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Kindling a Fire: The Brave New World of College Admissions

For many high school seniors, fall represents the culmination of the long college application process. In the wake of the Covid pandemic, this process may seem more confusing and nerve-wracking than ever. On top of that, many parents have come to appreciate that college admissions are far more difficult than when they attended college decades ago.

So what is the state of college admissions? And what are colleges really looking for these days? A complete answer to those questions would fill many columns, but here are a few dispatches from the front lines of the college admissions race.

The biggest trend in college admissions is the swiftly rising number of applications. In just two years – from the 2019-2020 cycle to the 2021-2022 cycle – applications rose nationally by 1.2 million, or 21%. But even that figure understates the trend. At highly selective colleges, applications are up 26% in two years. A few specific examples reveal just how much the college admissions system has changed since many parents applied themselves 30 years ago.

Harvard received over 61,000 applications in 2021-22, up 41% in two years. Going back further in time, the increase is even more pronounced; in 2001, Harvard received 19,000 applications. In other words, Harvard’s applications have more than tripled in 20 years. Needless to say, Harvard has not dramatically increased its available seats in response to this flood of applicants. Thus, its acceptance rate has plummeted from approximately 11% in 2001 to 3.19% in 2022.

Similarly, Columbia has seen its applications increase 50% in two years, with an all-time low acceptance rate of 3.73% (down from 6% in 2020). And over the past 20 years, Columbia’s applications have risen from 16,000 to 60,000. Other universities reflect the same trend:

  • Duke’s acceptance rate has dropped from 7.7% to 6.2% in just two years.
  • Rice has seen applications skyrocket by 74% in five years.
  • Ohio State’s applications have more than tripled in 20 years.

What is behind the flood of applications? Several factors, including the prevalence of the Common Application, which makes it easier to apply to multiple schools using one form; more colleges moving to test-optional policies (including Harvard); more financial aid and more awareness of financial aid; and the increased ease of online college research and virtual visits.

The result of these trends is dramatically lower acceptance rates at most selective colleges, an oversupply of outstanding applicants, and less time for colleges to review an applicant’s record. According to some industry experts, selective colleges now spend less than eight minutes reviewing an application that may have taken students years to build.

What can parents do in the face of such change? According to Country Day’s Director of College Counseling Sarah Beyreis, who, along with Associate Director of College Counseling Chuck McGivern, delivers Country Day’s best-in-class college counseling services, there are still a few sensible strategies – strategies that helped Country Day students get into Harvard, Columbia, Duke, and Rice this past year.

First, while more schools are choosing not to require SAT or ACT scores as part of their admissions process, tests can still be important. Many students find that a good test score can help their application, even when it’s optional. Students should take the SAT and/or ACT and try to obtain a good score to help their chances. And don’t forget that some schools (such as MIT and Georgetown) still do require test scores.

Second, college admissions departments are looking for real people, not résumés full of checked boxes. Many families seek to pad a child’s application with as many extracurricular activities as possible. Worse yet, some feel pressured to drop genuine passions in favor of a single-minded focus on a single project. But increasingly colleges seek applicants who have an authentic interest in and impact on what they do. When it comes to extracurriculars, colleges ask “why did you do it?” not “how much did you do?” Well-rounded, interesting applicants are the ones who stand out. That’s why at Country Day we encourage students to follow two or three different passions and to make sure their hearts are in it; the kids are happier and the colleges find them more interesting.

Finally, be realistic about admission chances at highly selective colleges. Even if you attended Yale or Duke in the 1990s, your child’s admission chances to that same school have materially decreased in the past 30 years (regardless of qualifications). Do not add to your child’s anxiety by insisting on one university as the only acceptable option. Instead, identify a range of suitable choices, knowing both that acceptance decisions by colleges can seem arbitrary and that there are several excellent schools where your child can flourish. Indeed, most colleges have made substantial improvements in the past two decades, and many parents are floored by what they now see at schools they would not have considered 30 years ago.

Most of all, whatever you do, don’t reduce your child’s identity to the name on the front of their sweatshirt and don’t measure your success as a parent by the school sticker on the back of your car. It's true that the college admissions process has become more competitive and more stressful; but with the right support from parents and college counselors, success remains within reach.

"Kindling A Fire" is a column submitted regularly to Indian Hill Living by Head of School Rob Zimmerman '98. This article was printed in the October 2022 edition of the publication.