By Rebecca Knight, Financial Times
April 14 2006 — In any other year, Will Mason, a high school senior in Falmouth, Maine, would be an Ivy League shoo-in. He is editor of his school’s newspaper, plays classical piano for several music ensembles, has maintained an A average in honours classes for four years straight and scored a 2200 out of 2400 on his SATs.
Mr Mason, 17, has been accepted at several top liberal arts colleges including Oberlin and Skidmore, but he remains on the waiting list at his first choice, Columbia University. “It’s been a super competitive year and I am trying not to stress about it,” he says. “Although it would certainly be nice if Columbia came back with positive news.”
This spring, getting into college has been tougher than ever as top universities – particularly the elite Ivy League – have admitted an exceptionally low percentage of applicants in the face of a bulging population of highly qualified high school seniors.
Steve Goodman, who has been in the admissions strategy business for 18 years, says this has been “the most difficult year by far” for students aiming for top-tier colleges and universities. “The majority of people want the elite schools but the elite schools do not want the majority of people,” he says. “I am seeing a lot of students being turned down at schools they might have gotten into three or four years ago.”
Yale set an Ivy League record, admitting only 8.6 per cent of its 21,099 applicants. Others were nearly as stingy: Columbia accepted 9.6 per cent, Stanford University accepted 11 per cent, Massachusetts Institute of Technology admitted 13 per cent and Brown University 13.8 per cent.
There are several reasons for this year’s hyper-selectivity. The first is that there are simply more students applying. The National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) says 2006 marks an all-time high in the number of high school seniors. Nearly 65 per cent of all high school graduates enrol in some form of secondary education within 12 months of graduation, according to NACAC.
Second, students are applying to more schools than in years past. This is mainly because the Common Application, which was introduced in the 1970s but has been more widely adopted over the past 10 years, has made the application process much simpler. The seven-page form saves time for students because it can be filled out once and e-mailed to any of the colleges that accept it.
Cost is also a factor, according to Mr Goodman. With a year at Harvard and comparable schools costing nearly $45,000, students are more inclined to canvass elite schools in hopes of getting lucky with one and if not, going to a local state school that comes with a much smaller price tag – typically about $12,000 a year for state residents.
“As rational consumers, families and students are saying, ‘Yes, I’ll spend close to $50,000 a year for Harvard or Princeton, but I won’t spend close to $50,000 a year to go to some small private school that no one has ever heard of’.”
The final reason that top schools are more selective is that the applicant pool is deeper than in years past. “There’s no doubt that applicants are more qualified nowadays than they were 30 years ago,” says David Hawkins, head of public policy for NACAC. “Students are achieving at higher levels. These are the baby boomers’ kids. Their parents are generally college-educated and so they, too, are savvier about the college application process.”
Some students have resorted to extreme tactics to separate themselves from the pack. “Every year we get a few outrageous applications,” according to Adam Sapp, an admissions officer at Claremont McKenna College in California.
This year, one especially creative applicant sent Mr Sapp a homemade board game – complete with chocolate dice – based on the applicant’s life. The game included trivia questions on the death of the student’s pet rat, Popcorn, and his trip to Holland.
This particular student was wait-listed. Claremont McKenna accepted 21 per cent of its 3,588 applicants. “It was certainly relevant and interesting, but ultimately tangential to the [admissions process],” says Mr Sapp.
Some in the college admissions industry contend that the notion of increased competition to get into a good college has been overblown. Carolyn Lawrence, who runs an admissions advice website, points out that of the 2,600 four-year colleges in the US, only 26 accept fewer than 25 per cent of applicants, while about 140 accept fewer than 50 per cent. “Once you move past those highly popular institutions, there are plenty of terrific colleges that are not impossible to get into,” says Ms Lawrence. “Smart students and parents need to focus on developing a list that includes some of those schools.”
As for Will Mason, he is trying not to feel anxious about the decision. If he is accepted at Columbia he will go there; if not, he will go to Oberlin in Ohio. “I win both ways,” he says.