Why is It so Hard to Get into College?

If you’re a parent, you’re probably trying to wrap your mind around how much the college admissions process has changed since you applied to college. You might even be trying to figure out how much the process has changed since your older child applied just four or five years ago.  And the competition for admission to America’s top colleges? Who can make sense of that?

Most of us who are parents would never be admitted to our alma maters today.

Decades ago, when I applied for college admission, the application process was pretty simple. Write an essay, send it to the two or three colleges on your list, and wait for what you hoped would be (and, if you were half-way bright, typically was) an acceptance letter. Like me, most seniors at my high school in Tenafly, New Jersey applied to three colleges, max. In fact, it was considered somehow in bad taste to apply to more than three; only the school egotists did that. However, by 2006, students from Tenafly High applied, on average, to 17 to 18 colleges. Just nine years later, in 2015, it was not unusual for high school students to apply to 30 or more colleges. In fact, in 2015 every senior at one New Jersey high school applied, on average, to 45 colleges. One student applied to more than 70.  All in the hope of receiving one letter of acceptance.


Yet despite all of this effort, year after year, the percentage of students admitted goes down and the number of rejected students goes up. For example, in 2018,

In short, the competition to get into college now is like something we’ve never seen before, and is affecting even students with very good, even excellent GPAs and SAT and ACT scores.

What happened to make getting into college so hard?

A few things.


First, among the more selective public and private liberal arts institutions, applications have increased by one-third or more during the last five years alone. Yet, the available spaces have remained constant.


Second, there are just more children in America. Four years ago, there were 2.5 million high school graduates. This year, according to the Department of Education, there will be 3.6 million graduates.


Third, 30 years ago, only half of high school graduates applied to college. Today, almost two-thirds of all high school graduates apply to college.


Fourth, the Common Application makes applying to college easy. The Common Application makes applying to colleges convenient, and it’s the preferred method for almost all colleges.  All you need to do to apply to almost any college in the country is to write a single 650-word essay, upload it, tick off the colleges to which you would like the application sent and with one key stroke, a child can apply to 20, 30, 40 colleges. The ease with which applications can be sent allows students to casually apply to more and more colleges. And they do. For example, between 2000 and 2015, the number of people applying online jumped from 41,000 to 800,000.


What this means is that it is no longer enough to be just a strong student with great test scores. In fact, at many selective colleges in the county, very good has become the norm. (Stanford, for example, gets so many very good applicants that very good students are labelled “standard positives”, or “SPs” for short.)



So how do college admissions officers choose between one very good applicant and the next?


The essays. College admissions officers want to know that you are not just an SP, that your child is in some way outstanding, and there is only one part of your child’s application that provides you with an opportunity to show that your child is not like all the rest. And that’s through the common application essay and the supplemental essays.  


A stand-out college application essay does two things:

1.   Identifies and brands your child as better than all other applicants. Remember, while the common application prompts suggest that your child should write a personal narrative, for best effect, you need to think about the common app essay as a strategic marketing document masquerading as a personal statement. Same with the college-specific supplemental prompts.

2.   Reveals a passionate interest that your child has developed over time and independently that has been both personally meaningful and helpful to others.


How can you help your child?  

First, if your child is already a very good student, focus on helping your student write essays that show colleges how your child is unique, in a meaningful way.


Second, help your child develop a Plan B. There are many excellent colleges in the country that have significantly higher acceptance rates than those that might be on your child’s dream list. Many of these colleges, like those on the dream list, will provide your child with a top-notch education, and may also provide your child with a calmer and ultimately more profitable college experience than that your child might experience at a high-pressure college. Should your child be rejected from her or his dream college, both of you will be able to receive this news in a more level way if you have a back-up plan in place.


At WCP, we’re always ready to help you and your child with the college admissions process. Ready to get started? Give us a call!


At WCP, we know that every child can meet with success. If you’d like to discuss college or independent school admissions, test prep, tutoring, your child’s learning situation, accommodations, or advocacy, call me. Together, we will ensure that your child doesn’t just succeed, but thrives

About The Author
Susan Osborn, Ph.D., has spent 30 years in higher education, in admissions at Vassar College, in the English department and Writing Program at Rutgers University, in the lab at The New Jersey Center for Research on Writing, and as a private tutor. Dr. Osborn is also an award-winning writer and scholar and she brings both her education smarts and her writing smarts to every student relationship.