When I was applying to college well over 30 years ago, I recall having four schools on my list – my local state school and 3 schools in Texas, where I decided was the warmest and easiest to get to from my midwestern home. I don’t recall writing essays or laboring over applications in general. My high school record was what it was, and if it was sufficient, I would get in. I suspect this was typical for the time. We applied to the limited number of schools we’d heard of without much fanfare. And as was the case for me, with no idea if they were really a good “fit.”
Fast forward to 2024 and our kids are being asked to possess much more college-awareness and to be significantly more self-aware.
Escalating applicant numbers.
The primary factor responsible for the changes we’ve seen is the growth of the Internet.
Students now have all of the nearly 2,800 4-year colleges at their fingertips through the use of school websites, 3rd party sites that rate and evaluate schools, sites for criteria searches, school social media accounts, and virtual tours, to name a few.
The ubiquity of Common Application now allows students to share their application with over 1,000 participating colleges. Just add another school and pay the application fee.
Colleges have increased their advertising and recruiting exponentially, as is witnessed by every high school student receiving boatloads of mail and emails from colleges they’ve never heard of - further expanding their awareness of post-secondary options.
While our kids are more apt to find a good match and get outside of their bubble, application numbers are up, which means acceptance rates are down. Schools their parents would have easily been accepted to may be out of reach for current applicants. As an eye-opening example, in 1998, the University of Michigan received 21,324 applications and accepted 59% of applicants. In 2023, their admissions office read 84,289 applications and accepted only 17%. (University of Michigan Common Data Set).
One of the primary criteria in the college rankings game is acceptance rate, so colleges chase this statistic by encouraging far more applications than they are able to yield. The existence of these rankings then influences students toward the top 50 or so schools, inflating their number of applicants, and driving down their acceptance rate even further, making these schools all the more elusive.
Paradigm shift in admissions testing.
During COVID-19, ACT and SAT testing centers were closed, and colleges were required to eliminate test scores as part of their admission criteria. While testing centers have long since re-opened, test-optional admissions persists at the vast majority of colleges, at least for now, on a year-by-year basis. Applicants may submit scores but are not required to, or penalized for opting out. What used to be a staple in admissions decisions has diminished in importance. The result is an increase in holistic admission practices. Colleges now need more to look at and are focusing more than ever on essays, letters of recommendation and extracurricular pursuits. Hence, the push toward “standing out” in each of these criteria.
Who are You and Why Us?
Due to the competitive nature of the applicant pool, in order to craft a successful application, kids are now required to create a narrative of who they are and parlay that into what colleges look for. Requiring this level of introspection and accomplishment in a 17-year-old is a big ask. In addition, they must research each college thoroughly, to give evidence to the college that they belong there. High-schoolers are adjusting and meeting these demands, but it means early and in-depth preparation to set themselves up for success, which can add stress to their teenage lives, especially if they place undo pressure on themselves.
It's important to remember, however, that this competitive arena is primarily found in the top 50 universities and 50 liberal arts colleges. There are many fine schools that accept 80 - 90% of their applicants, with the average acceptance rate being 73%. And there are 60 or so state colleges in the country with transparent admissions requirements based on GPA alone. Most colleges still take most of their applicants (National Association for College Admission Counseling).
A healthy approach.
With the state of college admissions as it is today, it would seem most logical for students to take a closer look at what they really want in a college experience, with less concern about where the school ranks or “name brand.” Specific majors, prgram opportunities, a learning environment that aligns with learning style, and financial considerations are among the criteria that should be explored.
While in high school, students should strive to do the best they can academically to be prepared for the rigor of college, focus on activities they are passionate about, apply to a balanced list of schools, and realize that they will land at the best place for them – a school that provides the education that fulfills their individual needs and a school that wants and values them for who they are.