It Wasn't Like This When We Applied to College

Remember when you applied to college 25 or 35 years ago? You picked a couple of schools you liked, added a safety, and confidently waited for a thick envelope.

Now that your own kids are in high school... it ain't like that anymore. How many of us have said "I'd have no chance of getting into my alma mater if I were applying today"?

Why is that? More high-schoolers applying to college (from an expanded pool of backgrounds and countries), and students applying to 10 schools instead of three, means more competition for the same coveted spots. The percentage of students applying to seven or more colleges has tripled since 1990 to around 30% of applicants. Those targeting selective schools often apply to a dozen or more.

In little over a decade between 2003 and 2015, the number of applications to Yale jumped 70% while the size of the freshman class remained unchanged.The dean of admissions at Yale admitted that they could replace the entire 1,360-student freshman class with the next tier of 1,360 rejected applicants and none of their admissions metrics (test scores, GPA, etc.) would suffer at all. So many qualified candidates being turned away at selective schools creates more uncertainty for applicants, which causes students to apply to more schools. And so on and so on...

Look at the chart below. In 1980 Brown University received 11,900 applications and accepted 21%. For the next two decades, applications gradually increased to 15,000. Then in the eight years from 2003-2010, applications doubled to 30,000 and the acceptance rate plummeted to 9%!

And it's not just the Ivies. In 1986, Northeastern University in Boston received 12,500 applications and accepted most. Two decades later, the number had climbed to 25,000 with an acceptance rate still over 60%. Then in the 10 years from 2004-2014, applications doubled again to 50,000 with the acceptance rate tightening to 32%.

A variety of factors contribute to this explosion:

  • Demographics: more kids of baby-boomer parents reaching college age and more minority and first-generation students applying to college

  • International students: according to government reports, there are now 1 million foreign students studying in the US, an increase of 70% in just the past 10 years

  • Common App: making it easy for students to apply to multiple schools with the click of a button

  • Competition: more applicants per seat creates more uncertainty, which leads to applying to more schools

  • Marketing: colleges are more proactive about reaching out to potential applicants through multiple channels (hello social media) and promoting their offerings

It has become a numbers game at selective schools. I offered some perspective on the admissions challenge in a previous blog called The Jigsaw Puzzle of Selective College Admissions.

When you tell your kids that "It wasn't like this when we applied to college", you're right.

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