Are High School Students Applying to 'Too Many' Colleges?

In my career, I have spent many hours speaking with 17 year-olds about the prospect of applying for admission to college. During these conversations, I ask to which schools they plan to apply. Oftentimes, I am amazed by their "long list" of colleges in consideration, only to be told that their roster of 10 institutions is actually their "short list."

This year, this scenario is playing out at home. My son, Jeremy, is a bright high school senior (if I do say so myself!), and has been on the mailing lists of many colleges since he took the PSAT several months ago. Throughout the fall, he has been inundated with pleas from institutions of all types -- liberal arts colleges to research universities -- to consider their school. After months of ruminating, Jeremy heeded the call and sent in his Common Application... to 15 schools.

At first, I thought this number of applications was excessively high, even in light of what I understand from my experience on the job. I fully realize that the days are gone when students applied to merely five or six colleges, but 15? Looking into it, I discovered that submitting 15 applications is probably not too far off the norm for college-bound students these days.

According to the National Association of College Admission Counseling (NACAC), in 1990 just 9 percent of high school students applied to seven or more colleges. By 2012, the most recent year numbers were available, that figure had risen to 28 percent. Further, Naviance, an online tool used by many high school students and their counselors to track college applications, confirms the trend. This service reports that the number of "colleges I'm applying to" (via this labeled tab) has reached a record of 86 schools during the last cycle.

Clearly, the Common Application (CA) is facilitating this greedy student behavior. A very popular tool, the CA has been used by an increasing number of applicants over the last several years. According to the association, unique CA users increased from nearly 414,000 in 2008 to over 813,000 in 2013, almost double the participants.

As most of us know, with CA technology students are able to apply for admission to numerous colleges all at the touch of a button. But, ultimately, this one-application-fits-all process may not always be that simple, and the overall "costs" to go through the process can be relatively high.

For instance:

  • Many schools require supplemental questions as part of the Common Application; given this, the CA may not be any easier to complete than an institutional application (assuming the particular college still offers one).
  • Families face high application fees for each college selected (sometimes exceeding 75 each); without waivers, these charges hit hard.
  • Secondary school guidance counselors are bogged down by the effort to serve an increasing number of colleges that require supporting documents; with some counselors handling hundreds of students, the load is massive.
  • College staffs are overwhelmed by the amount of incoming documents; while many institutions receive applications electronically -- via PeopleSoft and other systems, minimizing paper shuffling -- review committees must still read through the applications.
  • Technical issues can bog down the process; in fall 2013, a new CA platform often skewed application formatting, omitted submitted documents, and led to payment problems before being fixed.
  • Financial aid forms such as the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and the College Scholarship Service (CSS) Profile limit the number of institutions to which one may submit data; families must go back in and resubmit forms to send information to all chosen colleges.
  • Students themselves face anxiety waiting to learn an admission decision from all their selected schools; maybe some winnowing of college choices earlier on would calm some nerves in the winter months.

Will any of the aforementioned concerns lead to an eventual stabilization (or reduction) of application volume? Not if some of the most elite colleges have their way. In an apparent attempt to bulk up their admission coffers (more applications, of course, lead to lower admit rates and better "Best" rankings), several prominent schools in January -- Dartmouth, Penn, Vanderbilt, and U of Chicago among them -- have re-energized their mailing lists to inform prospects that deadlines have been extended: students still have time to apply to yet another college!

And on we go...