"Enrollment at American colleges is sliding, but competition for spots at top universities is more cutthroat and anxiety-inducing than ever. In the just-completed admissions season, Stanford University accepted only 5 percent of applicants, a new low among the most prestigious schools, with the odds nearly as bad at its elite rivals.
"Deluged by more applications than ever, the most selective colleges are, inevitably, rejecting a vast majority, including legions of students they once would have accepted. Admissions directors at these institutions say that most of the students they turn down are such strong candidates that many are indistinguishable from those who get in.
"Bruce Poch, a former admissions dean at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif., said he saw “the opposite of a virtuous cycle at work” in admissions. “Kids see that the admit rates are brutal and dropping, and it looks more like a crapshoot,” he said. “So they send more apps, which forces the colleges to lower their admit rates, which spurs the kids next year to send even more apps.”
"For most of the past six decades, overall enrollment boomed, while the number of seats at elite colleges and universities grew much more slowly, making them steadily more selective. Enrollment peaked in 2011, and it has dropped a bit each year since then, prompting speculation that entry to competitive colleges would become marginally easier. Instead, counselors and admissions officers say, the pool of high-achieving applicants continues to grow, fed partly by a rising number from overseas.
"At the same time, students send more applications than they once did, abetted by the electronic forms that have become nearly universal, and uniform applications that can make adding one more college to the list just a matter of a mouse click. Seven years ago, 315 colleges and universities accepted the most widely used form, the Common Application; this year, 517 did.
"Students applying to seven or more colleges made up just 9 percent of the applicant pool in 1990, but accounted for 29 percent in 2011, according to surveys by the National Association for College Admission Counseling, and counselors and admissions officers say they think the figure has gone higher still.
"A generation ago, it was rare for even highly competitive colleges to offer places to fewer than 20 percent of their applicants. In 2003, Harvard and Princeton drew exclamations of dismay (from prospective applicants), envy (from other colleges) and satisfaction (from those they accepted) when they became the first top universities to have their admission rates dip below 10 percent. Since then, at least a dozen have gone below that threshold.
"This was the second year in a row that Stanford had the worst odds of admission among top colleges, a title that in previous years was usually claimed by Harvard. This year, by the April 1 deadline for most colleges to send admission notices, Harvard and Yale had accepted about 6 percent of applicants, Columbia and Princeton about 7 percent, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Chicago about 8 percent. (Some rates will increase by a few tenths of a percentage point as colleges accept small numbers of applicants from waiting lists.)
"Several universities, including Stanford, Duke, Northwestern, Cornell and the University of Pennsylvania, had admission rates this year that were less than half of those from a decade ago. The University of Chicago’s rate plummeted to a little over 8 percent, from more than 40 percent."