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USACollegeChat Podcast

Jun 2, 2016

So, it’s the first week of June, and we are assuming that we have been whatever help we could have been to those seniors who are graduating now and moving into their college lives. As Charles Dickens once said, college might well be a combination of the best of times and the worst of times; but, I believe, for most of us, the best of times won out. Marie and I are wishing you the very best. Kids, if you need advice while you are there, give us a call. We have been through it all—decisions about majors and minors, living arrangements, extracurricular activities, sports, study abroad programs, part-time work, internships, etc.—and we are here for you. 

Now, parents, we are turning to the younger kids, who are winding up their junior years and moving into a summer of thinking about college before those college applications rear their ugly heads in about three or four months.

In this episode, we want to talk about the number of applications that students are submitting these days and the number that students should be submitting, a topic we talked about many episodes ago. What we are not talking about is the selectivity of colleges in admitting students. We talked about that recently (in Episodes 70 and 72) and about how the selectivity game among high-ranked colleges has gotten out of control. (By the way, the average acceptance rate at four-year colleges is about 65 percent, regardless of the selectivity race.) 

As it turns out, parents, you have no control over college selectivity in admissions, but you have plenty of control over the number of applications that your children submit. So, let’s look at the statistics.

1. The New Statistics on Applications

According to an article by Mike McPhate in The New York Times on April 11, 2016, students are applying to more colleges than they used to:

In 1990, just 9 percent of students applied to seven or more schools, according to the National Association for College Admission Counseling. By 2013, that group had grown to 32 percent. (quoted from the article) 

Researchers talk about a variety of reasons for that growth. First, students are getting increasingly worried about getting into college as the number of students applying grows. Second, students are getting increasingly worried about getting into the college of their choice when so many colleges continue to get record numbers of applications. You might recall some anecdotes from our virtual nationwide tour of colleges. For example, applications at the public flagship University of Massachusetts Amherst have doubled in the past 10 years (that is, there were 37,000 applications for just 4,650 seats in the Class of 2018). Or, in the past 20 years, applications at the public flagship University of Connecticut have tripled—at the same time as SAT average scores have gone up a combined total of 200 points on two subtests.

And third, the growing popularity of the Common Application, which started in 1975 and now serves over 600 colleges, makes it relatively easy to apply electronically to additional colleges with just a few clicks—at least when those additional colleges don’t have supplementary application questions to complete.

Of course, as more students apply to more colleges for fear they won’t get into any, more applications flood the market, and the whole thing becomes a vicious cycle—at first glance, great for the colleges, not so great for the applicants. However, because so many students applied to so many colleges and because they can go to only one of them, colleges are putting more students on their waiting lists so that the colleges will have students ready to fill the seats of admitted students who choose to go elsewhere. According to a New York Times article, even Yale University put just over 1,000 students on its waiting list—more than half as many students as it accepted.

But let’s look at the typical applicant, according to an article by Anemona Hartocollis in The New York Times on April 20, 2016:

The number of students using the Common Application . . . rose to 920,000 through mid-April, compared with 847,000 at the same time last year, said Aba Blankson, a spokeswoman for the Common Application. . . . [T]he overall average is 4.4 applications, though many students apply to many more, Ms. Blankson said. (quoted from the article) 

So, just about four or five applications is what the typical student submits through the Common Application. Of course, in addition, these students could have submitted applications to colleges that do not take the Common App. We will talk about the notion of four or five applications in a few minutes.

Is there a difference by region or type of high school? Evidently, yes. Here is what Ms. Blankson said:

Charter school students in New England submitted the most applications, at nearly seven per student, followed closely by private school students in New England and the Middle States (a category including Washington, D.C., Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands), with more than six applications each. . . . Home schoolers and public school students in the South and Southwest submitted the fewest, about three each. (quoted from the article) 

These data are not too surprising, given the long-standing tradition of private schools and private colleges for children of wealthy families in the New England and Mid-Atlantic states and the prevalence of super-popular public flagship universities in the South and Southwest, which draw so many students in that part of the U.S. If a student is headed for a public university in his or her home state, fewer applications will be required compared to a student headed to a private college in or outside of his or her home state.

2. What This Means for You

So, what does this mean for you and your child as you begin the college search and start thinking about how many colleges to apply to? For one thing, it means that applying to seven or more colleges is not crazy; lots of students do that now. However, all that depends on the colleges you and your child are interested in.

If your child is headed to a public university in your state—and especially if your child is truly thrilled to be doing that—you will likely not need to make seven applications. However, if your child is headed to a public or private college in or outside of your state—in other words, if your child is interested in pursuing a variety of options—you will likely need to make seven applications or more.

Maybe this will be your very first decision. It’s always hard to figure out what the first decision is. But my thinking now is that the degree of variety in the colleges your child is considering is what will help you decide how many colleges should be on your child’s list.

Of course, if you have listened to many episodes of USACollegeChat, you will know that we love variety, especially when it comes to geographic variety and getting students outside of their geographic comfort zone. We talked about the incredible variety of colleges nationwide when we did our virtual nationwide tour (see Episodes 27 through 53). There are so many appealing colleges to choose from—public and private, large and small, near and far—that I would not limit myself too soon if I were in your shoes, parents and kids.

So what is the right number? Every expert and every college counselor has a number. Some seem surprisingly low to me, but maybe that’s because I like kids to preserve their options. I believe that it is important to increase the chances that a kid will say on May 1, “I am going to (fill in the name of a college), and I am thrilled about it!” What could be a better start to a college career than that?

In our book (How To Find the Right College: A Workbook for Parents of High School Students, available through Amazon), Marie and I offer a recommendation of applying to 8 to 12 colleges. If you have the time and money (since applications cost money, unless you need and have gotten application fee waivers), I would err on the side of an even dozen. And remember, we are right here to help you!

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