More applications not always better, officers say

The record number of applications at several of Yale’s peer schools are not only generating headlines — they are causing administrative headaches. And some administrators say the added workload may not result in a higher-quality admit class.

The current admissions cycle has seen a spike in the number of applications to top-tier colleges across the nation. The University of Chicago recorded a 42 percent increase in its applicant pool, while Brown, Princeton and the University of Pennsylvania also saw double-digit increases in their application numbers. Among the Ivy League schools that have released their application figures, the only one to see a slight drop in application numbers was Yale.

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While many of these colleges’ administrators said they are pleased with the increased level of interest, the unprecedented number of applications has pushed many admissions offices to their limit. Many administrators have said that the composition of their applicant pool is more important than its size. And despite a slight decrease in applications to Yale this year, Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Jeff Brenzel said the quality of this year’s applicants remains high.

“Our goal isn’t to attract more students simply to boost our application numbers,” said James Miller, dean of undergraduate admissions at Brown, which saw its applications soar to around 30,000 this year. “We actually cut back travel and mailings this year and focused our recruitment efforts heavily in areas and high schools with large numbers of first-generation college-going populations.”

With applications at Brown up 20 percent this year, Miller has had to hire outside readers to handle the increased workload. At Duke University, Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Christoph Guttentag said three former part-time admissions officers have been hired to read the college’s record 26,731 applications.

At Stanford, where application numbers for this year topped 32,000, Provost John Etchemendy dismissed the idea that top colleges aim to attract as many applicants as possible. Expanding the pool of unqualified applicants helps no one, and the real goal of admissions offices is to attract a diverse pool of the most qualified candidates in the country, he said. When asked whether he believes applications to Stanford will increase in the coming admissions cycles, he offered no prediction.

“I hope not,” he added.

A surge in college applications and the resulting increases in selectivity are unlikely to benefit top-tier colleges in the annual rankings compiled by the U.S. News & World Report, said Robert Morse, director of data and research.

“There needs to be a 30 to 40 percentage point decrease in a school’s acceptance rate in order to see some movement in its rankings,” he said. “For schools like Yale and Chicago whose admission rate is already under 30 percent, such a change is not mathematically possible.”

Still, attracting a greater number of students has advantages, Morse said. A larger applicant pool may have a better chance of attracting greater socio-economic diversity, a wider range of talent and higher test scores, he said. These benefits depend on the quality of the application pool remaining constant as its size grows, he added.

But there is a risk that larger applicant pools will tend to attract less qualified candidates, Etchemendy said. Brenzel has said the same.

“My general sense is that the number of students at the most competitive end of the spectrum for admission has changed less than the attraction or appeal of putting in an application to see what happens,” he said in September, before this year’s decline in applications was known. “That is, the application base may be swelling, but it isn’t necessarily because you have a lot more students who are at the most highly qualified end of the applicant pool.”

He reiterated Wednesday that the most selective schools already receive three to four times more applications than they can accept.

“It appears extremely implausible that even significant increases in total application counts could result in more than very small increases in the number of highly competitive applicants at any of these five schools,” he said in an e-mail.

Budget cuts have forced many of the nation’s top schools to downsize outreach efforts. Harvard halved its travel budget, Brown stopped printing its largest admissions publication, and Stanford shed 10 percent of its admissions staff, yet all three schools received record number of applications this year.

This year’s numbers reflect a decade-long trend of rising applications to colleges and universities. Administrators at top-tier colleges have said that more generous financial aid offers and increasing fear of ever-lower acceptance rates are the driving factors behind this increase.

“I also think in difficult economic times, families are looking for high-quality educational experiences, and places like ours fit that definition,” Miller said.

Eric Bersin, a senior at Adlai E. Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire, Ill., who was deferred from Yale this fall, said he knows peers who have applied to as many as 16 colleges. (Bersin said he applied to nine.)

“Everyone wants security these days,” he said. “And applying to more schools is the only way to get it.”


  • better

    Yale’s fall in application defies the trend.

    More applicants mean more application fee. It can help to fill Yale’s budget gap.

    When the top students make regular decision on Yale/ Harvard/Princeton most will not choose Yale because of Yale’s recent tragedies. (Annie Le and etc.)

  • Krazy

    US News rankings should not be a factor in this discussion because the rankings are highly subjective and inane. Today’s college students rely on more than the unreliable rankings by one publication in selecting a college.

  • y11

    This is such a weak rationalization. Do we really need to be so transparently insecure? Ask an admissions officer at UChicago or Princeton if they’d rather be going through their massive pile of applications right now or shootin’ the breeze here at Yale with less work than usual. Guarantee they’ll stay where they are.

  • shanks

    I think that Eric has a good point. It will be instructive to find out how many of these thousands of applicants have applied to several of these schools at the same time. Schools can only pick one and the applicants can only attend one. So the present system seems to be such a gross waste of everyone’s time and money (both school and applicant. Just as they collaborated sensibly on creating the common app, administrators should get together to create a clearing house which would route applicants to their first choice university first, and if not selected to their second choice and so on until all their applications are exhausted. This way (a variant of the ed process) the school that the applicant most desires will get the first look. This will significantly reduce the number of applications that an individual school will have to evaluate. Schools will evaluate only those applicants who will matriculate if admitted. Multiple offers and waiting lists will significantly decline. Applicants will also know of their admissions status as their cases are decided. For example an applicant for whom Yale is first choice and Penn is the fourth choice will know early on whether Yale will take him (her) and Penn will not have to read the application if Yale decides to accept. Under the present system all the fifteen schools that the applicant applies to will have to read and evaluate the applicant leading to inevitable multiple acceptances and all the waste and delay.

  • anonymous

    As a high school senior who just applied to college, who only applied to 3 universities, I know that the biggest cause for the huge growth in applications is the common app itself. Some of my friends have applied to more than ten schools, because no extra work is needed to do so. If I hadn’t been accepted EA at Yale, I would have applied to Princeton, Penn, Duke, perhaps Stanford and Brown, because so little extra work is needed (these are all common app schools). If these schools want to narrow down their applicant pools, then they should reintroduce individualized applications. Notice that Columbia, one of the few (only?) Ivys that isn’t on the common app, is conspicuously absent from the list of schools with huge increases. In fact every school on that is on the common app.

  • @4

    That is a truly naive solution.

    Two words: financial aid.

  • Transparently Insecure Indeed

    During years in which the number of applications to Yale increases, the admissions department likes to sit for long interviews with the YDN. Long explanations are provided by giddy admissions staffers, detailing the myriad reasons why we are growing more popular. Distinction is always drawn with Harvard and Princeton, in particular why they are not doing as well.

    This year, as in any cycle in which the number of applications declines, the admissions department redefines the word “rationalization.” “We don’t want more applications; we want quality over quantity. Thank goodness we don’t have the record numbers of applications that they have at Harvard and Princeton.”

    In the one and only year (1994) in which U.S. News ranked Yale first, the YDN printed a huge blue number “1” which ran down the left side from the masthead to the bottom of the front page. Exultant interviews with hyperventilating students, professors and admissions officers graced the accompanying article, joyously celebrating that we had FINALLY passed those Neanderthals in Massachusetts and New Jersey.

    Every other year before and after 1994, the YDN gamely reports the U.S. News ranking with interviews with admissions staffers explaining why the U.S. News ranking is wrong at worst and misleading at best.

    The annual rite of the admissions department explaining the number of applications and our third-place ranking in U.S. is as dependable a feature of the academic calendar as winter break and commencement.

    As Y’11 aptly put it in Post #3, we are the most transparently insecure college in the Ivies, student body and admissions department included. We are always just a little behind Harvard and Princeton and we can’t stand it.

  • ’98

    Certainly adoption of the common application by a growing number of schools is the key factor in the explosion of multiple applications, for the reasons #5 explains.

    Schools adopting the common application typically enjoy an increase of 20-25% in applications over the next year or two after they move in this direction.

    This has been true for Yale, Princeton, Brown, Chicago and many other schools.

    So all of the bragging about applicants “realizing what a great school we are” as an explanation for the higher app number is largely unjustified. Schools want more apps in order to increase their “diversity” and also to attract top students who might just come, if admitted, and if their top choice turns them down.

    Likewise, schools (including Yale, I believe, and Princeton for sure, have attracted more applications by lowering the bar, in effect: they only require two SAT achievement teasts rather than three, as other schools continue to do. Then there is the matter of allowing applicants to report only their highest SAT scores, even if they take it four times.

    I doubt if you will ever see the medical school type “matching” approach, where applicants “rank” schools and are only considered by #2 or lower after #1 turns them down.

    This would be nirvana for Harvard, of course, which wipes the floor with most schools, including Yale, when it comes to common admits. But I doubt if most schools are willing to abandon free competition for a system where they have very little shot at the superstar applicants.

    It would work out this way because of a factor clearly shown to exist in higher education as well as in other area: “winner take all” – where even a small difference in perceived quality, prestige etc can lead to a huge disparity among those actually in a position to choose among alternatives in favor of #1.

    That is why Yale and most other schools rely on early admissions programs: this is seen as their best shot to sign up top talent before those superstars have any solid alternatives to choose among.

  • nudelman

    Chicago had a major jump because it is actively trying to jump start its undergraduate education after years of stodginess. I doubt Yale’s drop in # of applicants this year is a big deal – although having a student get murdered on campus during broad day light is never good. As neighborhoods go, the South Side Chicago is no better than New Haven, and doubt Providence is much of a draw either.

  • Brown ’11

    “… doubt Providence is much of a draw either.”
    Providence is a draw, as every urban studies major knows.
    Poster city for the urban renaissance (see, e.g., the standard title “Providence: The Renaissance City” by Leazes and Motte, Northeastern Univ. Press, 2004).
    Subject of “renaissance” articles in the New York Times, Boston Globe, Los Angeles Times, and many other publications.
    Wall Street Journal: one of “World’s Top 10 Next Hot Spots” in a study by tourism industry analysts.
    Money Magazine: most livable city in the East (twice designated in recent lists).
    Art Times: top small city for artists in the country.
    Girlfriends Magazine: top city for gays in the country.
    Second largest federally listed historic district in the country (College Hill N.H.D.).
    And so on.
    Many of my Brown schoolmates say that Providence was an influence in their decision.
    I chose Providence over Hanover, Amherst, and Philadelphia.

  • :)

    Wow Brown ’11. Do you see the irony in that comment when much of this thread is devoted to the transparently insecure?


  • Brown ’11

    @ :) (who asked “Do you see the irony?”)
    Because irony requires an internal referent.