The toughest college admissions year on record reached its apex this week as nervous seniors obsessively checked their email or a website to discover their fates. (Waiting for the fat or thin envelope? So 2005.) The hotter-than-ever Ivy League schools, which all had a record number of applicants this year, notified the lucky ones at 5 p.m. Wednesday.
It has been an especially stressful process this year. The weak economy and a wider acceptance of the common application—Columbia used it for the first time this year and had a 32 percent jump in applicants over last year—has meant the competition is steeper than ever. Over the past five years, applications to the eight Ivy League schools plus MIT and Stanford skyrocketed from just over 200,000 applications to almost 300,000 early and regular applications, for a total increase of more than 40 percent, according to Michele Hernandez, president of Hernandez College Consulting.
While most final decisions won’t be made until May 1, when most school deposits are due, The Daily Beast spoke with admissions officers, guidance counselors, and college consultants to hear about the most surprising trends from this year’s applicant pool and what to look for in the next six weeks.
1) 2011 Was the Hardest Year to Get into College—Ever
“We already know this will be the hardest year in history for college seniors,” says Hernandez. She cites more kids applying, while most schools aren’t increasing their class size. It’s an unforgiving formula. “A few years ago, kids were applying to four or five schools,” says Greg Roberts, dean of admission at the University of Virginia. “But now it’s not uncommon to apply to 10 or 12 or in the extreme even 20 or 30.”
A number of trends are at play this year to make things extra difficult for applicants. Harvard, Princeton, and the University of Virginia got rid of their early-admission programs in 2006. In the meantime, college applications at selective schools have risen dramatically, reaching a pinnacle this year, as top-notch seniors started applying in droves to non-binding early-admission programs like Yale, Stanford, MIT, and the University of Chicago. In order to save themselves for a stab at Harvard or Princeton, many students decided to forgo the binding early-decision programs at the other Ivies, making the admissions process less efficient. Next year should be much calmer, as the number of high school seniors in certain parts of the country is dwindling and Harvard, Princeton, and University of Virginia will reinstate early-admission programs—getting the brainiacs out of the regular admissions pool. “The kids who want to apply to Harvard and Princeton will apply early-action,” says Hernandez. “That alone will change things.”
2) College Applicants Are More Interested in Southern Schools
Independent college counselors are noticing that more and more students are talking about heading south for the winter. “I have heard anecdotally from students and parents that they are starting to pay attention to what Tulane looks like in February compared to Dartmouth,” says Sally Rubenstone, a senior adviser at College Confidential. “They might not want to go where they have to scrape snow off their windshields.”
Vanderbilt, William & Mary, Emory, and Wake Forest, among other schools, are garnering more attention than usual for their pleasant climates. “Kids want sun and are looking for better weather,” says David Montesano, an admissions strategist with College Match Inc., a college consulting service. “Stanford and USC are among the most popular schools in the country for my kids.” Then there’s Occidental College, which is benefitting from the Obama bump—the president went there for two years before transferring to Columbia.
3) International Student Applications Are Surging
Almost every admissions officer and college counselor The Daily Beast spoke with cited an increase in the number of international students as one reason the admissions process has gotten so competitive. “Overseas, they are going insane for American schools,” says John Williams, a college consultant with Top Ten Skills and author of Future-Proofed. Many foreign students believe now is the time to get into the American school of their dreams—and colleges love them because they pay full price. “During the economic crisis, schools need the cash,” says Mimi Doe, co-founder of Application Boot Camps.
Of the almost 31,000 students who applied to Brown University, the largest number of applicants came from international students—a large proportion from China—and the state of California, says Jim Miller, dean of admissions. Adds Roberts of the University of Virginia: “Over the past several years we have seen double-digit increases in international students, especially those from China.”
4) Ivy League for Graduate School Is the New Goal
Sure, almost any student would love to gain admission to an Ivy right off the bat, but many have become next to impossible to get into. “The super-reach schools are completely out of reach,” says Montesano of College Match. “You’re looking at a 6 percent admission rate for Harvard.”
So more families have started to take a long-term approach to the college admissions process. For many, the endgame isn’t college; it’s graduate school. Some are considering sending their kids to top-notch state schools to save tens of thousands of dollars with the idea that Stanford or Yale will make a great graduate school. Others are searching for programs that allow a student to go to school for six years and gain a B.A. plus a J.D. to save a year of time and tuition. Whitman, Hamilton, Occidental, and Bowdoin have such programs.
5) Applicants From Technology Havens Have the Admissions Edge
Schools like to say geography doesn’t matter, but if you’re from a technology haven like Seattle, Palo Alto, or San Jose, you just might have a subtle advantage. “Good high schools in tech hubs are getting in more kids to top schools than they used to,” says Montesano of College Match, who cites liberal arts feeder schools like Lakeside School in Seattle and Katharine Branson School in Marin County as having that edge. Why the leg up? “It’s nothing more than colleges wanting kids whose families are tech people, especially if they work for blue-chip tech firms," he says. "Google is the future, and they want kids from those families.”
6) The Waitlist Is Huge This Year
“With Harvard and Princeton not having early admissions, the yield is all over the place, so the waitlist will be used a lot,” says Hernandez of Hernandez College Consulting. “The waitlist will have a lot of movement.” But it’s not just the Ivies: “We have to expand the size of the waitlist because we are accepting more non-resident students and you can get wider fluctuations with this group,” says Philip Ballinger, assistant vice president for enrollment and director of admissions at the University of Washington. Expect students to send lots of followup letters and have their advisers call the admissions officers to boost their chances.
7) More Applicants Are Interested in Creative Writing
OMG! More high school students this year are interested in writing and want to choose schools where they can do more of it, says Montesano. “We have more clients than ever who want to build up creative-writing portfolios,” he says, “so they’re looking at colleges like Sarah Lawrence for creative writing and Vassar and Occidental for screenwriting.” Many have spent the summer between their sophomore and junior years at writing workshops to hone their skills.
Apparently, the increased interest in writing has resulted in better college essays, at least for some schools. “I do think the writing skills have improved,” says Miller of Brown. “Or maybe it’s the editing skills,” he jokes.
8) Homeschoolers Are on the Rise
“We see a lot of homeschoolers now,” says Miller, who notes that these students are often hard to compare to others because their curricula vary so much. “It’s a big movement.” Still, things can get a little bit awkward when teacher recommendations are requested and they end up coming from the student’s parents—something that happens all the time. “I read one recommendation from a student’s mother that said, ‘He is one of the best students I’ve ever taught,’ and I laughed because the kid is an only child,” he says.
9) More Californians Are Applying Out of State
With budget cuts at many state schools, some high school seniors are looking further afield for college. “Students are applying to more colleges out of state, especially California students because of the strain on the higher education system there,” says Eric J. Furda, dean of admissions at University of Pennsylvania. He notes that Penn saw fewer applicants from Pennsylvania and the Mid-Atlantic area this year.
10) Public Schools Are Accepting More Out-of-State Students
Not only do they need the higher tuition rates of out-of-state students, but public universities also are enrolling more non-resident students to boost numbers without requiring extra housing. In the past, “the public universities on the West Coast have been almost exclusively reserved for residents of the state on the undergraduate level,” says Ballinger of the University of Washington. “But Berkeley, the University of Washington, and others have made it clear they have to enroll more non-resident students.”
Kristina Dell is an editor at Newsweek.com and runs the education website. Previously, she wrote for Time magazine. Her stories have also appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and Reader's Digest.