By Daniel de Vise
Thursday, April 22, 2010; B01
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.
The fundamentals of admission advice have not changed. Most students are counseled to apply to at least three schools: one that is deemed a "match," a less selective "safety" school and a more selective "reach." Two of each would not be deemed excessive. "I say four to six. I used to say three to five. They end up applying to six to eight," said Robin Groelle, director of college counseling at St. Stephen's Episcopal School, a college-prep school in Bradenton, Fla.
Some students apply scattershot to top schools, without regard for "fit" or "match." They raise their chances of getting in somewhere. They might also be wasting their time.
"It's more work for us, and it's more work for the colleges," said Timothy Gallen, director of college counseling at the private Solebury School in New Hope, Pa. "It's playing the game, more than anything."
The process also can be expensive. Applications to selective colleges cost about $50 each, although fee waivers are available for low-income students.
The expanding applicant pool is not simply a matter of more applications per student. There has also been a growing population of college-bound seniors, although it is thought to have peaked last year and is expected to decline. And a larger share of applications is going to the most selective schools, which together receive 31 percent of applications but enroll 18 percent of freshmen. Deans say their applicant pools are larger, more diverse and better qualified than in previous generations in terms of grade-point averages and SAT scores.
"The long and short of it is, there has been a remarkable democratization of higher education in the past 50 years in the United States," said William Fitzsimmons, admissions dean at Harvard. He said his department's goal is to get a Harvard application "on the kitchen table of every student in America who has a chance of getting in."'Come out of nowhere'
For the broader population of public and private colleges, the explosion in applications means more selectivity, but also more headaches.
The average four-year college, public and private, received 24 percent more applications in 2006 than 2002, according to an analysis of the latest available data by the admissions counseling group. The average admission rate narrowed from 71 percent in 2001 to 67 percent in 2007. The share of students who were admitted and chose to enroll also declined in that span, from 49 percent to 45 percent.
The rise of mass applications has complicated the task of predicting who will enroll. Increasing numbers of applicants "come out of nowhere" and have no connection to the college, said David Hawkins, director of public policy and research at the admissions counseling group. "And [colleges] just don't have much intelligence on what these students' intentions are."
Colleges have courted mass applicants -- and higher application numbers -- by adopting the Common Application and putting forms online. But they also pay closer attention to an applicant's "demonstrated interest," Hawkins said, weighing such factors as correspondence or a visit to campus.
Admissions departments rely more heavily on early-decision and early-action programs, which deliver decisions to applicants sooner, in trade for a hope -- or an expectation -- that they will attend.
The University of Pennsylvania locked in half its freshman class this year through early decision. The effect on regular applicants was somewhat like scouting tickets for a rock concert that had been heavily pre-sold. With 26,938 applicants for 2,420 slots, the school's overall admission rate was 14 percent. For regular-decision applicants: 10 percent.
"How many offers of admission can we go out with on April 1, knowing that we already have 49 percent of our class spoken for?" said Eric Furda, dean of admissions.
Despite the long odds, some in the industry envision an emerging buyer's market in college admissions. The ease of applying to any college, anywhere, gives motivated students a fighting chance in shopping among schools with single-digit admission rates.
"I think they know that they can be consumers in this process, whereas maybe 10 years ago, it was the college that was picking the student," said Kristin White, director of marketing and communication at Westover School, a private girls school in Connecticut. "They're comparison shoppers now."
Missan DeSouza, a senior at Westover School, applied to 19 colleges. Some, such as Wellesley and Connecticut College, fit the liberal-arts mold of Westover. Others, including John Jay College and West Virginia University, had strong programs in forensic science, an interest she acquired from her mother, a Brooklyn police officer. She added several to the list because they offered strong academics and a lower price, or promised merit aid.
Thirteen colleges offered her admission. Ursinus College included a $30,000 scholarship, and John Jay would effectively cost nothing. But she is leaning toward three others: Wellesley, Middlebury College or George Washington University.
"I'm feeling it was really smart of me to apply to so many," she said, "because now I have enough options."