Study: More Students Apply to More Colleges

Katy Hopkins

More prospective college students are applying to a large number of schools than ever before, according to a study released September 19 by the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC).

A quarter of freshmen who enrolled in college in fall 2010 applied to seven or more schools, NACAC found in its 2011 State of College Admission report. That's an increase from both fall 2008 and fall 2009, when 22 and 23 percent of students applied to at least seven schools, respectively. For fall 2010, 77 percent of students applied to at least three schools.

The increase of applications per student is a trend that is likely being spurred by a variety of factors, and it signals some potential challenges to schools.

"The increase in the number of colleges to which students apply complicates the already difficult task that admission officers have in determining which accepted students will enroll," the NACAC study notes, citing an average decline in yield--the amount of students who received and accepted offers of admission--among universities in the past few years. In 2007, the study notes, universities posted an average yield of 45 percent; for fall 2010, the average dropped to 41 percent.

At Susquehanna University in Pennsylvania, this increase--as well as the uptick in applications for admissions--challenges counselors to investigate students beyond their submitted materials, according to Vice President for Enrollment Management Deb Stieffel. At her school, 4 percent of recent applicants applied to at least 15 schools, she says, but her office can get a better idea of an applicant's fit, intentions, and affinity if the student shows marked interest by visiting campus, for example, or coming in for an interview.

[Discover how visiting campus might save you money on college tuition.]

"The more activities a student has leading up to the application and beyond, the more we can understand if they're a real applicant," she says. "You can't just tell by the application anymore; you have to look deeper."

Students' impulses to apply to a variety of schools are likely spurred in part by economic reasons, Stieffel surmises, and sheer ease. Streamlined forms, such as the Common Application and the Universal Application, allow students to quickly submit applications to a multitude of schools they may--or may not--be interested in ultimately attending.

Though ways to save time on college applications and ways to apply to schools for free can be convenient for students, it may not be a smart idea for those who haven't done thorough research before submitting an application, some counselors say.

Though she's now a senior at Seton Hall University, Cynthia Bell is no stranger to the danger of applying to too many schools. A native of San Diego, Bell applied to 12 colleges, including three in the University of California system--and saw her peers follow a similar track.

"I know a lot of kids that kind of just clicked 'Apply to All' with one link," Bell says. "I think, for some students, it's detrimental because they'll get overwhelmed by choices."

Some students, particularly those who are first-generation applicants, may be applying to too many schools due to a lack of guidance. The average student-to-counselor ratio at public schools was 460:1 in the 2009-2010 school year, the NACAC study cites.

"For a lot of first generation kids, it can be really confusing," Stieffel says. "They don't have parents [with experience] to guide them, and the counselor-to-student ratio might be 400:1. A lot of students end up getting lost in the mix."

Still, schools are making it easier for students to access information by adding social media to the mix. The number of colleges that promote their social networking arms on admissions websites jumped 52 percent in two years, the NACAC study found. Now, 91 percent of schools choose to promote their social networking sites; in 2008, just 39 percent did.

[See how colleges are getting creative on Facebook.]

Offering more in-depth information may help facilitate the application route that counselors often recommend: early research and a whittled down list of potential schools before submitting applications.

"A student has to sit down and be really honest with himself or herself about what they really want out of a school before they can even start to narrow down their list," Stieffel says. "Once they've identified those things that mean more to them, they can identify maybe five to 10 schools that might meet that criteria they've set up."

[Learn why ranking your college criteria can help you pick the right school for you.]

Though applying to a dozen schools worked for her, Bell warns that it's not a good idea to "apply just to apply" if thoughtful evaluation hasn't taken place first.

"Definitely do your research early," Bell recommends. "This is your future--spend some time doing it."

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