The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

You really don’t need to apply to that many colleges. Just stop

Sure, Stanford's pretty, but you'll be totally O.K. if you don't get in. (AP/Paul Sakuma)
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Seniors in high school are losing their minds filling out college applications. The number of students applying to at least seven colleges has more than tripled since 1990, according to one survey.

The biggest factor behind the trend is likely that students and their families have little way of accurately assessing the quality of the education a school offers. A vague notion of prestige or exclusivity is the metric that many students seem to base their decisions on. Many decide to apply to several to try to up the odds of getting into one.

But they may be actually playing their odds incorrectly.

Counselors typically advise seniors to develop lists of "safety" schools, "reach" schools, and schools that are somewhere in the middle. For the staff of Parchment, a company that provides a range of services to college-bound seniors, that strategy often isn't the best one.

Matthew Pittinsky, the chief executive officer, compares applying to college to assembling a portfolio of financial investments. By balancing risks against one another, students can minimize the number of applications he or she has to complete. "You can actually have a portfolio weighted toward 'stretch' schools, and still have a surprisingly high degree of confidence that you will be accepted to at least one school on your list," Pittinsky said.

If you're applying to selective schools, you can't completely eliminate the chance that you are rejected everywhere. Each additional application you complete contributes less and less to your chances of getting in somewhere. That additional application is only useful to you if none of your others are accepted -- which, if you've already done several, is less likely.

If your goal is to get into the most highly selective institutions no matter what, you might decide to apply to quite a few anyway. But if you're not qualified, you're not qualified. And as I reported previously, selectivity is not always the best indicator of a school's quality, so you could be wasting your time.

On Parchment's Web site, seniors applying to college can sign up for help in figuring out how many schools to apply to. They give the company a list of schools they're considering. They also complete a detailed questionnaire. The company then estimates the probability that the student will get into each school, based on where demographically and academically similar students have been accepted in the past.

I created four hypothetical seniors in high school using the company's public interface: a white academic high-performer from an educated middle-class family living in St. Louis; a black student from Chicago whose grades are above average and who comes from a low-income household; a Mexico-born student living in Berkeley who does well academically and whose parents did not attend college; and a white C student from a moderately educated middle-class family in Tampa.

1) The first student was white and attended a Catholic school in St. Louis, Mo. He scored at the 90th percentile on his SAT and ACT and made the all-state soccer team. His parents are educated -- his mother has a bachelor's and his father a professional degree -- but not wealthy. The family's gross income is less than $60,000 a year.

This student applied to just four schools. Harvard University will meet 100 percent of his family's financial needs, as will two Midwestern institutions, Grinnell College and Macalester College. The University of Michigan in Ann Arbor is a public school that, like the previous two, accepts only about a third of its applicants.

Our student did not waste his time applying to safety schools or to a laundry list of highly selective institutions. All four of these schools accept the Common Application, too. Parchment calculated that he would have a 92 percent chance of getting into at least one of them, which is all he needs. Wherever he ends up, he'll be at a highly regarded school that will not impose a major financial burden on his family.

2) We also created a black male student who attended a charter school on Chicago's South Side. His standardized test scores were at the 65th percentile in reading and the 75th percentile in math. Money is definitely a concern for this student, whose parents make less than $20,000 a year. If he takes out loans and can't finish his degree because he has to work to support himself, he'll be in real financial trouble.

This student applied to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign as well as to Wheaton College and the Illinois Institute of Technology, two private schools in the state with generous financial aid for students from poor families. The default rate on federal student loans in the first three years of repayment is 3.5 percent at Illinois, 5.1 percent at Wheaton and 3.1 percent at IIT. Those figures are lower than the national averages of 8.9 percent at public schools and 7 percent at private schools, which suggests their graduates are well prepared to enter the workforce.

According to Parchment, the chance that this student is accepted at one or more of these schools is 92 percent.

It's worth noting how relying on prestige and reputation could lead a student like this one to take on serious financial risks. Parchment predicted that he was almost certain to be accepted at Morehouse College, the highly ranked, mostly black school in Atlanta that Martin Luther King, Jr. attended. Morehouse, though, is an expensive school, and nearly a quarter of students default within three years.

3) Our third student was a Mexican citizen who spoke Spanish at home and attended a large public high school in Berkeley, Calif. Neither of her parents finished high school, and her family makes under $40,000 a year. Her SAT and ACT scores are at the 80th percentile. She worked through high school and sang in choir.

She applied to Harvard and Duke, elite schools that will cover whatever costs she can't afford. Her grades aren't quite good enough to ensure that she gets in, but she has other options as well. She also applied to San Diego State University, an inexpensive public school, and Pepperdine University, a private institution which offers a good deal to students who are less well off.

Parchment gave this student an 86 percent chance of getting into at least one of these four schools.

4)  Finally, we repeated the analysis with another hypothetical white male student, a member of the varsity football squad at a large public high school in Tampa with test scores at the 50th percentile, weaker grades, and a disciplinary record. This student applied to the University of Central Florida, Florida State University and South Dakota State University, which offers inexpensive tuition to students from outside South Dakota. None of these schools has a default rate above 5 percent, and all three are inexpensive. This student was virtually guaranteed admission at South Dakota State and was also likely to be accepted at the other two schools.