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Countdown to college: Why is college admission getting more competitive?

By Lee Shulman Bierer, Tribune News Service on

Published in Education News

Right now, the angst among high school seniors and their parents is palpable. Almost every parent I speak with says something like, "It wasn't this stressful when I applied to college. Why is it so much more competitive now?"

There's no denying that many of us parents wouldn't be accepted at our own alma maters if we were applying today. Standardized test scores have inched up and acceptance rates have dropped. Why is it so much more difficult to be admitted?

The stats demonstrate just how much more competitive the world of college admissions has become. Stanford rejected almost 96 percent of its applicants, and a large percentage of them had perfect SAT or ACT scores. It's obviously not enough to be a strong student with great test scores. Those objective characteristics will get you considered, but it is the softer, more subjective items that end up sealing the deal.

Think about it: There is a valedictorian and a salutatorian at every high school in the country. There's also a newspaper editor and a student government president at every school, and then think about the number of soccer players, cheerleaders, Beta Club members and National Honor Society inductees. It's difficult for students to set themselves apart.

To be fair, the college admissions panic is really only among the country's most elite schools; we're talking about just 50-100 schools when there are 4,000 or so colleges and universities across the country. Nationally, the acceptance rate for undergraduates is 70 percent.

Among the top tier of public and private liberal arts institutions, applications have increased by one-third or more during the last five years. Yet the available spaces have remained constant.

Here are two of the major reasons for the increased competitiveness in college admissions:

1. There are more students, and many of these students are applying to more schools. Many of today's college applicants are part of what's referred to as the "Echo Boom" - kids of Baby Boomers and beyond.


There are just more kids out there. Four years ago, there were 2.5 million high school graduates. This year, according to the Department of Education, there will be 3.6 million graduates. Thirty years ago, half of high school graduates applied to college. Today, due in large part to our increasingly global economy, almost two-thirds of high school graduates are applying to college.

Many students are trying to hedge their bets and are applying to more colleges. In 1975, only 3.2 percent of students applied to seven or more colleges. In 2006, that number was 17.4 percent. And last year, many college-bound students decided to hedge their bets and apply to as many schools as possible to secure sufficient offers of admission. In 2015, the Washington Post reported that seniors at a New Jersey high school applied to, on average, 45 colleges each, with one student applying to as many as 70 schools. That's crazy, and no guidance counselor would support it, but some families are willing to pay all those application fees to "find out."

Using the Common Application makes applying to colleges even easier: www.commonapp.org. It's one application used by 800-plus colleges across the country. It includes a single essay, it's filled out online, and students check off the colleges to which they want to send their application. Beware: There are often supplemental essays for many colleges as well. With a keystroke and a credit card, students can spontaneously apply to more and more colleges. And they do.

Let's end with an encouraging statistic: What percentage of students get into their first-choice school? It's not 25 percent, not 40 percent. More than 75 percent find that they have many choices, including their first-choice school. Now that's good news.

Lee Shulman Bierer is an independent college adviser based in Charlotte, N.C. Visit her website College Admissions Strategies.

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