Is panic over college admission overblown?

Panicky teenagers continue to apply to a growing number of colleges and universities even though their fears of getting rejection letters are overblown.

That is one of the big take-home messages of a recent report by the National Association for College Admission Counseling, an organization representing both colleges and the high school counselors, consultants and nonprofits that help students get into college.

Continuing application growth

Seventy percent of colleges and universities have experienced application growth for most of the past 15 years. In 2013, the most recent admission season examined, 65 percent reported getting more applications than the prior year.

According to the report, 32 percent of applicants applied to seven or more schools in 2013 compared to 28 percent the previous year. A decade earlier, only 16 percent of students felt it necessary to approach that many schools.

Despite the continuing uptick in applications, most schools continue to welcome the majority of their applicants. In 2013, four-year colleges and universities accepted nearly 65 percent of their applicants. The acceptance rate at public institutions was 69 percent versus 63 percent at private schools.

The percentage of schools that accept fewer than 50 percent of their applicants is actually quite small and represents only one out of five schools. The greatest percentage, or 39 percent, have acceptance rates of between 50 and 70 percent.

Treating admissions like an education lottery

Fueling the application increase are the most selective schools, with those that spurn more than half of their applicants attracting the most applications. The average selective institution received 8,000 applications. In contrast, schools that accepted between 50 to 70 percent of applicants drew a small lower number, or an average of 4,676 applications. Schools that accept more than 85 percent of applicants received an average of just 2,436 applications.

An admission advantage

Students aiming for the most exclusive schools, the report observed, are experiencing the most luck by applying early decision. When you apply early, you essentially promise the school that you will attend regardless of any other offers or a disappointing financial aid package.

Elite schools are relying more heavily on this enrollment option as a way to lock in their applicants and gain more control over an admission cycle that has encouraged bright students to treat the process like a lottery. Students assume that if they apply enough times, their odds of winning will grow substantially, which is a great source of stress for college admission officers.

Students who applied early at institutions that offered the early decision option enjoyed a mean acceptance rate of 64 percent versus an overall acceptance rate of 53 percent.

Who is helping teenagers

While the process of getting into college requires a great deal of effort and organizational skills, high school counselors are significantly limited in the amount of time they can help. According to the NACAC report, public school counselors spent an average of 24 percent of their time on college counseling in 2013 versus 52 percent for private school counselors.

Less than a third of public high schools reported employing at least one counselor, either full or part-time, whose exclusive responsibility was providing college counseling. In comparison, 71 percent of private schools employed a dedicated college counselor.