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What Families Need to Know About Rising Application Numbers and How It Affects Your College Prep

By Nat, IvyWise Master College Admissions Counselor

According to US Census data, 2008-09 was the peak year for the number of high schools students graduating and applying to post-secondary institutions. Since that peak, the number of high school graduates applying to colleges has dropped, but, according to the National Association of College Admission Counselors (NACAC), a majority of colleges in the US have continued to report application increases year after year. So if there are fewer students applying to college, why are colleges still reporting record-high application numbers?

There are many fascinating ways to account for this trend of rising application numbers, but I offer a few explanations that can help account for this, perhaps, counterintuitive upward trend.

More Applications Per Student
One of the main contributing factors to the increase in applications despite the declining number of applicants is the rising number of applications per applicant. Many hypothesize that the frenzy of 2008 caused more students to apply to more colleges in fear of not getting admitted, but it has been shown that since then more students are applying to more colleges than ever before. According to NACAC, 32% of applicants applied to seven or more colleges in 2013, an increase of 10 percentage points since 2008. One of the consequences of the increase in applications per student, and applications overall, was that colleges nationwide started to see their yield rates, the percentage of students accepted that actually enroll in the college, decline. In more recent years, colleges have focused more of their attention on yield, utilizing strategy and techniques, like demonstrated interest, to help build their yield numbers back up.

Colleges have also shifted their focus to international applicants in order to boost application numbers, draw a diverse student body, and make up for drop in the population of high school graduates applying to college. So not only are more US students applying to more colleges, but international applicants are also adding to the pool. Colleges are heavily recruiting international applicants and it’s working – the number of international students studying in the US increased 10% last year. 

So while the applications numbers were, in part, driven up at the peak by the number of applications per applicant, a trend that continued despite declining number of graduates, coupled with an increased application stream from overseas, I would argue that the continued increase in application numbers is also being artificially driven now by changes in admissions practices that aim to increase the number of applicants.

Behind the Scenes
For most colleges and specifically the admissions offices thereof, there is tremendous pressure nowadays to increase the number of applications, increase the yield, and fill up the class to meet institutional priorities. This is especially important because things like yield and admit rates are factors that affect everything from rankings to how colleges secure loans and more. Seen through a capitalistic lens, colleges are businesses that need to pay attention these key metrics; higher rankings translate to greater demand and these metrics factor into a college’s bond ratings, which may allow them to borrow money more efficiently, and in turn continue to build and improve facilities, thereby attracting even more prospective applicants.

How does a school “boost” its applicant count?
One of the simplest ways that colleges increase their application numbers is by making it easier to apply. For example, a college can remove their school-specific supplement so that students can simply apply after they have finished their Common Application.

Another practice some colleges have implemented to increase their applications has been to waive the application fee. The College Board has made it very easy for colleges to “search” for names of students that have scored above a certain score. A college can purchase these lists of students, and email them directly with an application fee waiver or perhaps even an application that has that student’s demographic information already filled in. The student just needs to click on a link in the email and they have easily applied for free, thereby driving that specific college’s application numbers (and average testing median for applicants) up.

And finally, a college can inflate their applications by simply changing what counts as an application internally. Is it just the Common Application and supplement, or do both teacher recommendations need to be sent for it to “count” as an application? In a slower year, a college or university can decide exactly what is going to count as an application because there is no standard set across the country. There is quite a bit of creativity (in addition to the hard work and travel of admissions officers) that can go into increasing applications every year.

What does this all mean for college-bound students?
For one, college counseling has never been more important. Colleges are strategizing more than ever to increase the number of applicants and yield, and improve other important metrics, which directly impacts how classes are built. Many academic pundits talk about how students shouldn’t strategize their college admissions process, but in fact the opposite is true given how colleges themselves use various strategies in order to build their classes. In fact, an Early Decision policy is a strategy in itself, helping a college improve its overall yield, and become more selective overall.

For students, having an appropriate college list is more important than ever. There are still far too many students applying to schools that they have absolutely no chance at being admitted. Too many students categorize schools as “reach schools” that are really “out-of-reach.” When I worked for the hyper-selective NYU Abu Dhabi, we accepted less than three percent of the applicant pool during the years I was there. I would say, conservatively, about 86% of the applicant pool had no chance of being admitted. I’ve heard very similar statistics from my fellow admissions officers at other highly selective institutions. Any selective school is going to do triage on their applicant pool before any semblance of a holistic review process takes place.

This is where it’s important to do your research, know what schools are a good fit and how you measure up to their most recently admitted class. Meet with your college counselor early and often, and develop a college application strategy that maximizes your chance of admission to your best fit colleges.

The best thing that students can do when applying to college is to stay informed on the process and stay in tune with how certain trends, like rising application numbers, can affect how they approach the college admissions process. The need for strong, strategic counseling has never been more relevant, so start meeting with your school or independent counselors as early as 9th grade. Don’t wait until application season has started to begin devising your college admissions plan!