Just one week til Memorial Day!  It’s a nice break for all of us, but especially for the Class of 2014.  April and early May can be a surprisingly difficult time for many high school seniors.  Interspersed with all the pre-graduation revelry is the anxiety-inducing reality of waiting for (and then weighing) college admissions offers that can affect not only the next four years of their lives, but potentially the next forty.   It’s the culmination of a complex, often confusing, college admissions process that hopefully ends with a ‘thick envelope’ ticket to one of their top choices; but sometimes it can leave them scratching their heads in frustration.

If it seems as though getting into college is tougher than ever, you’d be mostly right.Here’s why:

1.       Application Inflation:  Nearly every school reported an uptick in the sheer number of applicants for 2014.  UCLA set the pace with more than 86,000 applications (twice as many as the school received in 2005)… and this for the same 6,000 seats they had in 2005.   Oh, and they also reportedly received more than 19,000 transfer requests.   A little closer to home: this year UF had 29,319 applications for an enrollment goal of 6,400  —  7,000 more applicants than in 2004.

There are many reasons cited for the wide-spread deluge of applicants. They include: the increasing nationalization (and globalization) of what used to be a local process; the monopolization of the Common Application – with 517 member colleges (up from just 300 a year or so ago) which allows students to apply to multiple colleges with one application, the click of a button (and a credit card); a concerted effort on behalf of American colleges to recruit full-paying international students; fear and lack of focus among students and everyone who seems qualified (53% of hs grads have an A or A- GPA)… to name a few.  There are more theories, but regardless of the why, it is clear that application inflation, and the hyper-competitiveness it breeds, is real.  Consider that in 1990, the percentage of students who had applied to 7 or more colleges was 9%; in 2012, that number had risen to 22%.  And by all accounts, it’ll be even higher this year when all the numbers are in…which is why 2014 admit rates (the number of students admitted v. the number who applied) are expected to be the lowest they’ve ever been.

2.       Lowest Admit Rates In History: Even those colleges that didn’t see exponential growth in applications accepted fewer students as a percentage of applicants than they had in past years (5.9% for Harvard this year, compared with 17% in 1986).  Our flagship, UF, admitted 44% of its applicants this year, nearly 10% lower than its 2004 admit rate.  Stanford at 5.1% was the most ‘selective’ school in 2014, but there were a dozen schools that admitted fewer than 10% of its applicants, and many, many more that accepted fewer than 20% of their applicants. I’m talking about schools you might not expect such as Swarthmore (17%), Claremont-McKenna (10%), and Rice (14%).  To put this in perspective, just a generation ago, accepting fewer than 20% of applicants was a rarity – even for the Ivies.  What that means is that today, there are legions of qualified applicants rejected from schools that would almost certainly have admitted them just a few years back.   Vanderbilt, for example, accepted 61% of students who applied in 1999… this year, they took just 12.5% of their applicants.  Columbia admitted 30% in 1986 and just 6.9% this year.

And now the good news!  These statistics cannot predict what the chances of admissions will be for a particular individual. They do tell us, however, how ‘hot’ a particular school is… or how aggressively a particular school markets itself… and how stiff the competition will be at that particularly popular school.And therein lies the opportunity.  Because college does not begin and end with the 100 most ‘popular’ schools.  In fact, every few years there’s a new breed of hot and up-and-coming schools. So while we’ll continue to see record-breaking application rates and historically low admit rates, there are nearly 4,000 colleges and universities… and among them plenty of gems that while less well known and with smaller marketing machines, are equally rigorous and impressive.  Some are still accepting applications for this Fall, including a handful in Florida (Barry University, Eckerd, FAU, Stetson, University and the University of North Florida).

Bottom line is that even admissions officers will tell you that there is a lot more art than science in the final admissions decisions than you might expect.  It’s a nuanced process that requires focus and planning.  You should not let these numbers feed your panic.  Instead use them to inform your process, manage your expectations and formulate a targeted Admissions strategy.   And finally, if you’re a 12th grader still searching for a home this Fall, you should look at the National Association of College Admissions Counseling (NACAC) website.  There you’ll find a list of more than 250 colleges that still have room for new students in the Fall, are still accepting applications, and still offering financial aid.

And if you’re the parent of a college-bound teen who’d like to learn more about how your child’s admission strategy can dramatically impact what you’ll pay for college,  I’m holding my last free college planning class of the school year next week in Pembroke Pines. I’ll be discussing these Admission trends as well as what you can do to  make a great college both accessible and affordable.  If you have a child in high school who plans to apply to college in the next few years – or know of someone who does –  please consider joining me at this class.

Have a great weekend!

– Peter

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