Why College Application Numbers Have Reached an All-Time High

When college acceptance letters went out this spring, we reported on record low admission rates across the Ivies and UC Schools, along with that other inseparable statistic, record high applicant numbers. In June we analyzed trends in regular decision admissions, noting again the staggeringly high applicant rate that in part characterized the 2017-2018 admissions cycle. Now two months out from National College Decision Day, we’re taking a step back to ask why. Why are application rates so high and what does that mean for you?

The Common App

An easy and true answer is, of course, the Common Application. At its inception the Common App was accepted at 15 member schools, but that number has steadily grown to 750 colleges and universities worldwide. This year students broke the service’s record with more than 1.5 million applications submitted by the November 1st early deadline by 519,912 unique applicants, a spike which marked a 20 percent increase from 2016. On October 31, the Common App experienced its highest one-day volume – 233,720 applications submitted – surpassing its previous high of 187,036 submitted on January 1 of 2017.

Founded, according to its mission statement, in pursuit of access, equity, and integrity in the college admission process, the Common App makes applying to more colleges easier for everyone by streamlining the process into a largely synonymous application sent to a diverse range of schools. According to a national survey by UCLA, 30 percent of students now apply to 8 or more schools, more than double that of students 10 years ago.

Some note, however, the former benefits of school-specific applications. A New York Times article on application inflation explores as a case study UChicago – once home of the infamously “uncommon app” which included elaborate essay prompts like “If you could balance on a tightrope, what landscape would you walk?” The university emphasized its distinctiveness and, as a result, just completing the application demonstrated interest and suggested that a student was more likely a good fit than not.

Less competition for applicants. Fewer applications to sort on the admissions end. Better for everyone. Right? Not exactly.

Enhanced Outreach Efforts

When it comes to college rankings, rising applicant rates – and consequently declining admission rates – make schools appear more impressive than competitors, more desirable, competitive, and elite. Furthermore, as colleges increasingly strive for diverse, balanced incoming classes, larger applicant pools enable admissions teams to be choosier when crafting their future student body makeup.

Accordingly, colleges have gone to unprecedented lengths in recent years to recruit more applicants. On some fronts, enhanced recruiting efforts ought to be applauded. As we reported earlier this spring, the Ivies and other schools nationwide have worked to make higher education a more viable option for low-income, first-generation students and spread this message to those demographics. As a result, Harvard has seen its number of Pell Grant recipients double since 2004, and Duke identified and admitted 100 additional low-income students this year, to name just two examples.

On the other hand, colleges’ determination to reach as many students as possible in myriad ways, ranging from direct mail to Snapchat, only to reject the vast majority of them frustrates students and counselors alike. In an interview for PBS’s education beat, Jayne Fonash, a guidance director in Loudoun County, VA, says, “It’s terribly disrespectful for a student with a solid academic record but who still isn’t getting into an Ivy League school to be misled to think that one of those schools is a real possibility. That borders on being dishonest.”

The College Application Conundrum

Enhanced recruiting efforts and the Common App spur and facilitate perhaps the most significant factor in rising application rates: applicants feel that they must apply to more schools than ever before in response to a notion that the college application process has become increasingly competitive.

As they watch admission rates drop, students sense the need to expand their college lists, hoping to ensure admittance at a top choice despite seemingly bleak odds. But admission rates are dropping, because students apply to exponentially more colleges than the high schoolers of yesteryear, not because there are more students out there or because colleges have gotten harder to get into, per se.

On the contrary, there are fewer students applying to college than there were five years ago. The number of high school graduates peaked in 2011 at about 3.4 million and has been declining since then. To paraphrase Melissa Clinedinst, Associate Director of Research at NACAC, while universities might brag about record numbers of applications, there are not record numbers of applicants.

If colleges were truly harder to get into, students would need higher GPAs and standardized test scores to secure admittance at schools their predecessors got into on the merit of lower performance. Sure, some colleges have become more competitive by this metric, but higher academic standards are not the norm. According to studies performed by the National School Board Association’s Center for Public Education, students with the same test scores and GPAs in the nineties have an equal probability of getting into similarly selective schools today.


Save all high school seniors banding together and agreeing to apply to 3 or 4 great-fit schools a piece, what’s to be done? Recognize the facts and adjust expectations accordingly. Yes, admission rates are declining, which makes getting into a specific, favorite school less likely. However, getting into good colleges is not more difficult than it used to be, and students, in fact, face less competition numbers-wise.

So keep an open mind about multiple schools that excite you, and you won’t be disappointed. Personally this may mean adopting a new perspective on the admission process. Practically it means that demonstrating interest at an array of schools matters. If you’re a competitive student who would genuinely be happy at a large state school on your list, take time to visit even if you feel optimistic about admission. With so many applicants, the admission team may think you view them as a safety school and waitlist you otherwise.

Lastly, take heart and take this boon brought to you by numbers rather than the sensation of selectivity. With fewer applicants in the pool, many colleges are not at capacity once students commit to one on their long list of schools. Every year, after National College Decision Day NACAC publishes a College Openings Update, which helps counselors connect students with great schools that still have slots, housing, and financial aid to offer. As you’ll see below, number of openings is also growing.

Year         Number of Colleges with Openings after May 1st 
2012 375
2013 210
2014 257
2015 225
2016 344
2017 414
2018 422

Source: U.S. News & World Report

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  • James Collins

    “Less competition for applicants. Fewer applications to sort on the admissions end. Better for everyone. Right? Not exactly.”

    Why not exactly?