At the end of spring break, many high school juniors and their families come home exhausted after visiting colleges. In addition to an often punishing schedule of two or even three college tours a day, the reality that they are beginning the high-stakes college admission process can put students and parents on edge.
Then there are the reports of the year’s admission decisions, which only add to the stress. Applications keep going up at many selective colleges, pushing acceptance rates at some schools to record lows.
The cycle seems poised to continue, as this year’s low acceptance rates will raise anxiety, and students will think they need to apply to more schools next year. While colleges may be able to boast of increasing selectivity, this situation really is not good for anyone. Families are more stressed, and when students apply to more colleges each year, admissions officers have a harder time predicting which students will accept an offer of admission.
Admissions officers at schools that are just below the super-selective level can find it especially difficult to distinguish serious applicants from the students who just want a “safety” school. This can lead some colleges to waitlist “stealth” applicants, those who have not had any contact with the school other than submitting an application. Admissions officers want to protect their yield, which is the number of students accepting an offer of admission. Stronger students may be waitlisted, while others with lower grades or test scores are admitted. The seeming arbitrariness of admission decisions raises anxiety for the next year’s applicants, who then think they need to apply to more colleges because they have heard stories of students with stellar academic records not being admitted to colleges they thought were safe bets.
So we have admissions officers and families worrying about numbers and taking actions that can raise anxiety levels on both sides. For students, one of the problems with applying to too many schools is that you are more likely to submit the kind of generic application that will get you waitlisted. Even if you are applying to schools that use the Common Application or Coalition Application, you will need to write additional essays for many of the colleges. Preparing a strong application requires research, so that you can write very specifically about why you and that college are a match. Students who apply to 15 colleges rarely put that kind of effort into each application. You might believe you can do a really great job on all your applications, but most students start to feel burned out by the time they are working on their eighth or ninth application.
This process doesn’t need to be so stressful. Juniors who have visited colleges in recent weeks should think about what they liked at each school. Beyond prestige, what is it that appealed to you at the school? If you identify the characteristics you want in a college, you can find schools of varying selectivity that have those features. Then you are ready to create a balanced list, with several highly likely, match and reach schools. The exact distribution may depend on your tolerance for rejection. Some students want to have a lot of acceptances, in part because their preferences may change by next year and they want to have options. It may also be important to compare financial aid and scholarship offers from different schools. Others only need one or two schools where they know they’ll be accepted and then they want to try for a lot of reach schools. If you choose carefully and plan on applying to somewhere between six and ten schools, you should be able to put your best effort into each application and have a successful college admission process.