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.