New generation of college hopefuls apply to many schools

By Daniel de Vise
Thursday, April 22, 2010

Scott Yu had the strongest possible credentials: a perfect SAT score, a perfect high school transcript and conservatory-quality piano skills. But his first foray into college admissions, an "early-action" application to Stanford, landed in limbo with a deferral.

His faith shaken, Yu responded the way any straight-A student would, with a flurry of work. He applied to every college in the Ivy League, along with Duke, MIT, Washington University in St. Louis, the University of Maryland and the New England Conservatory in Boston. For his efforts, the Rockville teen reaped 12 offers of admission. He now faces a not-very-painful choice among Harvard, Yale and MIT.

Yu, a senior in the Science, Mathematics and Computer Science Magnet Program at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, represents a new generation of college applicant. Spooked by single-digit admission rates at the top private schools, students sweeten the odds by applying to more of them. And, thus, the applicant pool runneth over.

Harvard, the nation's oldest college, crossed a symbolic threshold this year when it received more than 30,000 applications for about 1,600 seats in its freshman class. With 1.5 million students expected to enter four-year colleges this fall, that means that about one in 50 applied to Harvard. Brown University passed the same milestone this year, Stanford last year.

One-fifth of college applicants nationwide apply to seven or more schools, twice the rate of a decade ago, according to data from the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

Yu, 18, knew he was a strong candidate. But he didn't know how strong. The early rebuff from Stanford -- a school not in the Ivy League but just as selective -- unnerved him. He sat at his computer with two Harvard teddy bears for luck as he checked for news April 1, the deadline for most admissions departments to let students know whether they got in.

"I didn't mean to apply to this many schools," he said. "You can't really gauge your qualifications as a candidate until you get in somewhere."

Students apply to more schools partly because they can: Today's online applications are more easily replicated than the paper forms of previous decades. But that's not the only factor. The biggest surge has come at the most selective schools, where fewer than half of applicants gain admission. Students apply to twice as many schools as their parents did on the theory that they are half as likely to get in.

Admission rates fell this year to 6.9 percent at Harvard, 7.2 percent at Stanford, 7.5 percent at Yale, 8.2 percent at Princeton, 9.2 percent at Columbia and 9.3 percent at Brown. As recently as 2003, when fewer students competed for the same number of seats, all of those schools admitted more than 10 percent of applicants.

Worldwide interest

Ivy League schools are getting more applications from every part of the globe. Diana Barthauer, who lives in Switzerland, started with a slate of 50 schools and narrowed it to 20. She netted 15 offers, including Columbia, Stanford and Dartmouth, and rejections from MIT, Princeton and the University of Cambridge in England. Two colleges in China haven't replied.

"The reason I did so many applications was that the admission rates are so low," she said. "But then, I pushed them down by doing it, so it's kind of ironic."

Is there any harm in applying to colleges en masse? Counselors and deans are divided.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2010 The Washington Post Company