For students and parents beginning the long journey that is the college admissions process, information is key. The more you know about recent trends, realities and expectations, the better prepared you are to tackle challenges and succeed in gaining admission to the colleges of your choice.

With that in mind, Collegiate Gateway has prepared a brief overview of the major trends in admissions, so that you can begin to prepare for the process ahead.

More Applications Mean More Competition

The number of high school graduates in the U.S. steadily increased for 15 years before peaking at 3.4 million graduates in 2010–11. Colleges have continued to receive record numbers of applications every year.  The Common App is now accepted at 488 schools, including the vast majority of selective schools, and the ease of the shared online application has resulted in students applying to greater numbers of colleges than ever before.  In addition, colleges are using outreach enrollment recruitment strategies to attract a more diverse applicant pool, including international students. The University of Southern California, for example, received more than 47,000 applications this year, up by 10,000 from just two years ago.

Yet, capacity at colleges has remained fairly constant.  As a result, acceptance rates have steadily declined. This is especially true among the most selective, “top tier” institutions. This year, every university in the Ivy League reported decreased acceptance rates from last year, the lowest being 5.79 % at Harvard. The only exception was Dartmouth, with an admit rate that inched up from 9.8% last year to 10.05%.

And the rates are just as low, and in some cases, even lower, outside the Ivies. The most competitive this year was Stanford, which accepted only 5.69 % of its more than 38,800 applicants. The University of Chicago accepted 8.8% of its record 30,369 applications, and MIT admitted just 8.2% of a record-high 18,989 applicants — a new low for the university.

There are other reasons for the ever-heightening selectivity. Colleges are themselves increasingly concerned about their rankings, and in some cases try to keep their acceptance rates low in order to appear more prestigious. In some cases, admissions officers will try to select only those students who are likely to enroll. These along with other factors add up to make the college admissions a complex, often unpredictable process.

The Ever-Expanding Waitlist

Increased applications, however, don’t just mean more rejections. They also mean a lot more students are winding up in College Admissions Purgatory, namely, on the waitlist. While the waitlist itself has been around for decades, their function has evolved in recent years, as colleges have had difficulty predicting how many of their accepted students will actually enroll. Both a necessity as well as a sort of consolation prize for highly qualified (but ultimately not qualified enough) applicants, the waitlist has expanded tremendously. A few years ago, more Duke applicants were waitlisted than admitted. 

Admitted, But Not For the Fall

A relatively new phenomenon among colleges (dating back to 2001 when USC first started the trend) is offering students admission, but not until the spring semester of their freshman year. While not a universal practice, the list now includes Skidmore College, Hamilton College, Brandeis University, Northeastern University, and Middlebury College. And while they all have slightly different ways of going about it (some do not let students enroll until the spring, while others enroll them right away, but place them in a fall semester program abroad, like Colby, or an alternative class schedule program like University of Maryland), the reason for this practice is the same: between freshman attrition and junior study abroad, campus populations decline in the second half of each year. Admitting more students for later in the year allows colleges to generate more tuition revenue.

The Big Picture: “Holistic” Admissions

The current state of intense competition among college applicants has influenced not only admissions outcomes, but also the admissions process – that is, the way colleges evaluate prospective students.  According to NACAC’s most recent State of College Admission report, establishing “fit” is more important than ever before, especially at private, small, and highly selective institutions. This has led to what many admissions officers refer to as a “holistic,” rather than “by the numbers,” evaluation process. While grades and test scores remain the top factors in admissions decisions for most colleges, schools are assigning increasingly greater importance to more personal factors that help to differentiate applicants. Colleges are increasingly looking for students who demonstrate qualities such as character, creativity, leadership, a sense of humor and moral fiber. This in turn means that those parts of the application that stand to reveal those qualities are becoming more and more important: your essay, letters of recommendation, extracurricular activities, interview and supplemental materials.

The Early Birds Get the Worm, Sometimes.

As mentioned above, application numbers are up, and early action/decision applications are no exception. In 2013, early admission programs continued to record double-digit increases in applicants. Boston University, for example, saw a 41 percent increase in early applicants, while Bates College rose 30 percent and Cornell rose 16.5 percent.

The reason for this is fairly straightforward: colleges, in order to better predict and control matriculation rates, admit large percentages of each incoming class from their early application pool; Columbia and Penn, for example, took 49.5% and 48.2% this year. This in turn, results in substantially higher acceptance rate among early applicants, for example 13.4% versus 5.2% at Yale.

The most important thing for students, however, is to remain focused and calm. While these statistics may seem daunting, with the right planning and guidance early on, you can – and will – end up at a college of your choice, where you can be happy, challenged and successful.