the case.

“The build-up was so great,” says Coonin, “that I didn’t know how it would go. But I was on the dance floor with my friends all night, and there was very little of what is referred to as ‘prom-a’.” (Think: rhymes with drama.)

In the words of Pikesville High School Class of 2010 graduate, Hannah Marcin, who served on the Senior Prom Committee, “It gives you something to look forward to at the end of senior year. I loved high school, and it was the grand finale. Even two years later, I still feel like prom was the greatest thing ever.