Colleges Use Personal Applications to Increase Application Numbers

A few weeks ago, one of my students called to tell me the good news. She was so excited about getting a personal invitation to apply to a college she had thought was out of her league. The school was waiving the application fee and making it very easy to apply. The student’s parents were pleased that admissions officers at this fine school were recruiting their daughter and perhaps wondering why I had not suggested she apply to this school. I tried to gently explain that the flattering letter from an admissions dean does not mean the student will be admitted, but the expectation has been created, and since the family would rather believe an offer of admission will follow, the student has been set up for a big disappointment.

Many colleges buy names of students from the College Board as early as sophomore year. While students may think they have been identified as strong candidates for admission, the schools are likely to cast a wide net. That “distinguished scholar” or “fast track” application could be sent to more than 100,000 students. It’s a cruel game, like the most popular guy on campus flirting with all the girls and leading them to think he’s interested, because he enjoys the ego boost. But for colleges, the rewards are more than psychological. Generating more applications is important because it means the school will accept a lower percentage, and the school is then seen as more selective and desirable. Alumni and other donors are impressed, and often decide that the increasing selectivity is evidence of the school’s quality, resulting in more generous donations. Being seen as more selective can also help a college recruit top faculty.

Admissions officers are under pressure to improve the numbers every year. Thanks to the Baby Boomers, the number of students graduating high school and applying to college was increasing every year, but as that growth leveled off, predictions of fewer prospective students, especially in certain parts of the country, led colleges to expand their recruiting efforts. Also contributing to the rise in applications at wealthy, highly selective schools are new, generous financial aid programs designed to recruit more middle and low income students. In addition to putting more resources into recruiting students from around the country, many colleges are now recruiting internationally. So even though the number of American students graduating high school may have peaked, there are plenty of students from other countries to keep application numbers up.

Larger applicant pools do not mean a college will select better students they admitted last year. There are already thousands of students with top grades and scores, as well as impressive extracurricular accomplishments, applying to these colleges. Admissions deans at highly selective schools acknowledge the fact that the majority of students applying are well-qualified. So when more students apply to these schools, the quality of the freshman class is unlikely to change. But more of these excellent students will be rejected.

While it’s bad enough that students will be feel disappointed and manipulated when these flattering invitations turn out to have been nothing but a cynical attempt to inflate application numbers, the worst part is that students who believed they would be admitted to these schools often don’t apply to schools that they perceive as less selective and therefore not as good. They miss out on opportunities to attend other excellent schools and can end up without any appealing college options.

It’s easy to understand why students would respond to these personal applications. With no application fee and often no essay to write, what do you have to lose? While the colleges may be cynically encouraging applications from students they have no intention of admitting, students are playing their own game when they apply to colleges they have no intention of attending, either because the competition has them so fearful they add a lot of “safe” schools just to be sure, or because they want to rack up admission offers. When a college is inundated with applications from students who may not be seriously interested in the school, the admissions staff will feel pressure to generate more applications to ensure sufficient enrollment, and will look at demonstrated interest to try to figure out which students are likely to matriculate. Students then feel pressure demonstrate interest in schools they really are not interested in because they are afraid of being wait-listed or rejected for not showing interest. Uncertainty and fear on both sides leads to increasing manipulation and it’s hard to see where this will end.

Students can avoid getting caught up in the “priority” application game by choosing to apply to the schools they know are good matches. If you get a letter telling you that you were selected because of your outstanding qualifications, and your grade point average and test scores are well below the average at that school, understand that the flattering words may feel wonderful, but if you allow yourself to be seduced into thinking you’re the one, you could be in for a rejection. If you can’t resist the easy application, know that it might get as little consideration as the effort you are putting into it, so don’t invest emotionally until you get a commitment.

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