Maybe today's parents had to slog 10 miles in the snow to get to school, but getting into an elite college? Next to their children's chances, that was a motorized snowmobile ride in the park — downhill both ways. In 1976, the University of Pennsylvania received about 6,200 applications and accepted nearly 60 percent. Today's high schoolers face a difficult uphill race: Penn received 20,490 applications for the class of 2010. It accepted a heartbreakingly low 17 percent of them.
Today's students can "make no presumptions," says Lee Stetson, the school's dean of admissions. At schools like Penn, even students with perfect grades or test scores are no longer assured admission. "The harsh reality is that 80 percent of the students are applying to 20 percent of the colleges, and that's making it much more selective than it maybe even needs to be," he says.
With record numbers of young people graduating from high school and record numbers of those graduates sending out record numbers of college applications, admission to America's top universities has never been more competitive. Yet experts insist there is no need for teens to fear they'll be denied higher education. Though they receive less attention than the Ivies and near Ivies, 84 percent of the nation's 2,500 four-year colleges accept 1 out of 2 candidates, reports the National Association for College Admission Counseling. Thanks to growth in public universities and community colleges (the latter of which accept nearly all comers), the overall number of seats in college classrooms has just about kept pace with demand. So anyone who wants a college education and can scare up the money can get one.
Even students aiming for a spot at a highly selective school needn't give up hope. Getting in is harder today than it was a generation ago, but it's not impossible. What's more, students who understand what's behind the heightened competition have a better shot at outsmarting it.
The single most obvious reason for the low acceptance rates at the top schools is pure demographics. Sixty years ago, a tidal wave of GIs returned home from World War II with apparently one thing on their minds. Twenty, 30, even 40 years later, their children, the baby boomers, produced their own boom of newborns. This year, about 3.1 million members of that "echo boom" graduated from high school, almost matching the record set in 1977. But this second wave is only beginning to crest. Each year until 2009, the number of high school graduates will keep growing by about 60,000 — the equivalent of 25 Penn freshman classes.
Impressive, but the sheer growth in numbers is just one factor behind today's application frenzy. Another key reason rejection rates are higher today is that the last time this country gave birth to so many teenagers, fewer of them wanted to go to college. During the 1970s, only about 50 percent of recent high school graduates enrolled in college. This time around, about two thirds are pursuing degrees. And no wonder. "A college degree seems to be the minimum you're going to need to make your way up in society," says Charles Deacon, Georgetown's undergraduate admissions dean.
Each of these college wannabes is filing many more applications than his or her parents once did. The number of students applying to three or more colleges has grown by 10 percentage points to 70 percent in the past six years, the Higher Education Research Institute reports.
The change is partly due to new technology that makes it possible, theoretically, to apply to as many as 299 colleges with the push of one button. The Common Application, online at commonapp.org, means that instead of laboriously typing different essays for each school, students today can hit many of their dream schools in one shot. Think that's absurd? Meet 18-year-old Clair "Baskin Robbins" Briggs of Silver Spring, Md. She got her nickname last fall — "I applied to 31 colleges," she explains, "and they have 31 flavors." Because the Common Application requires only two short essays, she had to write a total of just five essays to apply to 31 schools. (The extras went to a few schools that insist on a unique application.)
It will only get easier to apply to more colleges. The 1975 experiment by 15 private schools to accept the same application form and essays now enables quick electronic transfer of transcripts and teacher recommendations. The expansion seems to serve the interests of students and colleges alike. Students like the way the Common App makes it easy for them to apply to schools they might not have previously thought of or bothered with. Admissions officials like getting more applications, which allows them to select a more diverse and high-powered student body.
Students are also applying to more schools because they know more. Some of their information comes from independent sources like this guide, but more and more is coming from colleges themselves, which have spent the past 30 years perfecting their recruitment techniques. In the 1920s, Harvard's meritocracy-obsessed president, Charles Eliot, realized he couldn't enroll the best students in the country if he stuck with the usual crop of Andover and Exeter prep-school grads, so he started the first national recruitment drive. The idea really caught on in the 1970s and '80s when a national mood of egalitarianism inspired colleges to search for applicants outside of their traditional narrow racial and socioeconomic lines.
There were more pragmatic, some might say cynical, motives as well. Before the baby boom echo, there was a baby bust. Between 1979 and 1993, the number of 18-year-olds declined by 28 percent nationally and by 40 percent in the college hotbeds of New England and the mid-Atlantic, says Thomas Parker, Amherst College's dean of admissions. "People started to say, 'Wow, we can't just sit here in Cambridge or Williamstown or Amherst and expect people to come knocking on our doors,'" Parker says. Wanting fresh faces and needing to fill classroom seats as well as university coffers, colleges sent alumni on cross-country tours, spent millions on brochure mailings, and funded scholarships, classes, majors, and facilities like state-of-the-art gyms to lure more students.
Though the demographics turned in their favor a decade ago, schools caught up in the race for the smartest, most talented undergraduates have continued to accelerate recruitment. After all, stronger student bodies make a school look more prestigious, inspiring alumni to donate more. Even public schools have entered the competition, offering incentives like merit aid and specialized honors programs based on liberal arts models to try to keep smart locals in their home state and lure talented students away from private schools. "The state universities look pretty good," says Georgetown's Deacon. "They are in their own way competing, reversing the brain drain. There is competition for top students beyond simply the top 25 universities."
This may be the sweetest lesson of all: They want you just as badly as you want them.
One way to win you over is to play hard to get. According to Deacon, schools that make applying the easiest tend to be the ones with the steepest declines in admission rates. Meanwhile, those that do not send 10,000 glossy fliers and do not accept the one-click Common Application (Georgetown does not) have seen admission rates stagnate. "It's a marketing technique," says Deacon. "The tougher you are to get into, the more it might seem you're a better school." Knowing this can be the smart applicant's boon: The colleges that show the most interest may not be the ones that are the most interested.
Another marketing factor is a school's "yield," or the proportion of students admitted in the spring who end up attending in the fall. Like people, schools want to be wanted. So they show the most love to the students they think will love them back. When she first started applying, Clair Briggs had barely heard of many of her 31 choices. But she did know about some, like Claremont McKenna College in California, an early favorite. It must have shown. In the end, her interest in Claremont turned into Claremont's interest in her. She will attend in the fall.
Colleges would rather accept students who they think are likely to accept them. You can appear interested by always responding to mail — even the small postcards.
By Elizabeth Weiss Green