Thursday, May 11, 2006

The College Application Death Spiral

The College Application Death Spiral
The frenzy that is today's college application process seems to be a train wreck that has gotten out of control. Here is an exchange I had with an old friend, who worked as an Ivy League admissions officer for 20 years, and is still active as a college counselor:

ME: My pet theory on the increasing selectivity of elite institutions is that there is a dangerous feedback loop which has spiraled out of control in the past decade.

There are only so many slots at elite schools. To maximize their chances at getting into one, applicants started applying to more schools (I only applied to four schools when I was in high school...that would mark me as a lazy madman today). This meant that elite schools had to get more selective (more applications). This drove applicants to increase the number of schools applied to. And so on. Yet the students dare not opt out of this death spiral for fear of missing out.

Do you think this is an accurate analysis? I'm sure it's oversimplified, but it has the ring of truth to me.

HIM: I think you are right. If I were your counselor today, leaving aside Early Action/Decision, I would never let you apply to just four schools, unless one of them was very easy and a sure thing.

Your analogy to a death spiral is very apt. It is driving us crazy. I am caught in it too as a counselor, but I have to be my students' advocate, so to tell them to cut down their applications too severely is a big risk. Be glad that you are an old person and don't have to go through this, until and unless your children confront it.

So when confronted with a situation where something is obviously wrong, and it's getting worse, what can you do as an individual to fix it? Any thoughts?


Ben Casnocha said...

The problem here is that every Ivy League graduate is working to maintain the status quo. It's in their best interest for their degree to remain prestigious, and they often play up the allure. Many top journalists are Harvard grads, one reason why we hear so much about Harvard in the MSM.

Chris said...


I agree with your statement that Ivy League grads want to maintain the status quo, but I'm not sure what that has to do with the central issue, which is a feedback loop that threatens to overwhelm the college admissions process.

Ivy League schools were just as elite when only half as many people applied. There isn't a change in the number of people going to college, just in the number of applications per student.

After a sharp rise in the post-WW2 era, traditional college enrollment has risen slowly since 1980, from about 8 to 9 million (

On the other hand, we have seen far greater growth in college applications.

My point is that the same proportion of students are going to Ivy League schools, but a massively greater proportion are applying. And this dramatic increase in applications benefits neither the students or the colleges. The only ones it benefits are the college prep industry, who, like foxes guarding the henhouse, continue to advise students to increase the number of schools to which they apply.

Ben Casnocha said...

You don’t think ivies have gotten more elite? Now they claim to be a meritocracy, making it more competitive for those who used to get a free pass. Before they admitted based on all sorts of wacky criteria, few of which had anything to do with academic merit. Like height, manliness, etc. ( )

How does the rise in applications hurt students? With electronic common app, it’s easier than ever to fire off an app to a dozen schools. The worst thing that can happen is you are rejected. And since it’s such a crapshoot, you always have a chance to get in somewhere just by luck of chance. I know someone this year who applied to 18 schools. Got rejected at a ton of random big and small schools around the country. He applied to one Ivy — Columbia — on a whim, and won’t you know it, he got in. No one can explain it.

Colleges like to bitch about the rise in apps since it makes their yield harder to predict. I think this is too bad, but I don’t see this particular trend as critical to the mania.

Chris said...

The first half of my conversation with Jon was about a meeting I had with a recent Stanford grad who complained that the school now placed too much emphasis on academics, and was admitting a bunch of tools.

The funny thing was that he was nostalgic for the previous dean of admissions, who took a lot of heat when I was in school for focusing too much on academics and admitting a bunch of tools.

I checked with Jon, and sure enough, every generation thinks that the admissions office focuses too much on academics and admits more boring people than when they were admitted.

This is simply a perpetual complaint that doesn't have any actual basis in fact.

If anything, the Ivies are less elite (for those who aren't white and wealthy) because there are more slots that are actually available (since a significant number used to be taken up with rich legacies).

And their is a cost to the student--applications cost money and take time, and in the end, you can only go to a single school.

Gabe Rosen said...

Alluded to in AIC - I'm famous! I'm not sure if it was really a matter of the particular admissions dean - I think I began noticing the shift within the tenure of the last dean. A lot of this pressure must come from above, though. This is a perpetual complaint, it's true. No doubt Chris can take a lot of the blame for Stanford's shift towards admitting the academically talented but personality-deprived (just kidding, pal).

Michael Chabon noted that we have a tendency to believe that every golden age is either "passed or in the offing", and he's mostly right. The one big exception, I find, is one's own college experience, which unquestionably coincides with a renaissance never to be duplicated. But then again, the things I recall most vividly from college, I had very little awareness of when they happened.

Justin K said...

A prospective student was filling up his student application for getting into an university. He got stuck with a question on the paper

Q. Are you a leader? Yes/No

After thinking for a while, the student marked "No." He assumed that he would not get admission in this university and had almost given up hope.

Surprisingly, a few days later, he got a welcome letter confirming his admission from the university. In the letter the admissions officer had written:

We are recruiting a total of 1453 applicants this year. 1452 of them say they are leaders. We are deciding to recruit you because, we thought, with so many leaders here, it would be nice to have at least one follower