As College Applications Rise, So Does Indecision

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Students walk on campus at Harvard Business School in Boston, on Aug. 6, 2012.

Welcome to Decision Day, when high school seniors choose which college to attend and send in deposits to secure their place. It’s supposed to be the fun part — the reward for all those long nights spent writing papers, cramming for tests and putting the finishing touches on science projects. But with more students applying to a larger number of schools than ever before, the May 1 deadline to formally accept an offer of admission from just one of those colleges comes with its own set of anxieties.

As top schools in the U.S. become more selective, prospective college students are casting an increasingly wider net — which is easier to do thanks to the Common Application, a standardized electronic form that’s accepted by more than 500 schools. “Those of us in this profession have seen an emerging trend of this generation of students being more interested in broadening their scope,” says David Hawkins, director of public policy and research at the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC). “The idea is to hedge your bets and get as many applications as you can out there to see where you get accepted.”

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In 2000, just 9% of students applied to seven or more schools. In 2011, about one-third of all applicants did so, according to the NACAC’s 2012 annual report. And nearly 80% of students applied to more than three colleges or universities. The result is a record number of applications at many colleges and universities in the U.S. — and a fraught decision for students admitted to multiple schools.

“Applying to more schools just makes everything worse,” says Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less and a psychology professor at Swarthmore College. “Assuming you apply to six schools and get into three, it’s a hard decision — you beat yourself up and you’re full of regret and doubt about whether you made the right choice. If you apply to 15 schools and get into eight, well, all that does is triple the problem.” Schwartz says, as a result, most students end up feeling tortured while they are making the decision and dissatisfied no matter what they choose in the end. “When you have lots of colleges to choose from — even if you make the right choice — you’ll spend your time, anytime you have a bad day, thinking at Swarthmore, ‘Well, if I was at Yale, I wouldn’t be having a day like this,'” he says. “It ends up undermining people’s enthusiasm and then it becomes self-fulfilling.”

For some students, the difficulty in choosing a school sometimes leads to making no decision at all. On Decision Day, increasing numbers of students are paying deposits at two, three or even four schools so they can hold their places while they decide — or while they hold out to see if they get off the waitlist at their dream school. Colleges call it “summer melt” and plan for a certain percentage of committed freshmen to essentially drop out before the first day of school. The Ohio State University says it expects to lose about 10% of those students who initially commit on May 1, while Colorado State University predicts it will lose less than 2% of in-state students and about 4% of students from out of state. “Everyone worries about melt,” says Jim Rawlins, Colorado State’s executive director of admissions. “Show me an admissions officer who isn’t worried about summer melt, and I’ll show you someone looking for a job.”

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The surge in applications has been made possible by the shift online and a movement toward standardization. As colleges converted from paper applications to online systems, they often streamlined their process. The large state-university systems in California and New York allow students to submit one application for admission at any of their many campuses, rather than requiring separate forms for each campus. The Common App, as the widely used Common Application is known, allows students to send the same application and essay to as many of the 527 schools that accept it as they like (though some schools may require additional supplementary materials and all charge separate application fees). Last year, 750,000 applicants submitted 3 million applications, an average of four per student.

Ohio State, which accepted the Common App for the first time this year, saw a 24% increase in applications for fall 2013 — a big turnaround after a slight decline the year before. “We had anticipated an increase this year, but we received even more applications than we expected,” says Vern Granger, Ohio State’s associate vice president for enrollment services and director of admissions. “But it wasn’t a surprise — I think most universities see an increase when they make the move to the Common App.” Granger says the decision was made to move to the Common App partly because, like many state schools, OSU is looking to increase the enrollment of students from outside the state, who pay significantly more in tuition. The same is true at Colorado State, which attributes some its 64% increase in out-of-state applications between 2003 and 2013 to the Common App. “We definitely saw it getting us more visibility among out-of-state students, which was probably the most selfish reasons we had for joining,” Colorado State’s Rawlins.

In addition to the Common App, colleges are now more commonly sending out “quickie” or “fast track” applications to high schoolers with much of their personal information already filled in. These applications often provide incentives, like waiving the application fee or essay, to encourage students to apply. According to Bryan Gross, associate vice president for enrollment management at St. John’s University in New York, the school sends a fast-track application to graduating seniors, whose names it buys from groups like the College Board and the ACT, as part of its national-recruitment efforts. Last year, the school received 51,179 applications and enrolled some 2,824 freshman. “If we can eliminate as many barriers as possible, students are much more likely to apply,” Gross says. “We find if we can get someone to apply who might not otherwise, we get a chance to send marketing messages to convey to them the benefits of attending our school.”

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While increased interest might be good for schools, more applications don’t necessarily result in an increase in enrolled students and — particularly at highly selective schools — it has led to an increase in disappointed, rejected applicants. The fear of rejection is what has led students to hedge their bets. “It’s gotten much harder to predict the outcome of the admissions process,” says the NACAC’s Hawkins. “There is this perception that it’s much more difficult to get into college these days. [Students] see valedictorians being waitlisted and those who are 15th in their class getting in, and they are left to wonder what goes on in an admissions office.” Often, he says, the response is to apply to more schools — something many admissions counselors say they oppose. “It just ratchets up the craziness,” says Rachel Toor, an author, college-admissions counselor and former Duke University admissions officer. Several years ago, Toor says she worked with a student who — unbeknownst to her — applied to 19 schools, mostly using the Common App. “I wish the Common App would limit the number of schools you can use it for. That way, we wouldn’t be seeing 50 million applications to Harvard. You’d have to really want to go there — and really believe you could get in — if you decided to apply.”

One institution trying to stem the tide is Boston College, which this year added a 400-word supplemental essay to the Common App in an attempt to filter out less serious applicants. Applications promptly declined by 26%. “In this climate, where it’s quite easy through the Common App to submit an application, we were curious about the level of commitment students had to Boston College vs. those who applied as more of a ‘Why not?'” says John Mahoney, BC’s director of admissions. “I think we’re sort of Exhibit A on the hollowness of some of the applicant numbers we’re hearing from different colleges.”

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