“Why is it so hard to get into college now?” is a question I get A LOT from parents.

In my 20+ years of counseling, I have never experienced a year like 2023 with so many unexpected college acceptance results. 

In recent years, the college admissions arena has experienced an unprecedented increase in applications. More students are applying than seats available at almost every college in the country. 

That means there are well-qualified students who are not given a spot where they were hoping to be admitted.

Over the past three years, the common application has seen a 30% increase in application numbers

Jeffrey Selingo, author of “Who Gets In and Why: A Year Inside College Admissions,” wrote in the New York Times that a 30% increase equates to 1.56 million additional applications competing for similar number of seats. The demand is getting much larger, but the supply is not. 

Because Clemson is very transparent with their numbers, let me use them as an example. Clemson had 26,000 applications in their early pool, then received another 33,000 applications in the regular decision, all for only 4500 seats in a freshman class. That’s a lot.

What are the reasons behind the increased applications? How are colleges managing the increased workload? And how can your child hedge their bets and stand out in an ultra-competitive system?

Let’s dive into these questions.

What’s Driving the Increase in College Application?

Accessibility of the Common App, test-optional policies, and direct marketing from colleges are a few factors driving up applications.

Test-Optional Policies

The COVID-19 pandemic pushed a lot of schools to be test-optional, and many have not gone back on this decision. 

So students are applying to colleges they may not have considered previously because their test scores would have held them back.

The Popularity and Convenience of the Common App

The Common App is the online application portal that makes it convenient for students to apply to multiple colleges (versus submitting individual applications). 

The accessibility and convenience of online application processes have made it easier than ever for students to apply to numerous colleges. 

There’s also the ongoing cycle where students are worried about the increasing number of applications, so they’re hedging their bets and applying to more schools, thus driving up the stats even more. 

Students are casting a wider net, and I see them applying to 10-12 places, whereas a few years ago, the average was six to eight for most of my students.

Direct Marketing Efforts From Colleges

Let’s not forget that colleges are also a business. And as Jeffrey Seligo says, “Business is booming.” Colleges are ramping up their direct marketing efforts and actively reaching out to students.

As a result of this direct marketing, some students end up applying to a college they may not be admissible at, thus driving up college applications even more.

Through all this, college admissions offices are struggling to keep up with the sheer volume of applications – trying to review a larger applicant pool while maintaining the integrity of their admissions process. 

The impact of this surge includes changes in selectivity and acceptance rates. As colleges become more selective, it becomes increasingly crucial for applicants to present a compelling case for their admission. 

Larger applicant pools also tend to lead to a much bigger waitlist and deferral numbers from early application rounds. 

On top of all this, colleges have institutional priorities that can impact college admissions decisions – I talked about this in last month’s blog post.  

Strategies for College Applicants to Stand Out

We’ve long counseled our students to present a holistic view of themselves to colleges. How to maximize their strengths – not just academically but also outside the classroom. Other ways to stand out are via the personal essay and strong letters of recommendation.

As your teen progresses through the last few years of high school, sit with them and brainstorm how they can demonstrate leadership skills. Whether through a school activity, extracurricular, or volunteer opportunity. And remember leadership isn’t solely defined as being elected to a position.

Finally, we also counsel students that it’s not about molding themselves to the college but finding colleges that best align with their goals, interests, and values.

How An Increasingly Competitive Landscape Is Impacting Our Teens’ Mental Health

I’d also like to address how the intense competition and stress associated with the college application process can significantly impact students’ mental health. 

Our kids already have a lot of stress placed upon them. We need to ask ourselves what we are preparing our children for. 

Is it to win this “game” of tailoring their application to meet all the expectations for what is perceived as the “perfect” applicant? Aiming for straight As in academics, leadership roles in and outside of school, and being well-rounded in sports and the arts?

Or are we raising children who pursue what they enjoy, helping them to discover their strengths and talents, and teaching them how to showcase their uniqueness? We want to encourage them to succeed but not at the expense of their mental health. 

My own son was very narrow-focused. He only wanted to participate in football. Like any parent, I worried. Would he be better positioned for college if he pursued additional interests? He did his best in academics but really shined inside and out while on the football field. 

In the end, we focused his application on how he learned about the world through sports and grew as an individual and a leader as a result. How he learned to be humble when winning and graceful when losing. And through this hard work and focus, he has been offered a college scholarship and recruited to play football.

When kids follow the path of what they enjoy doing, they will naturally succeed. Our purpose is to help them channel their energy and be well-rounded via their passions.

How College Counselors Can Help Your Teen Navigate the Current Application Landscape

The college application system is in need of an overhaul. In the meantime, students don’t have to figure out this daunting process themselves.

School college counselors are a tremendous resource for many, and independent college admissions counselors like myself can help those searching for more personalized support.

As an independent college admissions counselor, I’ve learned from this year’s experience that we need to advise students to be much more intentional when building their college lists. Students need to create a list that offers a wider range of selectivity. 

We’ll ensure students fully engage in the process with as much data, stats, and knowledge as possible to make informed decisions.

For example, we’ll look at institutional priorities and how they might affect a particular college’s acceptance rate. We’ll look at colleges still admitting 50% or more of their applicants and add those to the list for consideration.

Sometimes these colleges may not have the most prominent “name-brand” recognition, but it is time to start considering these schools because they offer excellent education. 

In this post, I talk about “Hidden Ivies” and how some liberal arts colleges offer the same excellent academic, athletics, and career opportunities as Ivy League schools. 

Let me also put it out there, that there are options other than traditional college. Many students and families are exploring alternatives such as community colleges and gap years.

As we prepare for the next round of college applications, we’ll continue working with students to highlight their uniqueness, develop a holistic approach to personal and academic growth, and empower them with research and knowledge to make informed decisions. 

Together, we’ll navigate this unprecedented wave of applications and ensure that each student finds their best-fit school.

Reach Out To Us If You Need Help

Feel free to contact us if you’d like to discuss this topic further. 

We offer a free discovery call, and we’re happy to discuss more about building a college list, “Hidden Ivies,” institutional priorities, and more. We’ll guide you and your teen through this next application cycle, ensuring a diverse range of options. 

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