The New College Chaos

College admissions officers say they now have many, many more applications than they know how to handle—and, often, less reliable information to help them decide which students to admit

These and other measures were in response to the shortage of students in the early 1990s. But the demand-building measures remained generally in place when U.S. high schools began turning out more graduates. Then two trends intensified the pressure even more.

One was the increased popularity of the Common Application—a form, including a personal essay of 250 to 500 words, that students fill out once and send to multiple colleges. The Common Application was introduced in the 1970s, but only in the past decade or so did a significant number of highly selective colleges, including Yale, Harvard, and Johns Hopkins, decide to accept it (though some required additional information). Before the Common era, applying to a selective college meant filling out a separate form for each, usually writing a separate essay, and sometimes getting a new set of recommendations from teachers and advisers. But with the Common Application it can mean merely paying an additional application fee, often $50 to $90 per college. The convenience of the process has naturally increased the number of schools a typical student will try.

Princeton, Stanford, the University of Chicago, and a few other selective institutions do not accept the Common Application (Chicago pointedly calls its form The Uncommon Application). But even these schools are affected by the second trend: online applications. The Common Application can be filled out and submitted online. Virtually all schools allow students to download and print their own application form rather than asking for it by mail, and many allow students to conduct nearly the whole application process electronically. (High school transcripts and teacher recommendations are usually delivered the old-fashioned way.) Jim Bock, the dean of admissions and financial aid at Swarthmore, says that in the past four years the number of students applying online has risen by more than 500 percent.

Not every admissions dean we spoke with said that the combined effect of these forces was to drive applications up, up, up. At Georgetown and Penn, for example, applications have recently leveled off—albeit at a very high level. (Georgetown received more than 15,000 applications in 2002, for a freshman class of 1,485. That is twice the rate of ten years ago, but only a slight increase over the two previous years. The trend is similar at Penn.) Some single-sex schools have seen only modest increases.

But many admissions deans use terms like "flood" and "torrent" to describe what is happening. Williams College received 5,341 applications last year, for a freshman class of 533; that was 410 more than the previous year. Last year Boston College received 22,400 applications, for a class of 2,250 students; in 1996 it received 16,500. Schools suddenly turn "hot" and see spikes in the application rate. "Hotness" often reflects a belated recognition of a school's improved quality. Duke, Georgetown, and Brown experienced this more than a decade ago, and it is now happening at the University of Southern California, New York University, Tufts, and Washington University in St. Louis, among others. But colleges sometimes go in and out of fashion for reasons that have nothing to do with undergraduate academics. Columbia and Penn have become hot as urban schools have become more popular. Both Georgetown and Duke attracted many more applicants after their teams did well in the NCAA basketball tournament. When Ronald Reagan was shot, in 1981, he was rushed to the George Washington University Hospital emergency room. Applications to George Washington rose noticeably afterward, apparently because of the favorable publicity.

There is no clearinghouse to measure the overall increase in applications. Even if there were, the total would be misleading, because the real problem is the attempt of a minority of students to get into a minority of colleges. "Eighty percent of the [extra] applications are going to twenty percent of the schools" is the way Lee Stetson, the admissions dean at the University of Pennsylvania, which is among the favored 20 percent, puts it. Walt Whitman High School, in Bethesda, Maryland, had 468 seniors in last year's graduating class. Fifty-three of them applied to Northwestern.

One of those fifty-three students applied to twenty-three other colleges. Counselors at upper-end public and private high schools nearly all report an increase in the number of applications each college-bound student submits. At admissions-conscious schools where students in the early 1990s typically applied to five or six colleges, they might now apply to eight, ten, or twelve. In more relaxed settings the average has risen from three or four to six or eight. Counselors consider twenty outrageous—but some say they have seen that and more. "Students have the idea that if they throw more darts at the board, their chances go up," says Carl Ahlgren, the director of college counseling at the Gilman School, a private boys' school in Baltimore. Ahlgren says that in his experience exactly the opposite is true: the more careful and deliberate students are about choosing where to apply, the more likely they are to get in. At his previous school, University Liggett, in Grosse Pointe Woods, Michigan, Ahlgren ran a small study correlating the number of applications a student filed with overall admission success. The students with the highest rate of admission turned out to be those who applied to three or fewer schools; those with the lowest applied to eleven or more. The likely reason, Ahlgren said, is that the decision to fill out "that twelfth or fifteenth application" often "goes hand in hand with a quality of indifference, almost cynicism, about the applications"—and colleges notice.

The pressure this situation creates for students is well known—even if, in the view of some officials, its damaging effects are still not fully appreciated. For instance, Robin Mamlet, the dean of admissions and financial aid at Stanford, says she is "deeply concerned about the level of stress on young people as a serious national health issue." Less well known are the corresponding effects on those receiving the new flow of applications: the college admissions staffs. Compared with their situation even five years ago, admissions officers have more work to do, often less time to do it, and—surprisingly—less data to rely on in making their decisions.

The traditional bases for admissions decisions at highly selective colleges are high school academic performance, SAT scores, recommendations, and then everything else, including students' essays. High school grades are still the most important factor, but top-end schools are rapidly abandoning official class ranking in their calculations. The complaint about ranking is that it exaggerates small differences among students, poisons the high school atmosphere, and implicitly penalizes students for being in excellent schools, with many strong colleagues, rather than in mediocre ones. (At the most selective colleges admissions officers are familiar with the high schools that have historically sent them strong applicants, and they know how to interpret a course list, even without a class rank.) All that is true; still, the elimination of ranking leaves colleges with one less piece of information.

SATs are simultaneously all-important and decreasingly important as distinguishing tools. The great "recentering" of SAT scores in the mid-1990s was designed to adjust the scoring curve to reflect the broadened share of American students taking the SAT, which had at first been given mainly to elite students. The recentering raised average scores significantly, especially on the verbal portion of the test. "Before, there were very few seven hundred-plus verbal scores," says Charles Deacon, the dean of admissions at Georgetown. "Afterwards there was a dramatic surge upward, and many more people saw themselves as competitive candidates for the top schools." Marlyn McGrath-Lewis, the admissions director at Harvard College, says that "the double 800"—a perfect score—"is not that great a distinction anymore." In each of the past few years Harvard has received more than 500 applications with double-800 scores, and has accepted just under half of them.

Presented by

James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

An Eerie Tour of Chernobyl's Wasteland

"Do not touch the water. There is nothing more irradiated than the water itself."


Video

Is Technology Making Us Better Storytellers?

The minds behind House of Cards and The Moth weigh in.

Video

A Short Film That Skewers Hollywood

A studio executive concocts an animated blockbuster. Who cares about the story?

Video

In Online Dating, Everyone's a Little Bit Racist

The co-founder of OKCupid shares findings from his analysis of millions of users' data.

Video

What Is a Sandwich?

We're overthinking sandwiches, so you don't have to.

Video

Let's Talk About Not Smoking

Why does smoking maintain its allure? James Hamblin seeks the wisdom of a cool person.

Writers

Up
Down

More in National

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In